Curating The Gravesite - An Introduction To 1 in 11 000 000 Chances

by Pippa Skotnes

On the 28th of October 1987 the debris of flight SA 295 floated down to the bottom of the sea. The bits of metal, glass, fabric, plastic, fragments of life vests, the cockpit voice recorder and the disintegrated and still undeclared contents of the hold drifted more than four kilometres to the abyssal plain. This is an environment of bitter cold reached by neither the warmth nor light of the sun – a place of virtual darkness. Yet the abyssal plain is home to much life – zooplankton, sea anemones, starfish, octopi, sponges, rattail fish and crinoids, each with unique adaptations to the dark and cold. Some creatures’ bioluminescence attracts mates, others have enormous eyes that can detect the dimmest glow, most have low metabolic rates and there is a diversity of shapes unseen in other areas of the ocean.

One hundred and fifty nine people were on board the Helderberg Boeing 747 that crashed into the sea that day. They had left Chiang Kai-shek International Airport the previous evening. Their flight was to take them to Johannesburg via the Republic of Mauritius and their chances of failing to reach their destination were one in eleven million. This, it could be argued, was a reasonable risk to take – the odds of being killed en route to the airport in a car crash were only one in five thousand, or falling out of bed that morning one in two million. Yet the plane did crash and the lives of the 140 passengers and 19 crew members were lost. The circumstances of the disaster have been the source of much debate, several enquiries and days of evidence at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission where the blame was laid at the door of the apartheid government and the clandestine transport of highly inflammable chemicals.

1 in 11 000 000 chances is an exhibition that explores the complexities of an event in which the threads of chance and possibility, conspiracy and threat, the personal and the political converge. It is also an exhibition that reveals the resonance of place and the way in which objects can be made to symbolise at once ideas of loss and discovery, safety and danger, and memorialises the dead. In 159 life vests, these items that serve to safeguard while also signifying risk, stand, in this context, for the lives of the individuals they failed to protect. As paper objects, stained with the veneer of shellac, they hint at the fragility and vulnerability of existence in general. As a group bound together by this single event and lit with a kind of internal light, they resonate as a single object. At the same time, the labels, suggestive of forensic investigation, identify each one as evidence, attached to the specific instance of an individual loss of life.

Similarly, in 159/295 the kites evoke the idea of spirit and the ritual associated with practices of memorialisation. Included are original Chinese paper offerings that are burnt as a sacrifice for the dead. The red thread alludes to the length of an individual’s life and the printed elements make reference to bank notes, religion and gambling. Gambling signifies unpredictability but it is also associated with funeral practice in China and here symbolises the contrasts of probability and the unexpected.

The theme of gambling is one that runs through the exhibition. What are your chances if the game is rigged? is a complex piece comprising 159 paper birds and strings and 159 tags each burnt with a seat number, nationality, and sex of an individual. Gambling chips with the SAA logo convey more than just the suggestion that long distant flight carries risk; they also convey condemnation, since the transport of illegal chemicals drastically increased that risk on flight 295.

Amongst the most evocative pieces included in this exhibition are the ones that image the ocean floor. 59? 38E 19?10 S and 29th November 1987 both map the crash site, the former placing it in the context of the contours of the seabed and an archaeological site, the latter identifying the main debris field, while Ocean flow/air flow charts the ocean currents and draws a parallel to bronchial branches. 29th November 1987 is an intricate filigreed pattern, suggesting both puzzle and coral or seaweed, cut into the surface of the newspaper page that announced the crash. The page has disintegrated, making it impossible to read, yet the grid of columns and images is clear and the pins identifying the debris field give a sense of the utter disintegration of the aircraft and all its contents. There is also a remarkable sense of fragility and the image resists our attempts to read it. We puzzle over the contents of the page, its detail remaining just beyond our reach. It is in this piece that the artist most richly symbolises the complexities of her subject. Here the broken image refers not only to the fracturing that followed the impact but to the incomprehensibility of the event itself, to the partial and unresolved reconstruction of the events that led to that impact, to the fragmentary nature of the evidence, and to the ephemerality of memory.

As a whole, this exhibition acts as an installation – a beautifully constructed memorial in which an absent and empty grave is curated. The grave goods are the delicately recreated paper life-jackets, the ghostly animals and currents of the abyssal plain, the tags that represent the seats and the individual lives and acknowledge the homelands from which they came. It is a memorial in which the carefully plotted ocean floor becomes a living thing, a breathing lung that keeps alive the memory of the dead, yet is simultaneously distant and cold and inaccessible. Lyndi Sales’ great achievement here is to have created a body of work that is beautifully constructed, intriguing, evocative, free from sentimentality and yet so closely integrated into a personal sense of loss, even anger, and the memories of her fourteen year old self who waited for the father who would never return. She has memorialised that loss and characterised the chances of its occurrence as 1 in 11 000 000, but at the same time she has reminded us all of our own fragility and vulnerability and the forces that are way beyond our control.

Pippa Skotnes is an artist, curator, author, director of the Centre for Curating the Archive and interim director of the Gordon Institute for Performing and Creative Arts at UCT.

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