“figures of the imagination … excavated from memory”

Monsters and Fossils uses the interaction of performers’ bodies and light to explore disappearances and appearances of the body. The dance excavates the body’s materiality and asks how our imagination can be used to create physical situations that transcend the body’s representation and essentialized notions of identity. At the root of the work is the question – what is this body that I inhabit? How can I be more body, how can I be less body? The work aims to de-centre the power of representationalist and colonially scripted readings of dance performance, and searches for ways to activate the senses of the witnesses to the dance, by altering perceptions of time, space and the body. Through their sensitive interaction, carefully calibrated with light, the bodies of the performers at times become less than body, part-bodies, and at other times, as the light plays tricks on the eyes, become more than body, figures of the imagination. The dance was created and performed by Kristina Johnstone and Thalia Laric in November 2017 at the Theatre Arts Admin Collective in Cape Town with lighting by Andi Colombo. The work was mentored by Tossie van Tonder and photographed and filmed by Lindsey Appolis.

As a research project, Monsters and Fossils is closely aligned with concerns around developing a framework for understanding contemporary dance performance in the current South African context. The research is carried out in the body, as the dancers look for ways to undo the complex layers of aesthetic conditioning and representations that mark postcolonial dancing bodies in Africa. Bodies come to and perform dance already inscribed with culturally and socially encoded identities. In this sense, representation cannot be completely avoided. The body cannot help but represent. Still, part of the aim of the investigation is to imagine, perhaps only as a thought experiment, ways of working beyond representation in contemporary dance, keeping in mind Achille Mbembe’s warning that in the case of Africa and African subject matter, signs have long been divorced from reality (Mbembe, 2017). The notion of thinking beyond representation, however, is not particular to the African context. Current discussions in contemporary dance in the North are also engaging with these concerns. Bojana Cvejic in her writing, for example, focuses on choreographic problems that “critically address the prevailing regime of representation in [European] theatre dance” (Cvejic, 2015:2). The aim, however, is not to simply borrow from this stream of thinking and ‘update’ approaches and dance theory for an African context, but rather to claim a conceptual space for contemporary dance-making in Africa beyond formulating responses to colonial scripts of the dancing body.

The project draws from both contemporary performance and philosophy to look for ways to refigure the body in performance and reconfigure the senses creating both ‘monsters’, figures of the imagination, and ‘fossils’, figures excavated from memory. The intellectual terrain of Monsters and Fossils engages with Michel Foucault’s work on the development of human sciences and particularly his work on the notion of taxonomy. In his book The Order of Things (1970), Foucault writes that whereas the fossil functions as “a distant and approximate form of identity” and “marks a quasi-character in the shift of time”, the monster ensures “the emergence of difference” (Foucault, 1970:156-157). Reading Foucault through Mbembe, however, ‘monsters and fossils’ reveals itself as a taxonomic trap that figures and makes sense of bodies through the European scientific project that was built on the synthesis of the real and the imagined. In our movement research we ask: Can the body be set free from the trapping of monster and fossil -how do these become fluid categories once more?

The intellectual terrain of Monsters and Fossils engages with Michel Foucault’s work on the development of human sciences and particularly his work on the notion of taxonomy. Via Mbembe’s book Critique of Black Reason (2017) we came across the phrase monsters and fossils from Michel Foucault’s The Order of Things (1970), a study of the origins of human sciences, in which he uses the notion of episteme to argue that knowledge is produced in systems, or governed by rules unconscious to us. Foucault talks about monsters and fossils in relation to taxonomy as a system of naming and classification. Monsters and fossils appear on opposite ends of a continuum – which we imagine as a continuum both in time as well as conceptual thought – with monsters described as figures of the imagination and fossils as figures excavated from memory. He writes that “against the background of the continuum, the monster provides an account, as though in caricature, of the genesis of differences and the fossil recalls, in the uncertainty of its resemblance, the first buddings of identity” (Foucault, 1970: 157). Whereas the fossil functions as “a distant and approximate form of identity” and “marks a quasi-character in the shift of time”, the monster ensures “the emergence of difference” (Foucault, 1970:156-157). What strikes us in this discussion is how, even though monsters and fossils seem to inhabit different realms, that of fantasy/the imagined/the virtual, and the material/the real respectively, they can be drawn into the same world and the same (evolutionary) continuum. While they both seem far removed from ourselves, fossils offer a glimmer of recognition while monsters represent something outside ourselves, maybe even the unthinkable. In bringing monsters and fossils into the same evolutionary continuum, fossils allow us access to the past, and our first sense of identity, while monsters open up the unknown, our fears and our future.

In his work, Mbembe draws from Foucault and his description monsters and fossils to point to the western scientific systems of thought’s shaping of narratives of blackness and the intellectual effects in postcolonial spaces. European sciences and its taxonomic system cannot be thought apart from Europe’s colonial project. Mbembe writes that “the expansion of the European spatial horizon went hand in hand with a division and shrinking of the historical and cultural imagination and, in certain cases, a relative closing of the mind. In sum, once genders, species, and races were identified and classified, nothing remained but to enumerate the differences between them” (Mbembe, 2017: 17). The figures of monster and fossil as a taxonomic means of bringing together the imagined and the real offer an analogy for the way in which the subject of race has been produced by the European human sciences. Mbembe writes that “on the great chart of species, genders, races, and classes, Blackness, in its magnificent obscurity, represented the synthesis of these two figures” (Mbembe, 2017: 18). The synthesis of monster and fossil opens up the deep problematics of the representation of race and identities. Mbembe, for example, suggests that the synthesis of monster and fossil answers to the unknown other that shaped the European understanding of the Black ‘man’. Monsters and fossils can be seen to stand for a kind of trapping of Blackness in the European imagination. What does this mean for the performance of identity and difference in postcolonial spaces? In South Africa, taxonomy takes on particular meaning through its history of apartheid, a regime founded on the racial stratification of society at every level. South African society continues to be entangled with racial classification and representation of colour through the skin of the body. Racial classification appears as fixed, solid, calcified. This is the case too in the performing arts, where the body’s representation as its marker of identity is central.

Does a focus on identity imply being drawn to the fossil, a returning to the past, to memory? Should we, in the artistic and academic space instead turn our concern to the monstrous? What would it mean to immerse ourselves in the monstrous? To engage in the genesis of difference. Is that the task of the academic space and artistic research, to go into the unknown, the monstrousness of it all? This task asks us to deal with everything at the limits, all liminal figures. It implies thinking outside category, outside all categories. Or, does the monstrous stand for an obsession with the grotesque, with extreme identities, with markers of difference? Monstrous identities? To what extent does our tendency to exhibit the monster answer to the way in which the colonial script exhibited its others? By conflating the fossil and the monster in performance, are we assuming this inextricable link?

To what extent does performance in South Africa continue to play out the figures of monster and fossil? To what extent do performances continue to bind the factual and marvellous, which was, as Mbembe (2017) points out, part of the European knowledge/scientific tradition? To what extent does the seeking of extreme identities, the representation of margin as either freak or unrecoverable past affirm monster and fossil as fixed categories? Can monsters and fossils be redeemed?


  1. Cvejic, B. 2015. Choreographing problems. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.
  2. Foucault, M. 1970. The Order of Things. Frome and London: Tavistock Publications.
  3. Mbembe, A. 2017. Critique of Black Reason. Johannesburg: Wits University Press.

Author Bios
Peer Reviews
Launch Project