Bianca Baldi on tricksters and fools

Piero Bisello  -  July 12, 2017

South African artist Bianca Baldi gives her take on 16th century Fool’s Cap Map of The World and the mythological figure of the trickster.

The work of South African artist Bianca Baldi is a true intellectual journey. It can somehow be seen standing close to other research-based art practices, in which the artist would start with a specific topic or research question and from there develop a full-fledged art project—usually a multimedia one.

In the case of Baldi, this starting topic is often a historical anecdote. For example, her ‘Zero Latitude’, commissioned in 2014 for the Berlin Biennale, is an installation whose intellectual backbone is the portable bed Louis Vuitton designed for the French explorer Pierre Savorgnan de Brazza when the latter embarked on a mission to Central Africa in the 19th Century. Or her ‘Livro Do Todo Universo’, showed at Frankfurt Kunstverein in 2015, which is a project around Luís I King of Portugal’s translation of Shakespeare’s play Hamlet. Or her forthcoming project ‘Economy It’s Fragrance’ (working title) for the AV Festival in Newcastle, which will look at the various industrial revolutions and the evolution of capitalism through the metaphor of the scent.

Asked what makes a piece of history worth becoming the starting point of one of her projects, Baldi told us that her decision is often contingent upon what she comes across during her real and imaginative travels. Yet, the themes of her projects do seem to respond to a specific philosophical position. In our opinion, Baldi is interested in ‘social constructivism’, that is a theory made popular by post-modern thinkers in the second half of the 20th century, which has also assumed the character of a critique of Western modernist values. Her words might shed some light on this philosophical tradition turned political movement. She says: “I am interested in a decolonial process, that is looking at the structure left by empire and trying to relook at those—or at very least make visible the fact that those structures are not Truths.” Empire here is synonym with Western modernity and all that comes with it: colonialism, patriarchy and scientism.

It is impossible to give a full account of the complex philosophical and political positions (and their challenges) that stand behind Baldi’s art projects in the space of a short introduction. We nonetheless hope we have provided some keys to browse the following ‘At The Show With The Artist‘, which sees Baldi giving her take on the mythological figures of the trickster and fool. The latter is especially exemplified in a 16th century map commonly known as “The Fool’s Cap Map of The World”, which Baldi proposed as the appropriate centre piece of our discussion.


How did you come across the ‘Fool’s Cap Map of the World’ and why did you decide to discuss this piece for At The Show With The Artist?

Bianca Baldi: I came across a reproduction of the ‘Fool’s Cap Map of the World’ in an exhibition entitled ‘Stimulants: Circulation and Euphoria‘ curated by Oier Etxeberria at Tabakalera in San Sebastian, Spain. This essay style exhibition looked at contemporary culture through the many stimulants we consume on a daily basis, such as sugar, coffee, cocoa and tobacco, and how these were introduced via colonial transatlantic routes. Reflecting on the Basque region’s own colonial and industrial past and Europe more broadly, the exhibition proposes the mind and labor altering effects of these substances and how they potentially shaped modern life. The “Fool’s Cap Map of the World” was a curious piece to suggest this “new world view” and given my interest in both cartography and the literary figure of the fool/trickster, this map felt like an intriguing concoction. A map of enmeshed socio-economic routes and the fool as stand-in for untrustworthy knowledge.

Because of the scarcity of information about it, there are many interpretations of the ‘Fool’s Cap Map of the World’. A particularly original one is by David Turnbull, who sees the fool’s map as an allegory of a specific philosophical claim, namely that universal scientific knowledge (and cartography as one of its branches) is contingent upon the social conditions that produce it. In other words, for Turnbull the fool in question is precisely fooling the figure of the 16th century cartographer as the one aspiring to produce scientific knowledge through maps but merely ends up expressing a contingent viewpoint upon his own historical and social conditions. What do you think of this interpretation? Do you see your work as being close to a similar critique of universalism like the one the fool makes in Turnbull’s view? If so, could you give some examples?

Bianca Baldi: I tend to agree with this interpretation, our contemporary knowledge field is a bewildering realm. We have lived to see the final death of fact where reality and fiction are so closely intertwined that these distinctions are put into question. My work often looks back to historical events or characters, as a means for me to consider the contemporary repercussions of these fixed knowledge structures. In my image-making practice (photography and film) I have used strategies such as studio photography and fiction to emphasize, admit and critique the staged nature of all representation. A recent exhibition ‘Eyes in the Back of Your Head’ at the Kunstverein Harburger Bahnhof took two knowledge systems—a talismanic scroll from Togo and the first wireless transmitter connecting Togo and Germany—as a starting point to talk about the infrastructures of communication. These two systems in a sense were at odds: the communication tower as an emblem of modern progress and the talismanic scroll suggesting a magical infrastructure to trap evil spirits. I was influenced by the Anthropologist Ernesto de Martino’s thinking on this point. I share his idea that there are various forms of realities and it is indeed belief that is central to producing any system of knowledge, granted facts and truths. This can go all the way from mysticism to hard-core scientific method. Historically “the West” was inclined to only believe its version of reality and anything outside of this was dismissed as superstition. I think that today we are forced to see this Western attitude as an illusion.

Two versions of the ‘Fool’s Cap Map of the World’ (the anonymous one and de Gourmont one) bear the famous maxim “Know Thyself” on top of the fool’s cap. You pointed out this maxim to us when discussing the map and the connection with your practice. Could you tell us how this maxim is relevant in your work? Do you see it as having an ethical connotation like the one it had in the Ancient Greek tradition (for Plato for example, knowing oneself was also a means to live a virtuous life)?

Bianca Baldi: I often come back to the oracle of Delphi’s famous phrase ‘Know Thyself’. From Ancient Greek references to The Matrix or more recently via Drake, it keeps popping up. Knowing oneself does have an ethical connotation in my work, as I am interested in how it stands for a subjective experience of the world when we are talking about systems of knowledge. Perhaps knowing yourself is a way to see beyond the representational illusions.

During our conversation, you also mentioned a book by Lewis Hyde titled ‘Trickster Makes This World’, in which the author speaks about the figure of the trickster as found in different mythologies, explaining that this recurrent character is somewhat of a “wise fool”, often responsible for making the world more hospitable for human beings by performing some astute trickeries. For instance, we can think of Prometheus who steals fire from the gods and gifts humans with it. Hyde eventually makes a quite peculiar leap into art and says that if there is any trickster in Western societies at all, that will be the artist as the one bearer of “disruptive imagination”. Do you see yourself as a trickster in this sense? Is there a project of yours you see as especially effective in “disrupting imagination”?

Bianca Baldi: I think we could all have the courage to be more of a trickster, turning things on their heads and disrupting social illusions. Both the trickster and the fool as characters were always allowed to freely criticise. In this sense I often wonder how it is possible to avoid being in that bind, built into a system that has an allocated disruption. In my work, Livro de Todo o Universo (Chopped and Screwed) (2015) I propose the idea of an all-encompassing atlas, a book of the whole universe. The performance was staged at the Kamer der Proeflezers (Corrector’s Room) of the Plantin Moretus in Antwerp, the site where all the published works were scrutinized for human error. The performer recites an eight word verse in all its 1022 permutations (corresponding to the number of stars in the Ptolemy’s sky) of a Latin poem printed at Plantin, making evident that even in this exhaustive performance the number of stars in the sky are always in flux.