07.07.2016 – 29.07.2016
22 September 1979, off the coast of Bouvet Island, the world’s most remote island between the coasts of South Africa and Antarctica, a double flash indicating a nuclear explosion is detected by US satellite Vela 6911. Over three decades later and following a series of investigations by various agencies the exact details of what happened are unknown but the prime suspect remains a South African/Israeli nuclear test.
The documents from the investigation into this incident remain heavily redacted and it’s this redaction, the withholding of knowledge by those who wish to hide it from those who wish to know, that provides the departure point for Vincent Bezuidenhout’s exhibition ‘Fail Deadly’.
The show is a deceptively stripped down, conceptually sound investigation into questions around the power dynamics of information control and the limitations of photographic representation of historical events. There are certain things that are possible to deduce from the redacted documentation including the physical aspects of the satellite responsible for capturing the explosion, which is faithfully reproduced in a wood and Perspex replica in collaboration with Chad Rossouw. There is also the redacted documentation itself, sitting on a plinth as a ghostly artifact of an all too quickly forgotten era of panic and uncertainty whose redactions speak far more chillingly than its contents ever will. When so much is removed the conclusion can only be that what lies under the imperious black blocks must be more terrible than it actually might prove.
The same uneasiness is created in photographic prints with titles such as Hole Punch #1 in which sections have been covered by black blocks, casting conspiratorial shadows on seemingly innocuous bush landscapes. Much of the work reflects on the ways in which obvious absences reinforce the presence of what is not shown rather than what is. If the Holy Grail is access to previously classified information the sad truth is that this is restricted access and that in its revelation that selective information only serves as yet another victory for those who control it. The victory is Pyrrhic, the task Sisyphean.
Even in the post Cold War era there is a fear that envelops all things nuclear arms related and while the word is now once more on the lips of South Africans in relation to the generation of energy, it retains its other connotations because of its history and the hold it had over almost every aspect of life in the last half of the twentieth century. A work like Black Landscape #1, #2, #3, #4 reinforces both aspects of this paranoiac hangover – nothing can be shown, everything may be obliterated.
However there’s a tasty irony in that by examining the absence of the official record, Bezuidenhout only piques interest in the incident and brings it back into the light without resorting to proselyting to viewers about the importance of questioning official explanations and the injustices of censorship.
In an interview conducted by the gallery Bezuidenhout asserts his belief that all art is political and “With increasing inequality, censorship and in fact a ‘war on the truth’ both here and abroad, it is more important than ever for cultural institutions to be brave through strengthening their support for the arts which in many ways have become the last place to speak the truth.”
Not being permitted to know is the reason you should, whether it’s information about the apartheid regime’s nuclear program or images of service delivery protests against the democratic government.
The more one takes in the work with regard to its historical contextualization, the more broader ideas percolate and bubble to the surface of consciousness. While there are serious questions about knowledge and power that are revealed, Bezuidenhout is not above having a lighter moment, giving a knowing wink, cracking a smile – as in An Interview with Mungo Poore, the reproduction of a photograph of the Nationalists arsenal that namechecks the man who took the shot. A workaday technical photographer uplifted to status of an artwork.
Like the so-called evidence that forms its basis ‘Fail Deadly’ with its small but carefully curated selection of pieces raises more questions than it answers but that in itself is part of its appeal and intellectual reward. It provides an elegant demonstration of the cliché that sometimes less is more, more or less. It doesn’t tell you what happened in the middle of the ocean at the edge of the world in September 1979 but it certainly shows you that something did. Something still important enough that it’s on a need-to-know basis and according to someone, no one needs to know.