Ellie Ga’s Square Octagon Circle
Square, Octagon, Circle
Ellie Ga’s immersive and wide-ranging investigations encourage viewers to linger in the often overlooked details. From classifying sidewalk stains to the story of a beachcomber finding a bottled message at sea, Ga focuses our attention on the ambiguity and indeterminacy of exploration, and the human desire to rationalize and order the world. Through various media including performances, narrative essays, video, and installations, Ga marries research and reflexivity to embark on a quest, wherever she may be led.
From 2007 - 08, Ga was the sole artist-in-residence on the Tara, a rudderless vessel drifting through the Arctic sea, tasked with collecting data on polar ice conditions. Toward the end of her residency, she and her French crewmates noticed the blinking light of a distant lighthouse, which signaled that the vessel was near land and civilization once again. The lighthouse and its translation across language became the spark for Square Octagon Circle (2012 - 14), a meditation on the Lighthouse of Alexandria, Egypt, one of the original seven wonders of the world. Originally conceived as a set of multi-media works, Square Octagon Circle is now also an artist book that excavates the stories of Ga and the people she encountered during the time she spent researching the Lighthouse of Alexandria. Ga traced the etymology of the word lighthouse from French (le phare, as her crewmates exclaimed upon seeing the structure) to the Spanish el faro and Italian il faro, as part of her research on lighthouses. The Lighthouse of Alexandria, which rests at the bottom of the Port of Alexandria in the Mediterranean Sea, haunts the city like a phantom limb, its presence everywhere although it is no longer a visible part of the landscape. Through lush, collaged, and altered images and poetic text fragments, the book allows readers to join Ga on a winding journey of discovery between the slippery spaces of memory and history, mythology and fact, language and communication, and what is hidden and subsequently revealed.
Ga often works in series, one object or idea gleaned from a previous idea or body of work. After her time on the Tara, she had been searching for years for a way to incorporate lighthouses into a project. When the University of Alexandria created a graduate program in marine archeology, it seemed like a perfect opportunity to realize this obsession with lighthouses generally, and the Lighthouse of Alexandria in particular. As the Arab Spring bloomed in 2011 and revolution came to Egypt, Ga remained in the country despite the political instability and the University’s subsequent temporary closure. She continued her studies—and the Lighthouse project—when it reopened in January 2012.
During her time in Alexandria, Ga learned that thousands of the Alexandria Lighthouse’s stones remain submerged in the Mediterranean, despite mapping and research conducted by archaeologists. While the revolution brought a number of social and political changes, it also shifted the way Egyptians thought about cultural pride. Since the revolution, the government has made an official determination that the Lighthouse stones cannot be disturbed, making the sea where they remain an underwater museum. Ga, like many other people, has made replicas of the Lighthouse and its stone fragments, and images of the imagined grandeur of the architectural wonder remain visible throughout post-revolutionary Alexandria.
Square Octagon Circle consists of transparencies, photos, video stills, and ephemera from her research that guide readers through Ga’s adventures, from travels by dive boat and surreptitious photographing below sea level to trips to secret museums and meetings with other scholars obsessed with the sunken structures. While the exquisite images in Square Octagon Circle are the focus of the book, white text fragments and contextual explanations are printed on top of them, providing historical information, explanatory notes, and outside perspective. These snippets filled with the seemingly mundane details of research provide additional clues to the mysterious presence of Alexandria’s ghost Lighthouse. At one point, Ga realizes a filmmaker she has been trying to meet has been her neighbor all along. When the two finally sit down to talk about their intersecting projects—Ga’s lighthouse and the filmmaker Asma El Bakri’s exploration of the Greco-Roman museum and campaign to save the remaining underwater archaeology from destruction—she realizes the two have more in common than she imagined. During their meeting, Asma tells Ga about how she met the famous archeologist who studied the Lighthouse of Alexandria, a story that mirrors much of her own experience in Alexandria:
So we became friends. And then he said we should go and dive in the sea near the Fort of Qaitbay because there’s plenty of archaeology on the seabed. I said okay. So I got a camera that goes underwater. We dove, and what I saw were blocks as big as this room thrown on top of the archaeology.
I went crazy. I said to Jean-Yves Empereur, “What the hell is this shit?” And he said they are making a breakwater to protect the fortress. I said, but there’s a lot of archaeological stuff here. He said, “Yes, I know.” How do you know and you say nothing? He said, “I can’t say anything, I am a foreigner. It’s up to you to talk.”
I don’t talk, I scream.
Whether a reflection on the first archeologists who researched the sunken structure in earnest, or the system of hand gestures she and her guide used to communicate underwater, Ga artfully arranges information to create a hunger for what comes next.
Square Octagon Circle is a delight for lovers of text and image, as well as for those who enjoy history and storytelling. Ga’s willingness to research and embrace the questions and uncertainty that arise transforms the historical fragments into something surprisingly new.
ContributorLee Ann Norman
Lee Ann Norman’s research and writing focuses on the politics of aesthetics and perceptual differences among an artwork’s cultural, social, and market value. Her writing has appeared in BOMB, Guernica, Artcritical.com, Hyperallergic, the Chicago Reader, Newcity, and Studio Magazine (published by The Studio Museum in Harlem), among others. She earned the MFA in Art Criticism and Writing from the School of Visual Arts, and is currently based in Chicago.