'The Loaded Lens' at Goodman Gallery Cape
by Tavish McIntosh
Two images parenthesize the Goodman's first themed show 'The Loaded Lens'. David Goldblatt's Shop interior, Bay Fall Fashion, Fort Beaufort, Eastern Cape, showing a deserted shop, and Kathryn Smith's Twin diptych, an image of a doomed Hollywood starlet personified by the artist. They reveal two diverging trends in the photographic genre. Situated across the room from each other, they typify the contest between photograph as objective document and as subjective intervention. However conflicting these ideas of photography's role seem, 'The Loaded Lens' juxtapositions reveal their close interrelation. The title itself indicates how central this debate is to its curatorial premise.
In the show, documentary photographs like Goldblatt's accrue subjective meanings by virtue of their gallery setting, and subjective performances invoke 'the real' via their supposedly 'truthful' medium. The strong photographic tradition in South Africa reflects a time-honoured need to document our particular condition, to distinguish the real from the hype. The always already constructed nature of the photograph, and the framing and editing of the photographer, make this a strangely paradoxical desire, one that is thrown into sharp relief whenever photographers display work in the gallery context. Since digital manipulation has made the photograph's potential for construction so very patent, a certain disquiet has crept into its consumption. The various walkabouts at Goodman Gallery Cape demonstrated this unease, with viewers repeatedly taxing the artists about their use of photoshop in order to ascertain the photograph's 'reality'.
South Africa's rising star, Mikhael Subotzky, shows a diptych that most ably illustrates the tensions and paradoxes underlying the lens. Mr Roussouw (on couch), Beaufort West and Mr Roussouw (at desk), Beaufort West are deeply enmeshed in both the performative and the documentary, questioning the boundaries between the two. The images show the antiques dealer in his idiosyncratic shop that doubles as a town museum.
Subotzky's first image of Mr Roussouw at his desk recaptures the moment the photographer first saw the subject upon entering the shop where he looks up at the incomer, framed by his desk and a seductively posturing shop mannequin. The second image of Mr Roussouw on his couch is a photograph exercise of a different type, one where the subject is active in constructing his own portrait. It is this image which is the more arresting of the two, purely because of the subject's peculiar taste for drama and theatrics. Seated on the couch, Mr Roussow at his ease ignores the camera and lays his hand on the glossy locks of the bare breasted mannequin reclining in his lap. The camera picks up the glints and sparkles of an extravagant dinner service and the image is bathed in the warm glow of the interior lights. Alongside him, another shop mannequin stands, her truncated arms another disturbing detail in this elaborately staged tableau. Whether this is a sophisticated joke or the mapping of a misogynist's psychology is up for question, but the real crux of these images lies in their conflation of the real with the imaginary. They depict a real scenario that takes on aspects of performative theatrics, and their elusive meaning troubles the boundaries of both genres.
In the image from Kendell Geers' Plato's Cave series he enunciates our current detachment from 'the real', the manner in which the photographic lens, and indeed society itself, has interposed its own filter upon perception. We are no longer able to distinguish between the document of reality and reality itself. Geers' image is frankly mundane, showing a crushed Heineken bottle top against a dark backdrop. The image is centralised and allows nothing beside this object to obtrude. Geers' photograph is, of course, valued far higher than that crushed bottle-top would ever be, and his photograph highlights the complex relationship between the hype of consumer culture and the undervalued 'real'. In this case, the lens has loaded the object with an unsuspected value.
A different aspect of the lens' relationship with representation emerges in the interrelation between the photograph and text, which Sue Williamson, Shirin Neshat and Isaac Julien investigate. Text is a powerfully direct communicator, which forces viewers to internalize and mentally regurgitate the message. Isaac Julien's Love is an in-your-face exclamation. An aggressive fist is shoved at the viewer with gold rings spelling l-o-v-e on each finger. Julien's photograph shows an incongruous combination of aggressive, macho display and vulnerable quest for love. The combination is arresting, showing a crucial contradiction between textual and body language.
Shirin Neshat's haunting image from her Turbulent series shows her dressed in the traditional chador veil, with Arabic script superimposed onto her face. Neshat deliberately alienates her western audience by not providing a translation for the words. Distanced from the traditions that impose chador on women, we are also unable to communicate with the artist, a critic of this practice. Neshat doubly alienates herself from us.
Sue Williamson's What about El Max? is suspiciously akin to the 'shack chic' photographic genre that decorates coffee tables across the country. Her series of photographs were shot just outside Cairo in the small fishing community of El Max and show vistas of this now threatened community. Williamson reveals her perspicacious handling of the potentially exoticising lens by working explicitly from the outsider's perspective. The images are thus a provocative glimpse of another world, simultaneously exposing the dynamics of the outsider. Ostensibly the work documents a project to protect this community from forced removal. Williamson decided to exploit the power of graffiti to create awareness of their plight and coalesce the community. Her images document their poetic and evocative statements of place painted onto the decrepit homes of these fisherfolk. The statements are painted in English, Arabic and phonetic Arabic. With this, they are able to reach a wider audience of tourists passing through the suburb and even us art aficionados in South Africa. But the juxtaposition of the different languages exposes a process of translation, a critical disjuncture between Williamson and her subjects. Williamson also demonstrates the disquieting distance between subject and object that characterizes the camera's products.
'The Loaded Lens' is remarkable not only for its sheer scale and bravura, but also for its disquieting cumulative narrative that consummately documents the tensions underlying photography. With a wealth of renowned international stars in the line-up, 'The Loaded Lens' shows the complex interrelation between international trends and their South African counterparts. Photography in South Africa gains its significance from the important role it played in documenting our history, and documentary remains a central genre. Without the clear-cut agenda of the struggle, the fantasy space produced by photography has become increasingly complex. The show oscillates between the documentation of the real and the play with illusion, revealing the uneasy tension that underlies these printed reflections of the world.
Opens: June 30
Closes: July 21
Goodman Gallery Cape
3rd Floor Fairweather House, 176 Sir Lowry Road, Woodstock
Tel: (021) 462 7573
Fax: (021) 462 7579
Hours: Tue - Fri 9.30am - 5.30pm, Sat 10am - 4pm