Writing Art History Since 2002

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The photographic exhibition, Resolution: The Power of Innuendo, is an invitation to look and to see. It is presented in a very quiet way and provides a conversation in which the viewer may participate.

I have a friend who has five daughters. One of Jenna’s daughters was abused by her father when she was two, and both she and one of her sisters are now tik addicts – they both abuse their own children. A third daughter was gang-raped recently and is HIV positive; she also discovered that her 14-year-old daughter had been raped by the child’s grandfather and uncle over a period of a year. And so on. As my friend says: “My life is a living hell.” This is a single family in Cape Town, but the story is replicated endlessly, from household to household, from generation to generation.We have seen in the past, and we see in the present, some of the consequences of state-sponsored violence. We live now in an environment characterised by violence that is chronic, pervasive and apparently allowed to remain intact. These are the three conditions which Ignacio Martin-Baró, a social psychologist who studied the effects of violence in El Salvador before he was assassinated in 1989, identifies as bringing about a type of psychosocial trauma that affects entire communities, if not nations. It manifests in symptoms that characterise soldiers returning from war: acute fear, phobic behaviour, and, of course, aggression.[1]With the seeming permanence of a toxic environment comes what Martin-Baró calls the “normal abnormality” of violence, a state of being where people come to anticipate living with multiple forms of violence and get “used to” it. Jenna’s story, which I’ve just related, is not my story, but everyone living in South Africa has in some way, directly or indirectly, been affected by our context of violence. It is not always indifference that allows people to close their eyes to what is happening around them but, rather, a passive sense of self-preservation. This is akin to scotomisation. Skotos is the Greek word for “darkness”, scotomisation referring to “a psychosomatic blind spot that appears in vision where something is too threatening to be seen”.[2] A refusal to see is a refusal to act, a refusal to become an agent in anyone’s change, including one’s own.How does an artist or photographer deal with subjects such as violence, death and trauma? It has been argued that trauma as a subject resists representation in any visual form, a concept famously memorialised by Theodor Adorno who said that “to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric”. But, of course, journalistic photographers saturate the media on a daily basis with images of the shocking. “If it bleeds, it leads,” observed photojournalists Greg Marinovich and Joao Silva of the1990s visual news culture.[3] Barbie Zelizer, a specialist in journalistic images produced in times of crisis and war, argues that the overuse of visual representations of atrocity or associated images “may create a situation in which much of the public is content not to see – looking so as not to see, and remembering so as to forget”.[4] Likewise, Susan Sontag in Regarding the Pain of Others (2003) contemplates the role of photographs not only as a tool for understanding and remembrance, but also as a force for dismissal and forgetfulness.The photographic exhibition, Resolution: The Power of Innuendo, is an invitation to look and to see. It is presented in a very quiet way and provides a conversation in which the viewer may participate. The conversation has many threads. It touches on the ways in which reality is mediated and constructed, such as in press offices and on movie sets (Jurgen Schadeberg and Svea Josephy respectively). This is taken up and expressed elsewhere in the exhibition where scenarios have been set up by the photographer, such as in Charles Maggs’ The Guard (2009), in which there is complete ambiguity as to whether the subject is protector or perpetrator.In Vlakplaas: 2 June 1999 (drive-by shooting) (1999), Jo Ractliffe investigates the horrific behind the apparently normal and ordinary. Any visible evidence of the chilling history of Vlakplaas, a site where anti-apartheid activists were tortured and murdered, is absent. This work, which appropriates and subverts the styles and conventions of documentary photography, is a demonstration of how the photograph fails as an evidentiary document; there are no visual clues for us of what “actually happened”.Throughout, there are images about seeing and not seeing: in Pieter Hugo’s 2004 photograph of a Rwandan mural in which a woman’s eyes have been scratched out by Hutu militias and filled with clay; in Dale Edelman’s policeman who presents his back (what is he witnessing?); and in Brent Meistre’s photograph of the word “witness” next to a closed door. Similarly, Sabelo Mlangeni’s night workers are invisible women, utterly vulnerable on the deserted streets. We do not see them. What do they witness? What do they clear away before the light of day?It is in the apparently uninhabited and empty spaces that we sometimes have the strongest intimations of violence: in Adrienne van Eeden-Wharton’s City Playground #31 (2009); in the landscape seen through glassless windows by Guy Tillim; and in the stained red earth Pieter Hugo observed at the rest area on the road to Tshipise where a baobab tree has curious markers at its roots. The sense in these images is that these are sites of the aftermath, or even places for some kind of future violation. It is suggested, inferred, but never described.There is a pointer to the origin of much of the disturbance we see implied here. It is in the home, the so-called “safe haven” and refuge from the world. Both spheres are brought together in The Backyard Picture (2009): Robert Sloon totes a gun amongst his potted plants while holding a copy of the Daily Voice; its partially visible headline reads “Heavily pregnant […] gunned down”. The image paradoxically suggests both a trophy photo and vigilantism – even the survivalists’ combative glee in the face of total societal collapse.Jean Brundrit humorously attempts to make visible that which is not readily apparent in a home environment – concealed weapons – in her work, If my home went through airport security. Using the nineteenth century, pre-lens photographic process of the photogram, Brundrit mimics the effect of x-ray machines in airport security systems. The series links the private with global phenomena, dealing with such issues as personal security and international policing in the wake of 9/11. In our homes, the most vulnerable are often children and animals. Carol-Anne Gainer’s work, behind the fence (wallpaper sample) (2009), shows a number of images of an abandoned and severely emaciated dog. Cruelty is embedded in the very fabric of the home, in the wallpaper, which forms an almost invisible backdrop to daily living. According to the artist, the piece is, in part, a response to the Costa Rican artist Guillermo Vargas’ controversial work where he exhibited a starving street dog in a gallery. The action sparked an international signature petition against him and a call to ban his participation in the Centro Americana 2008 biennial in Honduras – Vargas pointed out that no one acted to feed or free the dog while it was on exhibition. Gainer’s work had a different intent, and also outcome: she rescued the dog, nursed her back to health, and even brought her to the opening of the exhibition.Resolution’s curator, Kirsty Cockerill, has paired documentary and art photography, a considerable challenge in itself, with a light touch. Notwithstanding the seriousness of the content, the viewer is guided by often-humorous visual connections and verbal word play: Maggs’ flaccid guard (bodyguard?) is paired with Melanie Cleary’s over-muscled body builder in Untitled (David/Bantamweight) (2009); Pieter Hugo’s barbershop sign sits alongside Dale Yudelman’s policeman with a comb tucked into his belt. The exhibition makes no overt call to action. Nonetheless, the title, while referring to the resolution of the photographic image – a physical attribute, which in music is the moment when dissonance turns to consonance, or in narrative where conflict is resolved – does suggest a firm decision to act, to have a firm purpose: the rejection of scotomisation.[BIO] Pam Warne is curator for photography and new media at Iziko South African National GalleryREFERENCES1. Alice McIntyre, ‘Constructing Meaning About Violence, School and Community: Participatory Action Research with Urban Youth’, in The Urban Review. Vol. 32(2), 2000, p.1252. Allen Feldman, ‘Violence and Vision: The Prosthetics and Aesthetics of Terror’, in Public Culture Vol. 10(1), Fall, 1997 3. Greg Marinovich and Joao Silva, The Bang-Bang Club (New York: Basic Books, 2000), p.414. Barbie Zelizer, Remembering to Forget: Holocaust Memory through the Camera’s Eye (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998), p.5, referenced from Kathryn Harakal’s unpublished thesis Haunted by Images: Photography as Witness and Evidence: Kosovo’s Missing Persons (2009)

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