Concerning Symmetry Publication

Essays and artist contributions inspired by a selection of films from the Emile Stipp Collection.

In Autumn 2016 I was invited to curate a screening of moving image works from the Emile Stipp Collection to be shown at the Bioscope Cinema Johanesburg. Here's a taster of the accompanying publication: 

Annotations: Moving images, power and physics

Notes for a screening

Concerning Symmetry takes Nick Cave’s Blot as a starting point. Shown in the foyer the work can be read as a prologue to the screening in the main auditorium. Blot is centred on a single figure, masked by a full-length ‘soundsuit’ of long black sticks. The being moves freely, rising to the tips of the toes, swirling and falling to the ground in a hypnotic series of movements accompanied by sound evocative of crashing waves. Cave created the first of his wearable sculptures or ‘soundsuits’ following the inflammatory incident in 1991 that saw African-American taxi driver Rodney King violently beaten by police, who were later acquitted, sparking the LA riots of 1992. Cave’s response, in the form of the ‘soundsuit’, was to subvert power relations by ‘hiding’ gender, race and class and introducing a playful, unfamiliar being liberated from the threat of violence and oppression by society’s enforced hierarchies. In Blot, the body is almost entirely abstracted and unrecognisable, and the image on screen is mirrored to create a visual symmetry.

Symmetry appears across multiple fields of knowledge. It is nature’s go-to design principle; from mathematics and conceptual physics through aesthetics and perceptions of beauty to politics and the social sciences, symmetry – or its absence – is central, it seems, to all we experience as human beings, and perhaps to the very nature of reality itself. Symmetry is defined in general terms as ‘the quality of being made up of exactly similar parts facing each other or around an axis’ (Oxford English Dictionary). Concerning Symmetry uses this notion of ‘exactly similar parts facing each other’ to ask questions about the power relations that manifest in society, drawn along axes of gender, sexuality, race and class. Concerning Symmetry presents moving image works by contemporary artists that invite us to reflect on symmetry and its opposite, asymmetry, through its manifestation in abuses of power, inequality and violence.

Displayed alongside Blot in the foyer is A Homeless Song by Kemang Wa Lehulere. Choreographed in collaboration with Khayelihle Dominique Gumede, A Homeless Song reimagines the historic South African play The Island, written by Athol Fugard with John Kani and Winston Ntshona and first performed in 1973. Wa Lehulere’s interpretation begins with a young white man and woman leaning over a large pile of bright white bones on the right side of a black, dimly lit stage. They pick up a limb-sized segment, holding it between their bodies as they begin to walk slowly around the pile, joined together by the bone. Gradually, a black man and woman of similar age rise from beyond a parallel stack of luminous bones to the left of the stage. As A Homeless Song unfolds, both couples journey through choreographed movement from one side of the stage to the other, in kinetic unison. As support or supported, gendered and racialised bodies negotiate intricate relations through slight gestures, carrying the skeletons of the past.

Violence is omnipresent in Concerning Symmetry. Although the acts themselves are not seen, violence is implied as it haunts the recent past or threatens possible futures; it is perpetrated behind closed doors in Gabrielle Goliath’s Personal Accounts (Charmaine), and is feared in broad daylight. Violence is acted upon the psyche as it is upon the physical body. In her choice of title, under all means necessary, Dineo Seshee Bopape approximates the words of Malcolm X’s call to resist police brutality during the fight for civil rights in America ‘by any means necessary’. Yet Bopape shifts language. She shakes her head vigorously, blurring her facial features and whipping her long braided hair from side to side, scarring traces across the screen as the image flashes into digital abstraction. Hers is perhaps a body acting out, from under all means used to suppress it.

Penny Siopis’ Obscure White Messenger excavates 8mm archival film footage from the apartheid era and lyrically retells the story of an individual act of murder as a form of violent resistance. The inhumanity of legally enforced racial classifications as a tool for state oppression is felt through the psychological weight of unbelonging, which eventually erupts into physical violence as a means of survival. In Mohau Modisakeng’s To Move Mountains, the axe is both worker’s tool and murderous weapon. In arresting black and white imagery the slick dark liquid running through cupped fingers slips between recollections of oil and blood.

From Cave’s invocation to both shield and free the body to Pamela Phatsimo Sunstrum’s animated voyagers who navigate the celestial realm in To: the Moon, the presence of human or animal forms invites reflection on the mirror symmetry inscribed within our anatomy. Jane Alexander’s Survey: Cape of Good Hope (2005-9) scans the landscape of solitary houses in open land, township dwellings and white-walled gardens of a post-apartheid existence; social hierarchies and divisions are maintained through psychologies of fear mediated by concepts of ‘security’ versus ‘danger’. Alexander’s images occupy the spaces between fiction and so-called reality as otherworldly sculptural beings appear on neighbourhood corners.

Athi-Patra Ruga’s Public Service Announcement and Nelisiwe Xaba and Mocke Jansen van Veuren’s Uncles and Angels invite us to reflect on power, authority and tradition through the prism of gender-based hierarchies. While Ruga takes us into the fantastical, heightened realm of the Kingdom of Azania and the matriarchal reign of the Sacred Versatile Queen, Xaba and Jansen van Veuren elaborate on conceptions of feminine purity and virginity under patriarchy. Binary concepts of male and female are reconsidered through a reflection on symmetry —and the notion that we are all in fact composed of ‘exactly similar parts, facing each other’.

Notes on symmetry

‘The notion of symmetry has manifestations that are widespread in human culture. Symmetry also exhibits itself in a great many features of the operation of the Natural world. It is a notion that is simple enough to be understood and made use of by a young child; yet it is subtle enough to be central to our deepest and most successful physical theories describing the inner workings of Nature. Symmetry is thus a concept that is simultaneously obvious and profound.’

Following the curatorial framing of the screening notes, this text ventures a little deeper into some of the realms in which symmetry generates meaning and shapes experience. Inspired by the artworks in Concerning Symmetry, it delves into discourses of visual perception, power and force, and theoretical physics, while retaining an understanding that not one of these elements works in isolation. Definitions of symmetry vary across disciplines, and multiple observations are often negotiated within single works of art. Cave’s Blot is exemplary of this, as its layered meanings converse with the asymmetry of hierarchical power relations, while offering an aesthetic beauty through the digitally generated mirror symmetry of the moving image. Through the seemingly simple act of reflecting the video footage across two symmetrical halves, Cave engages an innate ability to perceive symmetry encoded into the human brain, and stimulates our preferences for equilibrium and balance in visual perception. Cave’s title, ‘Blot’, also recalls the inkblot shapes used in the Rorschach test. Employed over the last century, the test asks patients to describe what they see when presented with 10 cards, each with a symmetrical visual stimulus of a particular colour, shape and pattern. The results of this open-ended visual test have been used to determine the latent workings of the mind and understand characteristics of mental imbalance or disorder, in part through the visual recognition of symmetry — a theme taken up by Penny Siopis in this publication as she shares her research for her film Obscure White Messenger.

In Behind the Looking-Glass: A Review on Human Symmetry Perception, Matthias Sebastian Treder investigates more than 100 years of research into the cognitive processes involved in the human perception of symmetry. While the neural functions involved are not yet fully known, a number of central characteristics can be identified, among them that:

  •  Symmetry detection is quick, sensitive to deviations from perfect symmetry, and robust to noise.
  • Symmetry detection operates automatically and is involved in object formation.
  • The salience of symmetry varies with the orientation of the symmetry axis, with the most salient axes being, in order of salience, vertical, horizontal, left/right and oblique axes.

As Treder explains, symmetry has the ability to impose structure and to render otherwise meaningless patterns as whole or Gestalt images. For Treder the way in which we process visual symmetry is automatic: ‘symmetry detection is a visual process that is constantly applied to any visual input and it affects the way we perceive our visual environment’. It is also integral to perceptual organisation - such as in the differentiation between foreground and background. While Treder’s paper may be consulted for greater depth on the cognitive neuroscience, here we may consider how his findings relate to the work of art and artists, as these are indeed characteristics of perception that artists have experimented with throughout history.

In Gabrielle Goliath’s photographic series Faces of people who may or may not be victims or perpetrators of domestic violence, first shown alongside the video installation Personal Accounts, the artist challenges the perceptive processes involved in detecting and making meaning from bilateral symmetry. Comprising 12 large portraits of people from a spectrum of racial, age and gender identifications, the images are composed with a striking similitude. Cropped so close as to lose the tops of the heads and tips of chins, with eyes sharply focused outward, the face, no matter its shape, is straight on to camera. It’s a closeness that insinuates honesty, of having nothing (or nowhere) to hide, and yet there is something distinctly unsettling about the images that may not be instantly recognised. Goliath employs symmetry as a formal device, duplicating and flipping one side of the face to conceal the other. By taking it to its absolute, Goliath shows how mirror symmetry in the human face moves beyond the prospect of increased attractiveness, popularly believed to correlate to greater facial symmetry, and into the uncanny, invoking feelings of uncertainty and suspicion. Playing with our perceptive preferences, Goliath’s images effect an emotive response.

Another significant manifestation of symmetry appears in our social interactions, and many of the artworks in Concerning Symmetry invite us to consider the avenues through which symmetry operates on our social, emotional and physical selves. Dineo Seshee Bopape’s under all means necessary touches on this idea from a number of perspectives. Her re-call of the words of Malcolm X may be read as a charge to consider the unbalanced power relations between black citizens and the state, as X sanctions the use of ‘any means necessary’ to achieve civil rights for African-Americans. Bopape’s replacement of the words ‘by any…’ with ‘under all…’ implies the presence of a hierarchical overriding force, maintaining the status quo. X’s comment was critically interpreted as condoning the use of violence, and this implication carries across to Bopape’s title, although Bopape inverts the direction of force. So in this oscillation between 1960s America and contemporary South Africa we find a triangulation between the power of the state, the oppression of black citizens and the use of violence— a theme embedded within Cave’s Blot. Within this dynamic between state and citizen, violence is applied to both the physical body, its extreme expression in police brutality and killings of unarmed African-Americans; a forceful manifestation of hierarchical, asymmetrical power that inspired Cave to make his first soundsuit. It is also exerted upon the physiological body, a condition explored in the revolutionary writings of Franz Fanon, in Concerning Violence and elsewhere, but perhaps also what underlies the nonsensical, frenzied crescendo of Bopape’s video work.

At what point does violence become self-defence? And what is the impact of the meta-power structures of race or gender or capitalism or imperialism on the equilibrium of forces applied between individuals? According to American law, ‘reasonable force’ is ‘a term associated with defending one's person or property from a violent attack, theft, or other type of unlawful aggression’, and ‘may be used as a defence in a criminal trial’; however, ‘If one uses excessive force, or more than the force necessary for such protection, he or she may be considered to have forfeited the right to defence’. All of which hinges on a fundamental basis of symmetry and equilibrium, as an act is deemed to be violent, excessive and indefensible if it is perceived as asymmetric or greater than the force it is reacting against. These observations are poignant throughout the Concerning Symmetry programme, in the ways in which the artists seek to highlight the subtleties, nuances and aggressions of asymmetry of power, for example, between older men and young girls (Xaba and Van Veuren), between an individual and the state (Siopis, Bopape), and in the intersectionality of race, imperialism and capitalism that sculpts the contemporary landscape of the city (Alexander).

Returning to where I began – indeed, perhaps where we all began - in the domain of physics and the deeper workings of the universe: the term ‘supersymmetry’ was first introduced to me by Pamela Phatsimo Sunstrum in the spring of 2016 and returned to my thoughts as I developed the programme for Concerning Symmetry. It is a theory developed by conceptual physicist Dr James Sylvester Gates Jnr and colleagues who propose that for every particle of light and every particle of matter there must exist a parallel ‘super-partner’. In essence, Gates et al propose that the ultimate design of the universe can be understood through the acknowledgement of supersymmetry, and an as yet undetected parallel world. The theory remains contentious within the physics community, yet has been incredibly generative for Sunstrum who has developed series of work exploring the potentials of the idea. Her drawing Parallel 02, included in this publication, offers a beautiful meditation on this seemingly simple yet profound concept. It also led my inquiry towards symmetry’s fundamental role in our current understanding of the nature of the universe, shaping our realities and regulating our experiences.

In Fearful Symmetry A Zee offers an in-depth narrative of the role of symmetry in theoretical physics and has identified two differing lines of inquiry. He says: ‘I like to picture two schools of thought, united in their devotion to symmetry but differing in their outlooks on the character of symmetry. On one side stand Einstein and his intellectual descendants. To them, symmetry is beauty incarnate, wedded to the geometry of spacetime … On the other side stands Heisenberg with his isospin, shattering the aesthetic imperative for exact symmetry. Heisenberg’s child is approximate and is respected only by the strong interaction.’  The moving image works in Concerning Symmetry, and the ideas, artworks and texts that are shared in this publication, float between the exact and the approximate. They understand symmetry both as a beautiful perfection and as a foundation from which to propose, wonder and reflect, allowing imaginations to leap into the unknown, and to challenge the status quo.

Each of the artists in the screening was invited to contribute an image or text responding to the notion of symmetry and its absences. The publication features a section dedicated to their responses; Artists On Symmetry opens up new ways of interacting with this multifaceted notion.

1 Zee, A. and Penrose, R. (2007). Fearful Symmetry. 3rd ed. Princeton University Press. p. xi

2 The relationships between symmetry and aesthetic beauty and physical attractiveness are vast, overlapping areas of study entering the fields of visual art, philosophy, psychology and cognitive neuroscience. Further investigation is outside the limits of the present text, but it should be acknowledged that continued reading will be rewarded by complex understandings of the omnipresence of symmetry discourse.

3 Matthias Sebastian Treder. ‘Behind the Looking-Glass: A Review on Human Symmetry Perception’, in Symmetry July 2010, 2, 1510-1543

4 For further reading see Michael Bird, The perception of symmetry, 1 May 2004. Tate Etc. issue 1: Summer 2004

5 West’s Encyclopaedia of American Law, edition 2. S.v. ‘Reasonable Force’. Retrieved April 5 2017 Reasonable+Force

6 Zee, A. and Penrose, R. (2007). Fearful Symmetry. 3rd ed. Princeton University Press. p.185

Published by the Emile Stipp Collection May 2017 Edited by Hansi Momodu-Gordon ISBN 978-0-620-75818-5 © 2017 for text: the authors © 2017 for images: the artists Cover: Nick Cave, Blot, 2012, still from video, 42 min 55 sec Design: Gabrielle Guy, Cape Town Printing: Hansa Print, Cape Town

Essays: Karen Alexander and Hansi Momodu-Gordon