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December 10, 2009 - Image 11

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The Michigan Daily, 2009-12-10

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The Michigan Daily - michigandaily.com

Thursday, December 10, 2009 - 3B

Seeking refuge
at Seva

"Book of Iterations" features three horse skulls, earned Aphasia, Anomia and Alexia.

Written on the bones

Using dioramas and tattooed horse skeletons,
South African artist Pippa Skotnes challenges
the definition of a book
By Leah Burgin I Daily Arts Writer

"It's one of those awful questions
where people
say 'what kind Book of
of work do you
make?"' u Iterons
For Pippa Through
Skotnes, artist Jan.22
and professor of At Institute of the
fine art at Univer- Humanities Gallery
sity of Cape Town
in South Africa, the answer to her
own hypothetical question is com-
plex. Her current exhibition, "Book
of Iterations," explores the defini-
tion ofa book through the mediums
of shadow box (an enclosed diora-
ma) and - believe it or not - tat-
tooed horse skeletons.
Skotnes's interest in books began
with legal, as opposed to artistic,
"I'm really interested in what a
book is," she said. "Part ofthat inter-
est comes out of a court case where
I made a book that I considered an
artwork and the National Library in
South Africa claimed that their legal
department should be able to copy
the book. They wanted a precedent
out of this and sued me."
The court case centered on the
definition of a book. Ultimately,
an appeals court ruled against
Skotnes, saying that books and art-
work are mutually exclusive.
"So then I thought about it after-
wards. About what, in terms of the
law, is a book? And what could I
make that would fit the legal defi-
nition of a book, yet the library
wouldn't claim it?" she added.
To create such an object, Skotnes
turned to horse skeletons and shad-
ow boxes. On three of the exhibit's
walls hang conglomerates of boxes
containing dioramas consisting of,
among other items, a leopard skel-
eton, crane skulls, horse shoe nails,
miniature World War I stretch-
ers, photographs of colleagues and
family members dressed as clergy
members, text excerpts and pho-
tographs of now-dead Westernized
According to Skotnes, the
shadow boxes are supposed to be
unbound pages of a multi-cultural
and time-defying narrative dis-
cussing two of Skotnes's themes:
redemption and sacrifice.
The solitary horse skeleton at
the exhibit's center also comments
on these themes. Named the Book
of Divine Cancellation, this skel-.
eton is tattooed with fragments of
John Donne's poetry on its skull,
King Hamlet's ghost's speech about
purgatory upon its hips, passages
from religious works upon its ribs
and legs and major battles of World
War I along its spine. Noteworthy
battles of World War II are written
on linen strips and attached to the
rear of the horse, forming a tail.
Even though Skotnes cannot
remember why she chose to use
horse bones for the exhibit, it seems
fitting now.
"The skeletons fit the legal defi-
nition of a book - they have spines,
pages - which don't have to be
made out of paper - and writing,"
she said.
The Book of Divine Cancella-
tion is joined by three bridled horse
skulls and the remains of one of its
complete skeleton brother books
(there are four in total) that was
accidentally destroyed in transit
to the exhibit. Fragments of the
damaged skeleton are on display,
featuring excerpts from 19th-cen-
tury interviews with South African

These interviews were combined
into an archive of the now-dead
Bushmen language, called Ixam
(pronounced with a tut, followed
by "sahn"). Fourteen-thousand
pages of interviews and several
photographs are all that remain of
this extinct culture. The passages
featured on the broken skeleton,
centered on stories of transforma-
tion, are just small selections from
the archive.
Though unplanned, the wrecked
horse fits perfectly into the exhibit.
As Skotnes explained, "it's a frag-
mentary object representing a frag-
mentary archive."
The three horse skulls, named
Aphasia ("without memory"), Ano-
mia ("the loss of names") and Alex-
ia ("the inability to write"), also
represent this theme of fragments,
as each horse stands for an aspect
of incompleteness.
"Aphasia represents the martyrs
burnt at the stake during the Mid-
dle Ages. Anmia represents war
casualties and the soldiers who not
only sacrificed their lives, but also
sacrificed their names. And Alex-
ia represents the paradox of the
remaining Ixam dictionary - it is a
written document meant to decode
an oral language that is no longer
spoken and only exists in writing,"
Skotnes said.
The skulls, skeleton fragments
and complete horse glisten with
gold leaf that complements the
vibrant red and stark black ink used
to tattoo the bone. While these col-
ors are aesthetically pleasing, their
combination and resulting beauty
are eerie. Instead of masking what
the dead horses are supposed to
represent, the delicate artistic
touches highlight the skeletons'
This ghostly aura is exactly what
Skotnes was tryingto express.
"How do you represent a lost
world? A lost culture? A lost lan-
guage? I chose the idea of sacrifice
- Christ and other biblical stories,
the colonists wiping out civiliza-
tions of Bushmen, World WartI sol-
diers slaughtered in the trenches,
the four horsemen of the apoca-
lypse," she said.
"Where is the redemption? I
think it's in finding some kind of
voice for the dead - providing a
way for these texts to walk out of
the archive on the bones of hors-
es. Making their absence present
through the sensorial."
A quote painted onto one of
the exhibit's walls (from Robert
Pogue Harrison's "Dominion of the
Dead") further explores this con-
"The Dead speak from beyond
the grave as long as we lend them
the means of locution; they take up
their abode in books, dreams, hous-
es, portraits, legends, monuments
and graces as long as we keep open
the places of their indwelling."
In addition to themes of sacri-
fice and redemption, Skotnes is
also interested in "how objects
circulate and move away from
their original place into differ-
ent realms and spaces." This
concept manifests itself in the
exhibit through miniature vials
spread throughout the dioramas
and skeletons, containing one
line each from an essay by Ste-
phen Greenblatt on the nature of
the rucharist. Skotnes's curlsity
alsomirrors the dispersive nature

Quite literally, I can say
that every Saturday
night last winter I ate
at Seva. It didn't mat-
ter how many Blue Bucks I had
left on my
MCard, the
amount of
abuse my
crew and
I took for
for the ump- LILA
teenth time AUIK
or if there
was four feet of snow on the
ground. It was a ritual.
The routinization of these
pilgrimages to Seva began out
of circumstance. As most dorm
dwellers know, residence hall
cafeterias are closed on Saturday
nights. So, ravenous, my three
friends and I would drag our-
selves out of the building - a dif-
ficult task on those winter days
when the heat was cranked up
so high that shorts and t-shirts
could be worn comfortably inside
- and trudge across the Diag.
A little relief from East
Quad's world harvest bar and
limited cereal selection was
appreciated - 10 blocks of bit-
ing Michigan wind was not.
But, alas, it was worth it every
time. Seeing Seva, with its
great big leafy sign sitting atop
the Ann Arbor Comedy club, is
from the first moment a whim-
sical experience.
Stepping through the double-
door threshold is like stumbling
back onto the set of my high
school's production of "Peter
Pan." The fairy lights, wood-
paneled walls and pearlescent
green flooring could have easily
been used in any scene from that
play. The main dining area is
spacious and rectangular, recall-
ing the image of an all-purpose
room, readily convertible for
the big dance or school-wide
assembly. From the orange lava
lamp sitting unapologetically on
the bar behind the hostess stand
to the arbitrary placement of
stained-glass artwork and hang-
ing plants throughout the res-
taurant, it's obvious that Seva,
like the lostboys, doesn't want to
grow up. And I love that.
I am a stalwart defender of
the place, not because the food
is outrageously gourmet or the
service dazzling - in fact neither
are. What makes Seva great is
its warm and friendly ambi-
ence, commitment to delicious
and affordable vegetarian and
vegan cuisine and overall funky
vibe. It is one of the few spots in
Ann Arbor where families, hip-
pies and frat boys seem to come
together to have a good meal.
The menu, creative but con-
stant, will distract you with its
overabundance of options. If
you like going out to eat with a
biggroup of indecisive pals like
I do, it may take awhile to order.
Seva's yam fries, accompanied by

a spicy mayo dipping sauce, are
" necessary supplement to any
entr6e or the perfect appetizer
if you're having trouble decid-
ing on what to do for the main
Back when I first became a
vegetarian, Seva was ahaven for
me. Instead of the usual dearth
of options'I encountered atlmost
places, I could eat everything on
the menu. When I was vegan this
was even more of a blessing. But,
Seva isn'tjust a good vegetarian
place. It's a good restaurant in
general. Its ambience is light-
hearted and fun - the perfect
finale for ahard week. Moderate
prices and generous portions
make ita student and family
Seva doesn't try to compen-
sate for its meatless-ness by
being overly flashy or haughty.
The food is comforting and
it's a great place to experiment
with dishes you might not get to
try anywhere else. Probe their
tempeh burger or the tofurky
sandwich if you're brave enough
for meat substitutes.If not, go
for something more docile like
Not just for
strict vegans.
their baked brie appetizer or
the ravioli cardinale-spinach
ravioli - broccoli and mush-
rooms ina tomato-sherri-cream
sauce topped with pine nuts and
served with Ciabattabread.
Seva (not to be confused with
Sava's, another spot down the
street and around the corner) has
a full bar, both a gluten-free and
a kids' menu and serves breakfast
all day. In other words, there's
something for everyone. Some say
that Seva lacks innovation - the
menu has been pretty muchthe
same for the past 30 years. But
that's OK. Sevsshouldbe allowed
to rest on its laurelsbecause its got
damngood laurels.
My own memories of Seva
are closely tied with my friends.
So far away from home, it has
become a college family spot.
I've gone there more times than
I can count to celebrate every-
thing from birthdays to goings-
away, losses and triumphs. I
never left unsatisfied. And the
meal almost always carries on
to the next day with leftovers.
One of my roommates loved it so
much she started workingthere.
No, she couldn't get us free food,
and yes, we tried. She recently
waited on David Schwimmer
and a lady friend while they
were in town filming the upcom-
ing movie "Trust." The girl was
British, and Schwimmer was a
mediocre tipper.
Kaick tips way better than David
Schwimmer. E-mail her at lkalick@
umich.edu to get her tips on tipping.

of her own work.
"I started working with the
archive in the 1980s and it's a proj-
ect I've been working on for so long
that every time I think I'm going
to give it up, something comes out
of the woodwork. In the past, the
pieces have traveled everywhere
around the world," she said.
This time the exhibit brought
with it two events - a lecture
by Skotnes titled "Curating the
Archive: Representing Scattered
Collections of the Colonial Past" at
the UMMA last Wednesday and a
conference with multiple scholars
discussing the "Archive, Museum,
and the Safe House of Language"
at the Humanities Gallery last
In her lecture, Skotnes focused
on a Bushmen diorama that was
closed down in South Africa due
to its culturally insensitive nature.
Skotnes discussed the merits of the
exhibit (which was, incidentally,
not opposed by those whom it was
"insensitively" presenting).
She claimed the diorama, fea-
turing several Bushmen in their
hunting camp, paused and looking
toward an animal that just ran past,
encourages a suspension of disbe-
lief. Representing a snapshot of
an extinct existence, the diorama
seems more real simply because
it is a fantasy. Even though the
potential of this moment's reality
is gone forever, the remembrance
remains in this diorama.
Despite the heavy subject mat-
ter of her exhibit and lecture,
Skotnes offered a message of hope
for the future of her two passions:
the archive and the book.
"One increasingly goes online.
and finds more fabulous, old
archives digitized. But then what
happens to the actual archive? It's
no longer of interest just in terms
of content, yet it's still interest-
ing," she said.
"In the books that I've pub-
lished I've tried to put the reader
in the presence of the actual
objects because when you work
with the archive and work with
the material, you become bonded
with the documents - with the
paper, the ink, the srpell of it. Digi-
tizing an archive makes the mate-

rial more important. And it's the
same for a book."
"I think there's an entangle-
ment in the object and the read-
ing, which the digital availability
of it will throw into sharper relief.
Books and archives allow you to
occupy a space that other disci-
plines don't allow you to occupy,"
she added.
In an interesting twist,
Skotnes's obsession with the con-
cepts of books and archives direct-
ly affects a visitor's experience of
the exhibit. Beside a single plaque
outlining her credentials and gen-
eral influences, no other explicitly
explanatory text is prominently
displayed in the exhibit. Skotness
intends her work to be ambigu-
ous and to instill a unique reaction
within each visitor.
According to Skotnes, her art-
work should be read as a book - a
highly interpretive narrative can
be gleaned from the bones, pho-
tographs and other materials in
the exhibit. However, a copy of
the exhibit's corresponding (and
traditional) book, "Book of Itera-
tions," is available ifa visitor needs

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