The New Parthenon, Cape Town 2017

20 July – 26 August 2017  | Stevenson Gallery, Cape Town

The New Parthenon, a group exhibition that focused on the essay film and object-based installation as modes of speculative inquiry.

First defined by the German experimental filmmaker Hans Richter, the essay film has tended to emerge during periods of historic crises, and can be understood less as a genre and more as a mode of approaching the elusiveness of meaning. To essay is to attempt, and as such this exhibition considers a range of works where filmic images and objects reveal their own thinking. As Richter wrote, ‘The film essay enables the filmmaker to make the “invisible” world of thoughts and ideas visible on the screen … The essay film produces complex thought – reflections that are not necessarily bound to reality …’

From early works such as Dziga Vertov’s silent documentary Man with a Movie Camera (1929) through to later practitioners including Chris Marker, Harun Farocki and Chantal Akerman, there exists in the form of the essay film a continuum of attempts to understand the self-consciousness of images, and their relationship to the world in which they are made. Tools of this extreme self-reflexivity include dissonant shifts of authorial voice, collapses of linear movements towards synchronicities, and a polytheistic embrace of historic, personal and institutional bodies of knowledge, including speculative futures.

The cornerstone of the exhibition was Penny Siopis’ film, which lends its title to the show. The New Parthenon (2016) premiered in South Africa 20 years after the artist first experimented with found home-movie footage in My Lovely Day (1997), commissioned by Okwui Enwezor for the 2nd Johannesburg Biennale, and staged as an installation. In her latest film, Siopis continues to work with the contingencies of anonymous found footage introduced into relationships with text and music. Pathos-laden reflections from an invisible subject – who may or may not be the artist’s father – recount his experiences of the modern Greek history of war, migration, otherness and tensions with ‘The West’. Set within an architecture of ruins, the spectral presences within Siopis’ work are witnesses as much to past traumas of history as to present-day horrors unfolding at sea.