DNA Halter: Language is a Virus
11 February - 11 March 2023
WHATIFTHEWORLD is pleased to present DNA HALTER: Language is a Virus, a solo exhibition by Dan Halter.
Reflecting on language in its textual and sonic iterations, author Alexander G. Weheliye considers the notion of writing as something that merely stores the fact of its authorisation. If written documents conjure authority, Dan Halter calls into question such finality by bringing a different physicality to the written form through a series of handwoven books.
In his latest exhibition, DNA HALTER: Language is a Virus, the artist takes the literature of Albert Camus (The Plague) and William S. Burroughs (The Nova Trilogy) and (re)figures its composition into intricate tapestries of symmetry. Here, the script exists outside the confines of covers — without a physical spine but not spineless. Words become fluxional, existing in a different mode.
The exhibition title is a nod to Burroughs’ theory, Language is a Virus, a suggestion of ‘the unrecognized virus’ present in the language which the world has failed to recognise because it “has achieved a state of stable symbiosis with the host.” In Burroughs’ world the infective agent of speech, writing, or gesture, affects those it comes into contact with and multiplies without detection. Through his mode of cutting up and reconstructing (similar to Burroughs’ stylistic technique), Halter considers fundamental and distinctive characteristics of language, which like viruses show themselves to be alterable and mutable.
In a different light, the exhibition points to the ways in which language can obscure reality; how phonology, morphology, syntax, semantics, and pragmatics can be broken down and reassembled. This is demonstrated through works such as The DNA of The Soft Machine — its midriff is strips of paper that are tangled and twisted, connecting to the woven bottom and upper parts. The twists and turns are reflective of the helix shape of DNA but also subtly cue to the visual of an hourglass. Here, meaning is collaged through associations and symbolism – distinct to the experiences of each viewer. Once again, language complicates itself but also opens itself out to different and differing configurations.
With printed books, ideas are pressed in, which is a physical act that flattens and smooths over through enough exertion. Weaving on the other hand is rhizomatic – the entwining and interlacing of many into a fabricated whole. The exhibition, therefore, is an evocation of interconnectedness, through both content and method. In content – the conceptual thread between word, text and viruses are explored. In method, the practice of weaving is explored.
Philosopher Baruch Spinoza noted that the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet, the aleph, can be thought of as the opening of the throat as if to speak and not speaking. This draws attention to some of the links one can make between the body and language – breath, non-sounds, throats opening and closing – all of these are somatic experiences, calling attention to the body’s capacity for language and sometimes its incapacity through its predisposition to attack by a virus. This then is how Halter attempts to make sense of his feelings and thoughts, stirred by the experiences of the COVID virus, against his way of sense-making through literature.
The act of weaving, usually associated with textile weaving, has its origins in the loom. The loom is a device that dates as far back as the 5th millennium BC. And ofcourse looming, is inextricable from language – its technology inspired punch cards as a form of data processing which can be thought of as a precursor to electronic computing and coding language. The process of weaving is both mentally and physically demanding. The printed paper used to warp and welt is cut by hand into slim stripes with careful consideration — if cut too closely or widely and the sentence becomes unreadable. That is to say, the act of working on the text challenges its legibility.
The relationship between illness and language is an established one. In her seminal work, Illness as metaphor, the brilliant Susan Sontag reminds us of the tenuous link between illness, language and understanding, calling on us to question the ineffectual language and significance attached to bodily illnesses. Virginia Wolf too lamented the poverty of language in describing illness, writing; “english, which can express the thoughts of Hamlet and the tragedy of Lear, has no words for the shiver and the headache. It has all grown one way.” Halter joins this tradition of holding both language and illness (with his interest in books and DNA) through a technical and meditative approach which allows him to weave thoughts and words into images while blurring boundaries between nature and culture, the body and intellect.
Text by Nkgopoleng Moloi
Dan Halter’s artistic practice is informed by his position as a Zimbabwean living in South Africa. Using materials ubiquitous
to South Africa and Zimbabwe, Halter employs the language of craft and curio as a visual strategy to articulate his concerns within a fine art context. Through this, as well as through photography and video, Halter addresses notions of a dislocated national identity and the politics of post-colonial Zimbabwe within a broader African context.
Dan Halter was born in Zimbabwe in 1977. Recent solo exhibitions include Money Loves Money, at Osart Gallery, Milano, Italy (2021); Plenty Sits Still, Hunger is a Wanderer, at This Is No Fantasy, Melbourne and Cross the River in a Crowd at WHATIFTHEWORLD, Cape Town in 2019. Halter has participated in numerous group shows including US at the South African National Gallery, curated by Simon Njami, Zeitgenössiche Fotokunst aus Südafrika at the Neuer Berliner Kunstverein (NBK), Energy Flash – The Rave Movement, M HKA (Museum van Hedendaagse Kunst Antwerpen), the 16th and 17th VideoBrasil (São Paulo) in 2007 and 2011, the 10th Havana Biennale in 2009, the Dakar Biennale in 2010 and Earth Matters: Land as Material and Metaphor in the Arts of Africa at Smithsonian Museum of African Art Washington DC, USA in 2013 and This is not Africa Unlearn what you have Learned at Aros Museum Denmark in 2021.
Halters work is included in numerous private collections, public collections include, The South African National Gallery, UNISA (University of South Africa), University of Cape Town, Scheryn Collection, Artphilein Collection, Pigozzi Collection, SAFFCA Collection, Round About Collection, the prestigious Rennie Collection, Foundation H Madagascar, Albright–Knox Art Gallery, Southern African Collection for Contemporary Art, Tiroche Deleon Collection, Scheryn Art Collection, About, and National Gallery of Victoria. Dan Halter lives and works in Cape Town, South Africa.