Writing Art History Since 2002

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David Lurie’s recent photographs of Table Mountain provide a way of looking at it that is neither spectacular nor merely ordinary or artlessly banal, writes Ashraf Jamal

“So steady is [Goldblatt’s] gaze that … objects … surfaces, are revealed not only in the poverty of their design, but an entire culture starts dissolving, is reduced to a basic, seemingly primordial nakedness, to the vacancy inherent in such things.”Stephen Watson, “A Version of Melancholy”, in ADA Issue #8 (Cape Town: 1990)In his most recent novel, Slow Man, JM Coetzee echoes poet Stephen Watson’s ‘primordial’ reading of David Goldblatt’s photography. The central character of Coetzee’s novel, Paul Rayment, reflects: “The camera, with its power of taking in light and turning it into substance, has always seemed to him more a metaphysical than a mechanical device…. As the ghostly image emerged beneath the surface of the liquid, as veins of darkness on the paper began to knit together and grow visible, he would sometimes experience a little shiver of ecstasy, as though he were present at the day of creation.

“That was why, later on, he began to lose interest in photography: first when colour took over, then when it became plain that the old magic of light-sensitive emulsions was waning, that to the rising generation the enchantment lay in a techne of images without substance, images that could flash through the ether without residing anywhere, that could be sucked into a machine and emerge from it doctored, untrue.”

What is striking about this passage is its remove from David Lurie’s position. Nostalgically, Coetzee’s protagonist hankers after a metaphysical ideal where the ecstatic moment of apprehension becomes akin to ‘the day of creation’. This primordial day is perceived by the protagonist of Slow Man to be tragically usurped by the ‘enchantment’ of the simulacral, that is, the banal enchantment of the postmodern in which the copy becomes the thing-in-itself without reference to an original work.

Hence Coetzee’s disenchanted gibe against “a techne of images without substance”. What Coetzee’s protagonist fails to reflect upon, however, is the existence of another order of photography which manages to grasp mortality without fixing it or rendering it disposable and inauthentic. It is this in-between order, an order that owes its allegiance neither to the essential nor to the glibly faked and disposable, which Lurie grasps, and which, in the grasping, neither fetishistically cherishes nor casually and voyeuristically passes by.Rather, Lurie’s photography captures the shadow between the metaphysical and the simulacral. It is this shadow that makes Lurie’s photography a visual membrane that links and parses the human and the inhuman. Such an ethical strategy allows Lurie to quicken thought and engender feeling without — in any given instant — letting these effects settle and fix or dispel a given moment.

This is an edited extract of Ashraf Jamal’s essay in Images of Table Mountain by David Lurie (Bell-Roberts Publishing, 2006) ISBN 0-620-36045-3

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