Identity Parade: Monique Pelser at Bell-Roberts
by Tavish McIntosh
Coming across Monique Pelser's exhibition unexpectedly, one could easily judge the work uninteresting in the extreme. Scores of portrait photographs, all equal in height and size, line the rooms at Bell-Roberts. The lighting is generally even and unobtrusive. The subject is equally mundane: this is a series of full-length portraits of 'the man in the street', or perhaps more accurately the man off the street, as these are all 'gainfully employed' individuals. Each image is accompanied by an unobtrusive label detailing the subject's occupation.
These are the 'types' identified by August Sander in his collection of photographs People of the Twentieth Century. Sander spent many years photographing the people of the Weimar Republic and then later the Third Reich. The photographs were intended as a comprehensive index of the German population, classified into seven groups by social 'type': including the Farmer; the Skilled Tradesman; the Woman; Classes and Professions; the Artists; the City, and the Last People. Pelser's exhibition updates this project into 21st century South Africa and her subjects range from the Butcher and Undertaker to the Cameraman and Librarian.
The twist in Pelser's engagement with Sander's project is her physical appropriation of these roles. She literally embodies the characters she encounters, persuading them to allow her into their environments and into their clothes. They in turn wield the camera, turning the traditional power-play between artist and subject on its head. In form it echoes those ubiquitous 'A day in the life of... ' titles. Perhaps more importantly it deflects our gaze from the objective examination of prototypical 'types' onto the artist. Classification becomes complicated. Pelser acts as a surrogate for the viewer, taking on all the accoutrements of the subject and inhabiting their environment.
Whilst Sander's collection of photographs People of the Twentieth Century unequivocally advocated the importance of documentary photography by way of its objectivity, Pelser's incarnation of her characters is a subjective interpretation of their personalities and environments. The tension of the work arises from our desire to index her performance against 'the real'. We desperately seek clues in the photographs for the absented subjects: Were they bigger or smaller than the artist? Was the subject male or female? Black or white? Old or young? Where can we pick up these physical markers of identity? Inevitably this search also reveals something of how we categorize 'types'.
And after seeking out some way to index Pelser against the 'real' it comes as a shock to compare Pelser with the ID tag she wears as the Airline Customer Service Agent, or to notice her quizzical look as she bulges out of the Shoe Salesman's white pants. Pelser subsumes her personality into the role and doesn't resort to ostentatious imitation. There is none of the hyperbole that usually accompanies drag performance or masquerade. And it is this that sets Pelser's project apart from the usual avant-garde performances that rely upon the self-consciousness of the performer.
Without any exaggerated mimicry, Pelser maintains the integrity of her original. Even when she becomes the muscled, macho Highstar Forklift Driver, she incarnates this role. The integrity of her incarnations, which results from an intensive interaction with the subject, add an element of the uncanny to the photographs. It is unsettling to see the artist slip so easily and inconspicuously into the various roles.
Each character in Pelser's set has different methods of self-construction vis-à-vis the camera. The squared up shoulders of the Bicycle Mechanic, the beatifically smiling Hair Washer and the stupefied gaze of the Mechanic each expresses a different relationship to the spectatorship implied by the camera. In a sense, Pelser is herself questioning the power of the camera to produce a reality.
Where initially the 'types' represented operate as a point of entry into the work, it is only through considering the artist as surrogate for the gaze that we come to the crux of the exhibition. Documentary photography's implicit ability to index reality is actually fragile and Pelser revels in divulging its illusory nature. Only in seeking out the reiteration of Pelser's features throughout the series is the viewer able to secure the image of the other. Whilst it appears that Pelser is able to lose herself in her given role, accumulatively the photographs wield the power to engage the mechanisms of identity formation. (One might quibble that more editorial license should have been exercised - I doubt that all 42 images are necessary for her to show the breadth of the project.) Pelser's ubiquitous insistence on setting her characters within their commonplace working environments demonstrates an important facet of identity: its very real grip on the minds and bodies that perform it daily. Circumstance plays a vital role in producing individuals.
Opened: May 30
Closes: June 23
89 Bree Street, Cape Town
Tel: (021) 422 1100
Fax: (021) 423 3135
Hours: Mon - Fri 8.30am - 5.30pm, Sat 10am - 2pm