5 Questions for Bianca Baldi
South African visual artist Bianca Baldi, whose work 'Zero Latitude' was commissioned by the 8th Berlin Biennale, spoke to us about explorer De Brazza, his Louis Vuitton suitcase and her approach to artistic practice.
Your work, Zero Latitude, which was commissioned by the 8th Berlin Biennale investigates found objects and notions of colonial ambition along de Brazza’s expedition route along the Congo River.
How did you become interested in this subject matter, and how did you get hold of the Louis Vuitton Explorator suitcase?
Bianca Baldi: A theoretical interest in conceptual zero points led me to think further about their physical correlations. And developing from an interest in imaging information, I began to think in geographical terms- for me this mythical space, by extrapolation, became the equator. I was thinking about the Congo and equatorial Africa as trope- a contested fictional space elaborated upon through projection and fantasy. With this in mind it led me to the Museum for Central Africa in Tervuren, where I spent days reading the diaries of Henry Morton Stanley who famously charted the Congo river (more or less at latitude zero). It was here that I first encountered the De Brazza character, and was particularly intrigued by him, particularly because Stanley loathed him- calling him the disheveled, eccentric, barefoot Italian. I soon learned of De Brazza’s journey and the Trunk bed he imagined and commissioned from Louis Vuitton - seeing a tiny thumbnail of the object, in a book about De Brazza, would become the start of the work.
You wrote an accompanying text to Zero Latitude, based on De Brazza’s character. An excerpt reads: "Pondering the distinction between nature and culture – Civilised society now suspended here at point zero –Meeting his animal equivalent in the bush - …. – Gobsmacked by his human characteristics - …. – A likeness without the social restriction – Scratching his balls without thinking."
Do you think that without social restrictions, we would all behave like animals in the wild?
BB: Not necessarily, but in this text where I use the form of a typical 19th Century chapter introduction, I would like to bring attention to the fact that these distinctions, natural/ cultural or man/animal, are arguably very recent. This language is particularly Western and is part of a thinking which would, in part, influence and justify the colonial project. It is only now that we are beginning to fully understand how central “natural” or let’s call them ecological concerns are.
In 2013, you and Bridget Baker showed Aerolithe Illusion at the GoetheonMain art space. The film installation makes reference to the autobiography of American speculator and magician Carl Hertz, who was the first to show film at sea en-route to Johannesburg in 1896.
You seem to have a fascination for explorers and pioneers, don't you?
BB: To a certain extent, yes, I would say that I am more fascinated with the way historical figures, through my intervention and embellishment, become characters which can operate in a fictional realm. My recent works have been very engaged in the idea of fiction and to some extent the act of styling where this “dressing up as if” connects to a logic of illusion making or fictionalization that is evoked in the histories of image making practices such as narrative film and studio photography. By writing in characters, like Hertz or De Brazza, it is a means to obliquely approach existing narratives and elaborate historical facts.
Your work has taken you around the globe. How does this influence your approach to your artistic practice?
BB: Technically my travels have only taken me along the North-South axis so far; so relatively speaking, I haven’t done too much travelling. But nonetheless travel is both a pleasure and a necessity for my artistic practice. While I have the physical energy, I am not content with only travelling the work. I often try to produce the work in the city I am working in, which opens up many possibilities and frustrations too. However, this means of production brings so much more to the work and the way I think about approaching production- and here I don’t only mean technically. By working in this way you are faced with different approaches to work and the roles work plays in different cultural contexts. Print shops for example, often a primary site of my production, are often very similar whether you may be Lisbon, Frankfurt, Naples or Johannesburg (to think of recent examples) but despite globalization the local idiosyncrasies always add to the thinking around the work.
Is there a South African or African artist you would like to work with?
BB: It is very difficult to name an individual artist working in South Africa. So I would be more inclined to think about South Africa as a very particular place to produce work, a place that despite all the challenges (which we are well aware of) that young artists are faced with, there is a way of engaging practice which is extremely stimulating. This engagement is also very difficult to pin point — it becomes more apparent after spending time away. There is an extreme self-awareness and critical approach to practice and at the same time an openness that in my experience makes discussion either move very quickly or very slowly - perhaps in that tension something particular comes out. In terms of working with other artists, collaborative practice of late, has taken on the form of publication projects in the broader sense of the term. Like the project you mentioned earlier, Aerolithe Illusion with Bridget Baker, the collaborative work also culminated in a book project. I would like to work on further publications where I would be more based in South Africa, in terms of content and production, where I would like to include artists and thinkers associated with the South Africa context.