Writing Art History Since 2002

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Eden Grove & Monument | Grahamstown

I visited Gregor Röhrig’s exhibition Project: Pictures for Life (Eden Grove) with some anticipation, as one of his photographs caught the attention of a colleague and I some time before the Grahamstown Festival. Entitled An Honest Picture, the photograph depicts a local Eastern Cape woman in her home; while to her right we see the image of the photographer taking the image, reflected in the woman’s dressing-table mirror.The photograph was interesting as it suggested a critical self-awareness on the photographer’s part — seemingly reflecting on his own activity of ‘taking’ an image, by including himself in it. The title of the photograph was irritating, smacking of sentimentality; and yet both my colleague and I contemplated the possibility that perhaps even here the photographer was being deliberately self-critical.What a pity then to see this apparently self-reflexive image completely eclipsed by the other photographs on display. Instead of enunciating self-reflexivity, Röhrig’s photographs display “a naively realist conception of representation”, to cite film curator and writer Philippe-Alain Michaud. Michaud’s problematising of critical theorist Sigfried Kracauer’s erasure of “any subjectivity from the image in favour of its objective content” also holds true of Röhrig’s photographs.For while they seem to denote self-critical subjectivity – or what Mieke Bal refers to as a “double exposure” – this is just an effect of aesthetic design, colouring, and composition. Röhrig’s attempt at “honestly” documenting his subjects, in their own environments, has reduced them to sentimental, picturesque objects. And whereas several contemporary photographers have engagingly re-mobilised documentary photography, Röhrig’s common-sensical photographs remain static.On the other hand, Brandhan Dickerson’s fire sculptures (Monument) are far from static; they appear Dionysian, constantly shifting and changing, turning in on themselves in a grand display of self-incineration. At first glance they evoke the cyclic, alchemical death and resurrection of Dionysus.Art critic Donald Kuspit speaks of “the true alchemical fire”, which, according to the alchemist Joachim Poleman, is no longer “on the surface … no longer external, but internal and incombustible”. This “fire within”, “active at the centre of each thing” has healing power, burning the invisible, spiritual maladies that ail us.And yet one hesitates to speak of an “alchemical fire” here when Dickerson’s fire sculptures, replete with repetitive drumming, appear so fully at home in the external superficialities of neo-Pagan rock concerts or pseudo-mystical trance parties.Gerhard Schoeman

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