• Colin Sterling

Parliament of Ghosts by Ibrahim Mahama

At its core the research I am undertaking at the moment poses a relatively straightforward question: how can new approaches to immersive and experiential design contribute towards critical heritage thinking and practice? The ‘new approaches’ here may point in various directions at once however. For some, this phrase will suggest innovative technologies – think virtual and augmented realities, or fully immersive digital environments. For others, such technological solutions are just as likely to reinforce old ways of thinking and doing as they are to generate new forms of cultural praxis. As my research so far has shown, critical heritage experiences do not need to rely on novel interpretive media to push forward challenging narratives or agendas.

Ibrahim Mahama’s Parliament of Ghosts captures this with rare clarity. Shown at the Whitworth Art Gallery as part of the 2019 Manchester International Festival, Parliament of Ghosts unfolds across five interconnected works: a reconstruction of the archive of the Gold Coast Railway and the Sekondi Locomotive Workshop in Ghana; photographs of tattoos inscribed on the bodies of migrant workers, recording their name and next of kin in case they are hurt or killed; monumental collages made of wood and textiles; a replica of the concrete silos built under a post-independence government, in which a multi-screen video juxtaposes words of hope from the 1960s with footage of scrap workers today; and, in the main room, the parliament itself, constructed from second-class seats salvaged from scrapped trains used on the Ghana Railways. The immersive scale of some works is balanced by the intimate rendering of others, creating an experience that moves between the grand sweep of modernity and the personal traumas written into skin and paper.

Materiality is a central element of Mahama’s work, but this is not a static conception of objects and things. Here the artist seems more concerned with the endless mobility and transmutation of stuff; of matter into matter, form into form. Worked and reworked, the objects, stories, bodies and memories that Mahama has gathered and archived over many years document a ceaseless movement across space and time, densely entangled with broader patterns of empire, globalisation, capital, art and the recycling of unwanted goods. Traces of the individual adhere to every surface, further undermining the stability of things. More than anything, Parliament of Ghosts is a reminder that terms such as rubbish, pollution, detritus or waste fail to do justice to the constant flows and accretions of stuff that structure and shape social worlds. In the presence of such objects we are forced to confront the peculiar weight of ‘progress’ – of wood and paper and concrete – solid forms that do not so much melt into air as mutate into memory.

All of which is to say that heritage in this context is the experience – the experience of patina, of age, of ruin, of decay. Rather than romanticise such concepts, Mahama’s parliamentary stage sets up an uneasy dialogue between past and present. The mythic qualities of modernity, in which history is sped up and slowed down to suit certain agendas, lends this particular ‘heritage experience’ its uncomfortable edge. The very objects assembled here prove that time is uneven: pasts and futures do not glide into one another but rather haunt the present in equal measure. We are invited to debate in this space, but with whom? Or, perhaps better, with what? Ancestors? Ghosts? Our fellow citizens, who happen by some quirk of fate to exist at the same time as us? What would it mean to draw these temporalities into meaningful dialogue, and what place would matter occupy in this discourse? Mahama’s work seems to underline the paucity of language when it comes to dealing with such things, but where then should our attention be directed? To the air between things, or perhaps to the imperceptible vibrations of a thing that has endured?

Parliament of Ghosts is open to a multitude of readings. An extended essay on the installation would need to draw out the challenges Mahama’s work poses to Derrida’s hauntology, to Latour’s parliament of things, to the spectral and speculative insights of Demos, Tsing, Fisher, Bennett and Harman. There are also clear links to be made with the broader archival aesthetic in contemporary art, and more specifically with the work of Zarina Bhimji and John Akomfrah, amongst others. In the context of my current research, what I take from the exhibition is however quite simple: that the experience of heritage all too often masks the strange incantations of the past and the future, utterances that may be brought to bear on the present through a renewed engagement with the mutability of matter in all its forms.

Further details and images of the exhibition can be found on Studio International.

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