There are few South African landscape photographers who break new ground. Brent Meistre, a Rhodes University lecturer and photographer who has won Port Elizabeth’s Nelson Mandela Metropolitan Art Museum’s first Biennale Award, presents a tangential vision of his turf – the Eastern Province. Meistre continues to develop the body of work documenting his reaction to the effects which history has on landscape, what he calls “the traces of collective memory”. These manifest through artefacts he finds in landscape.
Meistre began documenting found detritus in and on roads when he was a Masters student. His first exhibition, Rode, opened in Cape Town in 2000 at the Cold Room Gallery: the subject matter was skid marks, white route markers, road kill and other artefacts found on tarred roads. He later exhibited new work at the NSA Gallery, in Durban; it was the first segment of a trilogy and documented incidences at the boundaries of the road. He called this exhibition Sans: Desire for a Beginning/Dread of One single End. The images, framed in a heavy dark wood, depicted tombstones, cracked floor tiles and derelict chimneys and fireplaces – long-gone traces of human habitation. It also contained references to migrant labour, mass graves and the Holocaust.The term “sans”, derived from Latin and French, encompasses the notion of “without”. Meistre’s subject matter is “without” history – anonymous and mute. He believes that the South African landscape is witness to countless events in the past which may have been the scene of human drama, loss and migration. The artefacts found in it are the inchoate sole testament to these events, and Meistre acts only as an interlocutor. Meistre has used darkroom techniques to blur photographic detail, reinforcing the sense that things are in the process of decay. This communicates a sense that things are being “obscured” not only by the photographic process but also by the erosion of time.The current exhibition, titled Sans: A Stranger Who Came in With a Book in the Crook of His Arm, is the second part of the developing trilogy. The complete trilogy will document what he regards as a painful social and cultural journey through the processes of local history, as revealed by detritus and artefacts.Meistre records the stranger’s fictional journey using images which feature artefacts like distorted paper plates, broken columns, rolls of discarded barbed wire and an arrangement of animal bones threaded through a fence. An underground tank opening behaves as a “wound” when viewed in situ. The images, which are positioned against black backgrounds, are arranged in a regular format, which suggests archaeological or scientific data. Some of the new material was gathered from northern South Africa. “In these images are residues of the scorched earth and cross-border raids where families and communities had to leave,” says Meistre, whose images describe “processes of loss, disposition, removal, migration and eviction from the landscape: violence and turmoil are implied. Many of the roads here are blocked or fenced off … Boundaries, borders and landmarks have shifted or disappeared with the tide of history. All that is left is ruins and memory.”Meistre says he has become profoundly aware of his place in South African history and culture, and how his own emotional geography, in the framework of family and society, is positioned within these parameters. His exhibition is accompanied by three short video presentations, which take the form of stop-frame animation sequences. In one, a human body, face down, propels itself through a series of climactic events in the landscape. At one point the body hovers, spread-eagled on the nexus of two roads, and then vanishes into the interstice, swallowed by the landscape. The accompanying repetitive Japanese harp riff is dirge-like, eerie and dislocating.Themes of institutionalised violence are implicit in Meistre’s installation, which consists two iron beds typical of those found in prisons and compounds used to house migrant labourers. Speakers, which play digitally manipulated music, are positioned like heads at the top end of these beds – the beds have no mattresses, a grey and white striped blanket folded at their foot. (Meistre’s installation uses the same blankets worn in Xhosa initiation rituals.)Perhaps the strangest dichotomy is the sense of displaced familiarity of Meistre’s images. He pairs images or uses groups of four images to investigate issues surrounding family structure. So, for instance, four used paper plates, twisted and folded, morph into heads in a lunarscape with prosaic connotations relating to family braai rituals. In another, a workman’s construction glove takes on implications of protection and masculinity, as a contrast against the slender lines of a woman’s wrist glove, while a Sanseveria (or Mother-in-law’s tongue) plant is paired with the phallic image of a truncated cow’s tongue.Composition is used tactically. Circular motifs like condoms, bottle-tops and rolled up wire are framed by the austere and repetitive format, which forms a controlling scaffold. This reinforces the forensic and documentary aspect of Meistre’s work, allowing him to balance aesthetic control against the wrenching tenor of his subject matter. This aesthetic discourse on nature morte in landscape situates Meistre’s images in the tenuous territory where the image is recognised, intact and abstract, but not fully understood by the viewer. Interpretation is open-ended.Commenting on his ongoing interest in “the possibilities of single and multiple images as cinematic,” Meistre also highlights how images presented in this way play with the veiling of meanings and narrative. “Much of the photography deals with associations and mnemonic layers that I believe are particularly evocative to facets of the South African psyche,” he says. “The works are positioned within particular timeframes and frameworks evoking melancholia, loss and longing.”Conceptually, Meistre manipulates the material physically and intellectually to create a psycho-social investigation into the underbelly of South African history. He believes that the artefacts in his images can be read as wounds or trauma in landscape – in the Derridean sense – the material offered posing questions about incidents in history that may never be resolved. Meistre places his “history paintings” somewhere between allegory and archival material, recording the absence of vanished presences.