Matthew Partridge ‘Context woven into a history of dislocation’
“Whereabouts are you from?” is an increasingly common question in today’s shrinking globalised world. But in Dufftown, in the northeast of Scotland, the accent makes the question sound more like “furry boots ye fae?” And it is this peculiarity that is at the core of artist Dan Halter’s recent work produced for the Glenfiddich artists residency program.
Selected alongside artists from the U.S. Canada, India, Taiwan, South Korea and China, Halter has spent three months in this unlikely backdrop creating work that speaks about severed roots and belonging to nowhere whilst being a citizen of the world at the same time. Whereabouts are you from indeed.
Clad proudly in what looks unmistakeably like traditional Scottish tartan complete with sporran and accompanying furry boots, Halter poses next to the source of his inspiration, the ubiquitous plastic mesh ‘refugee’ bag. Known locally as ‘Zimbabwe bags’ they too nevertheless have an international flavour. In Nigeria they are called ‘Ghana Must Go bags’, in the U.S. ‘Chinatown Totes’, in the U.K. ‘Bangledeshi bags’. There is even a German equivalent that translates into ‘Turkish suitcase’.
In terms of Halters work, they embody the very essence of how to question and translate the myths of such origins. Born in Zimbabwe and now living and working out of Cape Town, Halter (33) is no stranger to such issues of displacement, with his practice revolving around issues of territory and immigration. Being in Scotland has presented him with the opportunity of further exploring these themes by geographically localising their context.
The similarity of the red, black and white checked pattern of the bag which bears a striking resemblance to Scottish tartan led Halter to the famous Johnstons of Elgin where he commissioned the pattern to be woven out of wool into a kilt which he plans to have registered as his very own brand of tartan. Together with this local regalia Halter also made a ‘Scottish’ version of the bag transforming it into a luxurious piece of luggage.
This tartan was also the object of another installation in which Halter used over a 1000 barrels from the distilleries cask compound to act as pixels making up the pattern which is visible from Google earth. The title reading simply as the geographic co-ordinates of the installation: 57°27’55.24”N 3°07’45.33”W.
On the surface what is an almost childish exercise in join-the-dots has a deeper significance: each of the barrels does not have a generic, homogenous history. Each cask is different, some are white oak from high up in North America used only once for the distilling of bourbon, others are of a darker variety, from Spain for example, used for sherry.
Halters tartan imprint speaks of a fleeting belonging in a global world filled with the transience that consumption demands. These wooden vessels, from away, are used to brew export liquor, to be sent, almost ironically, away again. Like the refugee bags that are used to transport people’s worldly possessions across borders, these now discarded barrels arranged into Halters now signature pattern address the trauma of this now very real condition of forced migration and exile.
Recently lambasted by certain sectors of the art world cognoscenti for ‘fiddling like Nero whilst Rome burned’ in his recent show Double Entry at Whatiftheworld in Cape Town, Halter’s recent work nevertheless displays a subtle observation of the intricacies of not belonging. Halter admits that “the country I grew up in no longer exists”. Perhaps this is not such a bad thing. But with the problematic history that has come to characterise Zimbabwe’s recent turbulent political economy it seems that such a situation could only lead to a form of detached reflection.
Having suffered, like Nero’s victims, at the hands of Zanu-PF agents in Zimbabwe earlier this year during his participation at the Harare International Festival of Arts (HIFA) where he was, like so many Zimbabweans, detained and beaten could possibly account for Halters calculated and somewhat detached meditation.
The visual arts today, most noticeably in South Africa, have become characterised by the commodification of pain and suffering. Burdened by history it seems doomed to perpetuate debates about where we have come from, not where we are going. Halter’s work, which could quite easily slip into the former bracket nevertheless resists such easy conscriptions.
It is surprising how such a simple pattern can come to communicate so much, come to speak of lives altered and histories lost through the movement of people from one country to the next. Yet there is something surprisingly regenerative about this recycled imprint that appeals to the vitality of the human spirit in its capacity to transcend the tyrannical circumstance of place.
The simple everyday nature of these bags that has come to represent entire communities of people displaced, willing forced into exile makes Halter’s work immediately accessible and conceptually rich. This imprint on the barrels, visible from Google’s all seeing satellites, speaks of a marked landscape where region is no longer disconnected and isolated but rather intrinsic to the notion of being citizen of the world at large. As much as the bags, Halter’s presence is now ubiquitous reinvigorating the question; “furry boots ye fae?”