Writing Art History Since 2002

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Michaelis Gallery Cape Town

South Africa ranks third on the global serial killer list; the other two top-ranked countries are Russia and the United States. This statistic lends William Scarbrough’s new exhibition, Reclamation, special prominence because he deals with the case of Wayne B. Williams, the reputed killer of 63 children and young adults in Atlanta, Georgia. All of his victims were black. Why has Scarbrough focused on this dark side of human nature and why does he believe that it is exhibition material? These are complex questions, and it is a particular strength of his exhibition that complexity is not dissolved into easy answers.Scarborough uses the physical space intelligently. The first room acts as a long, uncluttered preview theatre. A large plasma screen plays dissembling footage of District Attorneys and testimony concerning Robert Lee Hutchins. If one lingers in this ante chamber of Scarbrough’s ‘data sphere’, one will hear that Hutchins was driving the car on the night of October 9, 1980 with, most likely, the body of Charles Stephens on the back seat, covered by a blanket. Linger longer, and one will hear that his body was later found in a river.The next room displays a computer, a mouse and a screen. The splash page of Scarbrough’s Reclamation website (www.williamscarbrough.com) explains that as a young boy he remembers watching the murders unfold on the news. Sixty-three murders in little more than three years. The broadcast media went berserk. Williams was tried and convicted of 24 of these child murders and remains incarcerated. Scarbrough doesn’t think that Williams received a fair trial. Remember the first screen? An eyewitness put Hutchins in possession of a dead body and yet it was Williams who took the rap. Scarbrough also presents us with evidence of a further 24 child murders committed after Williams was locked up.Alongside this interactive computer terminal are rows of colour prints. These show scenes of Williams’ bedroom after it had been searched by the FBI. Incredibly, Scarbrough discovered these in a box in a shed outside Williams’ parents new home after they moved away from Atlanta; Williams senior took the photographs out of morbid curiosity at the ferocity of the FBI search.So did Williams murder several black children and dispose of their bodies in Atlanta rivers? Scarbrough says yes. The body of Patrick Baltazar was the first to reveal unique fibres – found on subsequent victims, in vehicles owned by the Williams family, and in Wayne William’s bedroom. A significant portion of the exhibition arena is given over to large colour re-enactments of these fibres. His website gives background detail on how these fibres were ‘better’ than fingerprints at putting Williams at the scene of the crime. Absorbing as this information is, it is the prints that claim the visitor’s attention. In looking at these sumptuous, other worldly digital prints, one stands at the edge of an abyss. They are open enough to fall into. Scarbrough’s prints probe deep inside the arcane world of probable cause and circumstantial evidence, but are also intensely beautiful.The minutia of the evidence and Scarbrough’s own forensic footwork are clearly laid out in the exhibition. One simply has to find them and for this a close reading of the exhibition is called for. I will not repeat his arguments here save to say that Scarbrough revisited all of the people involved in the trial process, and matched this up with interviews with police agents, and members of the Williams family (including Wayne himself). This ‘reclamation’ is tested in the context of the exhibition, in the manner of its installation and in the re-presentation of video clips through a live, audience-sensitive data transmission.It is here that we discover the truth of the exhibition, or, if you like, the point of the exhibition. Scarbrough is not running for a retrial, he is making a comment on the way the media ‘trains’ its public. Over-sized, maxed out if you like, are the reporters who made the investigation and trial into an item of leisuretainment. Scarbrough doesn’t exempt himself from this media frenzy, but he does see his ‘way of doing things’ as a first stab at reclamation.[

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