'Ancestral Journeys' - Lyndi Sales at João Ferreira
by Tracy Murinik
Entering the realm of Lyndi Sales' 'Ancestral Journeys' induces a sense of having stepped out of one's current time zone and into a far earlier and enchanted space. These elaborate and meticulously crafted works entice like open treasure chests or densely illustrated adventure tales. They visually entrance as layer upon layer they promise storytelling: the players and environments cast as fragile etchings; set with scrupulous effect against fairy/rope lights and taken to atmospheric heights by cunningly embedded mechanical gadgetry (motors and solar powered rockers) that has dragonfish and prehistoric-looking creatures bob and seesaw in their oceanic depths, and charts and maps rotate in a gentle ebb, plotting the voyages of Western explorer ships against the potential of endless new Discovery. Embedded in the tableaux is a mass of archival investigation and referencing. Much historical material (written accounts and visual renderings) has been collected by Sales and further assembled to form, often, parts of the physical structures within which the stages are set. All intimated action (prospects of voyage, exploration and intervention into new realms, among other latent possibility and/or fantasy) is set within the contexts of those (literally) applied histories.
But the focus of Sales' project, she maintains, is a largely personal one; a retrospective mapping in pursuit of a personal identity. She has described it as an exploration into the history of her own family: "the gathering, collecting, summarising and extracting of oral history and documents from family archives, the cultural layering ... as an expression of passage and journey, turning points and life cycles". They represent, apparently, the recorded journeys, told and imagined, of her ancestors. As a central motif, Sales employs the metaphor of a ship, proposing that ships functioned as "container[s] of cultures within the age of the marvellous - carrying explorers, guns, religious iconography and the European way of thinking to unknown lands". "The ship," she continues, "becomes a mobile museum, returning with exotic objects, plants, animals and wondrous stories of the unknown."
It is at this point that the project feels limited, though. Despite the notable technical skill and sumptuous aesthetics employed in these works, the stories that Sales officially tells (in the accompanying text to this body of visual work, both of which form part of her Masters thesis) are told at face value. They do not engage critically with the less "marvellous" histories that they reference and infer. China Journey, India Journey and Thailand Journey make no reference to the possible impact of the connections by either the explorers or those being "discovered", at or beyond those points of contact. The "carrying [of] explorers, guns, religious iconography and the European way of thinking to unknown lands" is not brought to any point of notable interrogation by Sales beyond the fact that it happened.
But even more confusing is the sense of disjuncture lent to the works in relation to the historical information that Sales chooses to embed carefully within them: the fastidious and seemingly deliberate incorporation of historical texts, facts and documents that contextualise the historical moment of intervention, but claim to offer no further significance if viewed in the light of Sales' own commentaries on the works. That is, they exist almost arbitrarily, leaving little room, it seems, for the more awkward questions that they inspire. Collections of different playing cards that appear on many of the works I would imagine to be a reference to rich and powerful monarchies/empires who funded many of these expeditions, rather than simply, as Sales proposes, "geographical playing cards used to locate their place of origin and the countries from which [her ancestors] journeyed".
The Yangste Agreement referred to in China Journey, the declaration of an open door policy agreement between Britain and Germany in 1900, certainly had implications for China that do not seem apparent to the Chinese dwellers that are shown obliviously inhabiting a Chinese residence. The interventions of European explorers on the terrains they "explored" were not always benign acts of neutral implication. Indeed, neither was the intriguing - but rather sinister - tradition of the 16th century's lust for exploration and avid collecting of all things exotic, in the form of curiosity cabinets, which Sales successfully draws upon again without much critical intervention. Apart from being the first small "museums", the curiosity cabinets also served as stages of power fantasies of foreign ownership and stereotyping. Sales� tableaux are not substantially dissimilar. Both instances are whimsical and mystifying and wonderfully exotic - but quite urgently require some deconstruction.
Until November 3
João Ferreira Fine Art, 80 Hout Street, Cape Town
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