Brent Meistre's first major photographic show, 'RODE', was completed at the end of 1999. First seen by a small number of people in Grahamstown, it became, the following year, the opening show in a new gallery in Cape Town called the Coldroom.
What Meistre set out to do with this show was collect evidence. For close on two years he travelled the roads of South Africa, collecting images of roadside detritus, often embedded in the tar of the road itself: bottle caps, cans of beer and cooldrink, condoms, old discarded shoes (always alone, forlorn and without their counterpart). These all gave themselves to his camera, but remained in their hot sticky graves of tar.
Meistre's affinity with the discarded, the crushed and the broken, the melancholic flotsam of our throwaway society, is very close in spirit to the work of the great American collector/artist, Candy Jernigan.
Jernigan lived in New York City, and died of cancer at the age of 39, in 1991. During her short life, she collected an astonishing array of what she termed 'evidence'. On her travels it was 'any and all physical 'proof' that I had been there: ticket stubs, postcards, restaurant receipts, airplane bus and railroad ephemera...food smears, hotel keys, found litter, local news, pop tops, rocks, weather notations, leaves, bags of dirt...'. Around New York, she would collect evidence in a manner reminiscent of a 'forensic pathologist': cigar butts, crack vials, half-smoked joints. A sense of the collective unconscious of the streets emerges from this.
When it comes to digging into the unconscious, things get tricky, and with the collective unconscious, perhaps more so. How would Jernigan have extricated the forensic evidence from the hot melted tar of the little roads that traverse this land in which we live? It could only be done with a camera, stealing a little piece of the essence of each thing found.
At times, Meistre's work hints, even, at something that lives beneath the road, squirming and contorting for release. His series of enormous bulges and mounds in the tar of the narrow little R350 from Grahamstown to Bedford could be taken as the visual equivalent of a Seamus Heaney poem - the collective agony of the history of a people embedded under layers of, in Heaney and Ireland's case, peat bogs, in our case, melted, broken tar, futile in its attempts to survive the weight of history which assault it: the heavy trucks, relentless sun and berg winds.
Meistre often speaks of the weight of history. When I first saw his show, I had just finished reading Frontiers, the monumental work on the history of South Africa and the Eastern Cape by Noel Mostert. Walking through 'RODE' with this saga of the 19th Century Frontier Wars still battering my throbbing brain, Meistre's work assumed the presence of a monumental yet sublime statement on the South African collective unconscious, with all its heartbreak (the huge panel of innocent roadkill creatures intrigued viewers while causing them to turn away in sorrow), longing, loss and hidden personal histories.
I also recall how his series of dead-end roads, crumbling and isolated bits of the abandoned old N2 from Grahamstown to PE, with no horizon visible, recalled in my mind the notion of the Endless Horizon. This had driven the colonial expansion in North America, free from self-doubt (at the time, at least), but had been denied the British by the impenetrable barrier of the amaXhosa living in the Eastern Cape in the 19th Century.
The horizon was sealed, and the dark side of colonialism, with all its accompanying moral ambiguities, would ensure that hope and promise would be forever fleeting and transitory, both to the colonisers and the colonised. Thus was the horizon sealed until this barrier was removed by the (at first glance) self-imposed genocide of the Xhosa Cattle Killing, and by then, the 20th Century was about to come crowding in on any notion of limitless possibilities.
There is no arrival, only the journey, and this is one of the overriding themes of Meistre's work, both in 'RODE' and in his subsequent show, 'Sans'. (Dina Belluigi is more familiar with this body of work than I, and has written more capably of it than I could). Where there is a horizon present in his work, it shows itself in a panel of six images of impossibly long and straight roads, without end and without detour. No turnoffs, and no signs. This is where we go, is what Meistre seems to be saying.
Here, even, are the markers of our passage and our traces on the road itself: crumbling milestones and skid-marks. Gathered together in series, some comprising up to 100 individual images, the panels from 'RODE' are the photographic inheritors of the Surrealist obsession (which rose to a pitch in the boxes of Joseph Cornell) with collecting and classifying 'stuff' - stuff that was considered, by the casual observer, to be nothing but junk. Cornell was the first to make use of the specimen case used by the botanists and naturalists of the Enlightenment in their desire to understand and thereby claim ownership of the new world opening up to them.
The Surrealists, however, employed this modus operandi to understand and investigate the realm of the unconscious, both individual and collective, and it is in this light that I see much of Meistre's work: a meticulous cataloguing of the detritus of the collective unconscious of South Africa. Indeed, his most ambitious project, an ongoing one, Malaise, has seen him building up a vast archive of nearly 1000 images, evocative and dark, dealing with the beauty of the small things and non-moments that flit in and out of our peripheral vision in our day to day lives, the visual/sensual detritus of our own collective memories.
Nadine Gordimer once wrote: 'I couldn't sit down with someone and describe South Africa. It is virtually impossible. I think that everybody who writes, who paints, who composes music, who takes photographs is putting together a kind of composite picture. This is the goal of life, to grasp everything in its entirety; everybody knows it is impossible, so you do your own part, and that fits into a picture, a kind of jigsaw or map of the consciousness.'
Brent Meistre's photographic images embody this very notion. His modus operandi is an inspiration to any who wish to understand from where we have come, and where we could be going, and should be required viewing for those who would have us all driving off wildly into the sunset, singing patriotic soccer anthems and rugby songs.
'I have been developing varies bodies of photographic and video installation work simultaneously for the last five years. They are all large bodies of works dealing with multiple or sequential images that play with meaning, narrative and history.
'Throughout my different projects, I continue to investigate the possibilities of single and multiple images as cinematic and thereby play with the veiling of these meanings and narratives. Focusing on exhibiting bodies of work that are gallery or installation-based, much of the photographs deals with associations and mnemic layers that I believe are particularly evocative to facets of the South African psyche. The works are positioned within particular timeframes and frameworks evoking melancholia, loss and longing.
'I use the photographic and filmic to unravel and complicate the notion of the photograph being a document of historical fact, contra the medium's possibilities for suggesting the unsaid.'
'Of many artists working with memory and memorialisation in SA, Meistre produces a work which is one of the most subtle realisations of the subject.' Clive van den Berg in Business Day Art, December 2004, discussing There was Earth Inside Them, and They Dug DVD video projection, 2004
'Meistre still uses actual film and he never, ever photographs people in the course of his art. He wouldn't know where to begin, he says. And when I try to take a snapshot of him, I know exactly what he means. He behaves almost as if human beings have no business being in front of the camera. And it makes sense. If someone were to enter his images, if feels like it would fall apart. There are too many ghosts for there to be people.' Peter Machen in 'Salvaging the Whisper of Lost Things', exhibition review Weekend Witness, Saturday January 29, 2005
'Although the structures and layers that lie underneath and amidst Meistre's work are so complex and so laden with the weight of history, the images are intuitively accessible in much the same way that they were intuitively made. Stark and detached, they pull you in even as your subconscious tries to work out what it is that you are looking at, despite the fact that they utterly familiar.' Peter Machen in Salvaging the Whisper of Lost Things, exhibition review Weekend Witness, Sat, January 29, 2005
The post-modernists will see Meistre as a conduit for the sum of all thee historical and social forces that have made that thing called Meistre. But when he talks about the melancholic and the sense of darkness that lives in these pictures, there is the sense that he loves these things quite simply because they, and the sense of almost spiritual loss they invoke, are hauntingly beautiful. And every thing else comes after that. Peter Machen in Salvaging the Whisper of Lost Things, exhibition review Weekend Witness, Sat, January 29, 2005.
Meistre is completing Malaise, an archive of over 900 photographs he began in 2000, consisting of 300 triptychs. It is to be exhibited at the UCT (Waterfront Campus) School of Business from June 20 - 24, 2005 as part of the International Theoretical Psychology Conference.
He is also collaborating with sound artist Toni Olivier of SIS (Studio for Interactive Sound) on an interactive sound installation Sounds Crazy for the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown. He has also designed the'Sounds Crazy' exhibition and installation which will include works by Nathaniel Stern and Dutch group STEIM.
Meistre exhibited 'Sans: desire for a beginning/ dread of one single end' at the NSA Gallery in Durban in January 2005 and collaborated with Director of the Rhodes University Psychology Clinic, Jan Knoetze for the Malaise projective (non) tes t (interactive poster) for the Psychology Society of South Africa National Congress: 'Celebrating 10 Years of Democracy'.
He produced the DVD projection, There was Earth Inside Them and They Dug for the 2004 Brett Kebble Art Awards.
Meistre was a finalist in the Daimler Chrysler Award for Contemporary Photography held at Museum Africa in 2004.
He is making a documentary film on the now derelict Piet Retief's Children's Home in Riebeeck East with Jan Knoetze (Rhodes University Psychology Clinic Director). They are attempting to deconstruct the processes involved in identity-formation within the social structures of this kind of environment at a particular time in South African history. This project is wholly based on personal narratives and experiences within the structure of the orphanage.
And after that, 'Sans: desire for a beginning/dread of one single end' will travel.
Brent Meistre obtained a Masters of Fine Art Degree from Rhodes University and has worked as a photographic tutor at BACES Education College in London and an art theory tutor at Rhodes University. He currently heads the photographic section of the Fine Art Department at Rhodes University. He has won an ABSA l'Atelier Merit Award and was a finalist in the DaimlerChrysler Award for Contemporary Photography.
2000 'RODE' (solo show), Coldroom Gallery, Cape Town
2000 'Xoe! 2' (group show), School of Fine Art, Grahamstown
2001 'Reconstitution' (group show - collaborations with Dina Belluigi and Gerhard
Schoeman), School of Fine Art, Grahamstown
2001 'Class____' (solo show), Johan Carinus Art School, Grahamstown
2003 'Consol/Console' (group show), Johan Carinus Art School, Grahamstown
2003 DaimlerChrysler Award for Creative Photography finalists' exhibition, Museum Africa, Johannesburg
2003 Brett Kebble Art Awards Finalist exhibition
2004 Brett Kebble Art Awards Finalist exhibition
2004 'Sans: desire for a beginning/dread of one single end', School of Art, Rhodes University, Grahamstown
2005 'Malaise: a projective (non-test)', interactive poster for the official proceedings of the Psychology Society of Southern Africa Congress, Durban (collaboration with Jan Knoetze)
2005 'Sans: desire for a beginning/dread of one single end', NSA Gallery, Durban
SELECTED AWARDS & GRANTS:
1999 Raymond Pullen Fine Art Degree Scholarship
1999 Rhodes University Master's Degree Scholarship
1999 National Arts Council of South Africa Senior Visual Arts Bursary
1999 Agfa-Bayer Photographic Bursary
2000 Professional Photographers of South Africa Student of the Year Award
2001 ABSA l'Atelier Merit Award
2000 Finalist Brett Kebble Art Awards (photography and new media)
2003 Finalist DaimlerChrysler Award for Contemporary Photography
2004 Eastern Cape Provincial Arts and Culture Grant
2004 Finalist Brett Kebble Art Awards
SELECTED REVIEWS, ARTICLES & CATALOGUES:
Tim Hopwood, 'King of the Road', Daily Mail & Guardian, January 26, 2001
Lucinda Jolly, 'On the Road to Clear Horizons', Cape Argus, February 5, 2001
Gerhard Schoeman, Some notes on the life and death drives in Brent Meistre's 'Rode', catalogue
Dina Belluigi, Denoting Absence: Looking at Brent Meistre's exhibition 'sans: desire for a beginning/dread of one single end', exhibition catalogue
Dr. Michael Herbst, Facing Melancholia: a reader's introduction to Brent Meistre's 'sans: desire for a beginning/dread of one single end',exhibition catalogue
Chris Roper, 'Art Pick of the Week', Mail & Guardian, July 2, 2004
Gerhard Schoeman, 'Brent Meistre', Art South Africa, Vol. 3, Issue 01
Kathryn Smith, 'Straight from the Horse's Mouth', Business Day Art, December 2004
Sean O'Toole, 'Big Picture', Sunday Times Lifestyle, Jan 16, 2005
Peter Machen, 'Salvaging the Whispers of Lost Things', Weekend Witness, Jan 29, 2005
Camilla Cowley, 'Brent Meistre at NSA', www.artthrob.co.za, March 2005