The enigmatic quality of “Spirit of Collection #2”

Fig. 1 - Jimmy Deegens. Spirit of Collection #2, 2018.
Photograph of print on paper. Curator’s private collection.

Fig. 2 - Jimmy Deegens. Spirit of Collection #2, 2018.
Digital file. Curator’s private collection.

            During this year’s Kunstnacht (Art Night) in Nijmegen, music venue Merleyn was taken over by a mix-and-match art collective representing The Afrika Museum with paintings, photography, performance art and music, creating a “new African reality” (“Afrika Museum”). Before entering the dark, immersive exhibition space in the back of the building, visitors had to pass through the café where they encountered a poem on the wall titled “Spirit of Collection #2” (Fig. 1). It was easily overlooked but to those who did notice it, the poem posed the following question: “Suppose that everything I have ever seen, is gone / Burning museums, cinema halls, theatres and podiums / Everything to ashes… I merely see it as a memory / So, if I want to share it… Then you have to listen carefully / Then you will have to trust me / Do you? / Are you coming with me in my memory?” (10-17). Far from being marginal, the poem provides a point of passage into the exhibition (Richards 39). The way it does so is however difficult to grasp: there is something enigmatic about both the space the poem inhabits and the mental space it creates.
            Located outside, but on the brink of entering the exhibition and guiding the visitor into the universe it constructs, the poem seems to occupy an in-between space. It comes against, besides and in addition to the exhibition, but it does not fall to one side. It touches and cooperates, neither outside, nor inside, more like an accessory that one welcomes “on the border, on board, first of all on (the) bo(a)rd(er)” (Derrida 54). Thinking with Jacques Derrida might help to understand the poem’s in-between space as actually occupying two sites at once: both within and beyond the exhibition, complicating the relationship between inside and outside that he has explored so vigorously in Of Grammatology and Parergon. Considering the poem as a parergonal site, something related to the work of art but not exactly part of it (Richards 31), it reminds us of a more common parergonal agent in museums: the label (37). However, whereas labels are known for their practical information about the artist, the title of the work, the medium, the dimensions and when the work was made, the poem seems far more concerned with the creation of a certain receptive mood than with any physical reality.  
            From its inception, the poem starts a journey towards a different state of mind that is not dissimilar to the way fairy tales and folktales operate. The first stanza eases the reader into letting go of their preconceptions, starting with the surprising “Suppose that everything I have ever seen is gone” (Deegens 1). This first line, similar to the idiom “Once upon a time”, suggests that what follows does not pertain to the here and now that we are familiar with. It functions as a coordinate, placing the poem not in a time or place of external reality but in a state of mind (Bettelheim 62).  The “burning museums, cinema halls, theatres and podiums” (Deegens 2) and “Movies faded / Music stilled / Statues crumbled” (4-6) are at the same time additional coordinates and concrete ways to visualize what it would mean if everything would indeed be gone, if the material artefacts no longer “Sit / with me” (8-9). It is moreover a way to both think about the (museological) archive and consider a place without it. However, although it might have seemed that way at first, what we are going back to is not a clean slate but to “… a memory” (10).
            Whereas the first stanza seems to be mainly occupied with introducing the scene and carefully drawing the reader into its world, the second and final stanza actively turns to the reader with a sense of urgency in regard to the memory of what has vanished. After building up from the pondering “So if I want to share it” (Deegens 11), to a more determined “And I want to share it” (12) and finally the urgent “I have to share it” (13), the reader is then pulled into the narrative with “Then you will have to listen carefully / Then you will have to trust me” (14-15). Reading these lines, it is not difficult to imagine a hypnotizing voice that is not attached to any physical body, inviting you to go down the rabbit-hole. And indeed, the poem culminates with the following final draw-in: “Are you coming with me into my memory?” (17) suggesting a voyage into the interior of someone’s mind. Considering that memory is not bound by any specific time, location, or logical sequence of events, the poem might take us back to strange and distant locations. It might take us into realms unknown.
            After having read the poem, the visitor might step over the threshold into the dark exhibition space where they can enter a small maze made up of coloured curtains that guides them through the paintings. Meanwhile, music is playing and coming out on the other side they face a DJ-booth and several performance artists in headpieces, body paint and heavy jewellery, making direct eye contact. Considering this total experience, Carol Duncan might help in thinking about the poem as one of the steps in a ritual scenario, ushering the visitors into a marked-off zone and opening them to a different quality of experience. She uses the term ‘liminality’ to refer to this mode of consciousness outside of or “betwixt-and-between the normal, day-to-day cultural and social states and processes of getting and spending” (11) in which individuals might “move beyond the psychic constraints of mundane existence, step out of time, and attain new, larger perspectives” (12). The term was interestingly first used by Belgian folklorist Arnold van Gennep and later developed in the anthropological work of Victor Turner (11).  
            Another interesting aspect of the poem regarding folklore and folktales, and something that might help to understand more about the memory it refers to, is its title. What immediately catches one’s attention is the added ‘#2’, suggesting that it is the second in a series. And indeed, the title refers to a collection of paintings named “Spirit of Collection 1” by the hand of the exhibition’s curator Richard Kofi. The protagonists of this preceding series are “forgotten histories, memories and heritage that have long lost their physical bodies but survive in folklore, folktales and in spirit” (Kofi “Statement”). They are from a time where “freedom, justice and equality were still worth fighting for” and they are meant to navigate towards what life would be like without systems of domination, inequality, injustice, racism, slavery and (neo)colonialism. Shining through these statements of the curator seems to be the project of Afrofuturism: a cultural aesthetic and philosophy of science and history that includes elements of science fiction, historical fiction, Afrocentrism, fantasy and magic realism to interrogate and re-examine historical events. It is most of all an experience of time in which “past, now and future become flexible to envision a future of hope, possibility and freedom” (Eshun 289).
            In the context of Afrofuturism, the poem’s “burning museums, cinema halls, theatres and podiums” (Deegens 2) gain extra significance as the burning archive that is informed by these very systems of domination, inequality, injustice, racism, slavery and (neo)colonialism that are spoken about. Moreover, we might consider the poem in its entirety as a counter-memory. Because imperial racism denied black subjects the right to belong to the enlightenment project, the urgent need to demonstrate a substantive historical presence was deeply felt (Eshun 287) and one way to do so was, and still is, the assemblage of countermemories to contest the colonial archive (288). Theorist Kodwo Eshun described such events as gestures and acts that generate “temporal complications and anachronistic episodes that disturb the linear time of progress” (297) and adjust “the temporal logics that condemned black subjects to prehistory” (297). The poem, together with its ergon, the exhibition, might thus be seen as a chronopolitical work creating a platform for historical speculation (299).
            Regardless of the time spent delving into the layers of “Spirit of Collection #2”, the poem retains its enigmatic quality. What has however become apparent is that it seems to be more than a mere aesthetic, fairy tale-like experience to “escape the drudgery of the everyday world” (Richards 41). Considering the poem as a parergonal site that constructs a liminal stage wherein visitors stand at the threshold between a previous way of structuring time and something that is quite different and placing this in light of the Afrofuturistic project might help to think more about its enigmatic and seemingly transformative potential. Helpful in this regard will be the idea that, like folk rituals, liminal periods have the potential to turn the world upside down: “social hierarchies may become reversed or temporarily dissolved, continuity of tradition may become uncertain and future outcomes once taken for granted may be thrown into doubt” (Horvath et al. 3)

Works Cited

“Afrika Museum.” Nijmeegse Kunstnacht, 2017,
            Accessed 17 Oct. 2018.
Bettelheim, Bruno. The Uses of Enchantment – The Meanings and Importance of Fairy Tales. Random
            House, 1977.
Deegens, Jimmy. “Spirit of Collection #2.” 2018.
Derrida, Jacques. “The Parergon.” October,vol. 9, 1979, pp. 3-41.
Duncan, Carol. Civilizing Rituals: Inside Public Art Museums. Routledge, 1995.
Eshun, Kodwo. “Further Considerations of Afrofuturism.” CR: The New Centennial Review, vol. 3, no. 2, 
            2003, pp. 287-302.
Horvath, Agnes, et al. “Introduction: Liminality and Cultures of Change.” International Political
            Anthropology, vol. 2, no. 1, 2009, pp. 3-4.  
Kofi, Richard. “Statement” Richard Kofi,, Accessed 20 Oct. 2018.
Richards, Kevin Malcolm. “Framing The Truth In Painting.” Derrida Reframed, I.B. Tauris & Co.,              
            2008, pp. 29-49.