Iziko South African National Gallery| Cape Town
Nomasabto’s room, Jeanwell House, Nugget Street, 2004, archival pigment ink on cotton rag paper Guy Tillim’s DaimlerChrysler exhibition represents a significant departure from the work with which he won the award. He has returned from the war zones of Africa to work in South Africa for the first time in many years, and he has abandoned the jungles and battlefields of the continent for the concrete jungle of the Johannesburg suburb of Hillbrow. But if Tillim’s new work is unfamiliar in terms of subject matter, it is surely recognizable in terms of that extraordinary combination of visual poetry and deep ethical concern that characterises so much of his work.Coming from Africa’s war zones, where conflict is simultaneously a deadly struggle for survival, on a personal level, and an acting-out of historical and geopolitical imperatives, Tillim saw the urgency of looking at South Africa’s prime flatland in a similar layered manner. In these new photographs, Tillim is concerned, on one level, to record the daily experience of people living in the concrete wasteland; on another, he obviously wants to understand why apartment buildings and entire city blocks are patently not functioning. Thus onscreen, as it were, there are the residents, many of whom are quite willing to pay fair rents in exchange for decent accommodation, but who are now struggling to cope in degraded apartments from which essential services have been withdrawn; and off-screen are the absentee landlords, the managers, the developers, the city planners and municipal health officials who all, in one way or another, impact on the lives of these tenants. Martha Rosler complains of the documentary project that all too often it contrives to provide information that the spectator already knows, that it reinforces the stereotypes by which we guide our lives, and that, for the most part, it simply confirms the otherness of people who we suppose to be different from ourselves. The remarkable thing about Tillim’s photographs is that he works in places that we think we know and he brings back images that, far from confirming general prejudices, are truly and wonderfully surprising. It is not that Tillim sets out to shake up preconceptions: rather it seems that, in lacking them himself, he is incapable of reproducing them. On one level, therefore, Tillim’s work seems fuelled by a sense of moral outrage that such conditions can exist – in the South African struggle, in postcolonial wars, and in a degraded and exploitative city environment. But, on another, Tillim seems always concerned to communicate the essential humanity of people who are caught up in these situations. Put another way, the horror of these situations depends not simply on their objective description but also on the photographer’s ability to have his spectator empathise with their human subjects.Tillim’s Johannesburg photographs differ from most of his African pictures in that they are in colour. Of his earlier work, only the Kunhinga series is in colour and, like these, Tillim’s new work suggests an unusual immediacy of experience. Tillim talks in terms of capturing the quality of light in stairwells and courtyards but these photographs also document the dirt and grime of neglected communal spaces. The medium of colour, albeit both muted and somewhat manipulated in the digital printing on cotton paper, appears more direct than Tillim’s black and white transcription of reality and somehow less capable of carrying the metaphorical significance he attributes to much of his African work. But it is important to acknowledge that Tillim’s chosen method of communication is visual. Thus, while death and decay are the standard fare of news reporting in both word and image, Tillim’s transformation of this material into moral statements or expressions of the human spirit depends entirely on how he has composed his photographs. There is obviously in Tillim’s work some sense of Cartier-Bresson’s “decisive moment”, that moment when all the elements of the composition seem to gel into an inevitable expression – and, of all photographers, perhaps only Cartier-Bresson was able to capture that sense of wonder that informs so many of Tillim’s images. But Tillim’s work is more relentlessly focused on the idea of force and its fall-out, on the one hand, and the survival of the human spirit, on the other. Thus at one moment he seems to challenge the very causes of war and of poverty; and at another he seems to invest a trick of the light with the significance of a spiritual apparition. In discussions of Tillim’s work words like poetry, even magic are frequently mentioned.Tillim’s work is exhibited in an art gallery as one of the conditions of the award; and his work certainly rewards the considered viewing that such exposure affords. But it has to be said that, to be effective as Tillim undoubtedly intends, his photographs require the addition of fuller verbal explication. The subject of urban decay is obviously complex and proper understanding requires more specific explanation than is provided in these images and their captions. Hopefully Tillim will assist his viewer – and simultaneously his project – when he publishes these marvellous images in book form.