Dale Lawrence

WHATIFTHEWORLD is pleased to present Midden, a solo exhibition by Dale Lawrence. 

Due to stratification on the water column, where dense saltwater below and freshwater at the top can never mix – the black sea is anoxic. Considered the largest ‘dead zone’ on the planet, the inert semi-enclosed sea is devoid of oxygen below a depth of 150 metres, where not even decay-causing microbes can live. As a result, the basin has a tendency to hold on to its history, its wrecks, its dead. Some of the most well-preserved examples of wooden trading vessels (dating back to 400 BC) can be found in its salty depths, intact and undisturbed, information only mentioned here because of its relevance to the peculiar collecting practice of Dale Lawrence.

Not for the first time, Lawrence has made use of studio debris in the construction of this new body of work. Byproducts that pile up in the process of more intentional creation. However, in addition to the collection of these physical offcuts, digital artefacts also end up in his pockets along the way. Contemporary archives, such as soundbites from social media feeds, but also browser searches, keyword stats, and cloud-stored media might well one day serve the same purpose for future historians who wish to learn about the everyday lives of contemporary civilisations as a wooden ship trapped in a meromictic body of water. Unintentional remains of our everyday movements, chaotic and cluttered at first but eventually stratified into a vertical timeline as readable as an Arctic ice core.

For Lawrence, the phenomenon which best encapsulates the idea of both physical artefacts as well as digital footprints – the poetic, the prosaic (and to him, comforting) detritus of existence – is the midden. In its most essential form, a midden is a garbage heap. Found across the globe wherever humans once lived or still do, these concentrated sites would have been dumps for domestic and mostly kitchen waste, especially before the current Anthropocentric Epoch and the Great Acceleration of the 1950s. Some of the most ancient of these archeological features are found along the west coast of South Africa in the form of shellmiddens containing massive amounts of ecofacts and cultural tokens, each an encoded strand in the expanse of anthropological web across time.

While artefacts from antiquity seem to us to be just that – antique – they were almost always examples of the most advanced technology and habits of the time. For Lawrence, there is value to this understanding, this presentness, as an essential phenomenology which can also be applied to art-making – in other words, that presence, rather than ambition, should be the central objective.

In ‘Between Lives’ (2023), the central single channel video installation timed intermittently with spotlight dimmers, Lawrence presents an arresting series of clips shot on the artist’s mobile phone during the months leading to his grandfather’s passing. The film is narrated with voiceover acting by text-to-speech bots, variously written by the artist and compiled from snippets of digital ephemera (news, advertising, text messages). By chronicling around a specific and meaningful life event, the work touches on the role of technology in times of loss, also dealing with themes of language, production and subjectivity. The idea of the digital midden, however, is also inherently flawed. According to multiple independent studies, around 50% of links on the internet are no longer functional, and a staggering statistic of 75% of scientific journals have drifted from their original addresses*. What we think of as an information landfill might in reality be already sloughing off into great sediments – breaking down slowly, fragmenting like microplastics as inseparable as mixing sands.

In a kind of backwards, overlapping, which-came-first process, Lawrence monumentalises the voices of the narrating bots in writing, printing their improbable poetry in programming type and laminating together the small stacks of A4 and A5 folios in epoxy. The resulting works, including ‘Hope’, ‘“They” (The Stranger)’, ‘We Do Not Know’, ‘They Do Not Know’, are intimate testaments that seem to speak to the artist’s broader tendencies of collecting without discrimination, not consistently yet openly, and materialising the immaterial. Lawrence’s small library of manuscripts sits somewhere between a stone tablet and an iPad - biodegradable data (memories) made into digital ephemera, then consigned to writing, stored and finally filed, physically and back online, in a kind of meta Jenga scaffold that speaks to its own rot and builds with its own bones.

There is something to be said of time as a theme throughout Lawrence’s practice, and not only time within his own lifespan or that of his genetic line, but a primal span of time – of a stone eroded to dust over millions of years, of ancient biomaterial turned into Tupperware.

With a twist of irony, Lawrence expertly and viscerally incarnates humanity’s attachments to 1) plastic, and 2) meat. For the former, kilometres of packaging tape are layered and cut into a thick slab, containing the substitution text for an advertisement by the “American multinational automotive and clean energy company”, Tesla. The content of the text is apocalyptic and bucking with surrealism. Yet, the cadence remains hypnotic, even ‘de-imaged’ as it is. Its disconnected states of crisis, sex, love, despair, fear and hope is strangely familiar, even somewhat human. Encased in plastic like an insect trapped in amber, the work reads like a prophecy – of the certainty of plastic, and the murky uncertainty of nearly everything else.

Next to it, a small monolith of what appears to be veined marble, turns out to be laminae of animal fat. Interspersed by black layers of ash (collected from Cape mountain veldfires), the heavy, subtly scented slab was created by hand dipping and drying each molten layer – a ritual requiring patience and evoking reverence for the body, using material where language has become too familiar to communicate clearly anymore.

We dig through middens to see how other people lived.
We dig through middens to learn about ourselves.
We dig through middens searching for possibilities.
Rather than our hopes and fears, it is the byproducts of life that will form the basis of our future.
In such a site, existence becomes hallowed.

Text by Shona van der Merwe

*Zittrain, J. (2021) The internet is rotting, The Atlantic.
Available at: https:// www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2021/06/the-internet-is-a-collective- hallucination/619320/ (Accessed: 24 October 2023).

With special thanks
Art assistant: Kilion Solobala
Video mastering: Mishal Fortune