There is an interesting thread that runs through Jo Ractliffe and Simon Gush’s exhibitions at Michael Stevenson this month. Both are marked by a certain reticence, a kind of tacit but strategic under-statement that is suggestive rather than explicit. In each there is an interrogation of how it is that one engages or speaks politically. Ractliffe shows a comprehensive body of photographic work from her recent travels in Angola, while Gush exhibits a single four-screen video installation.
‘As Terras do Fim do Mundo’ (The Lands of the End of the World) is the second body of work to come out of Jo Ractliffe’s pre-occupation with war in Angola, which began with her discovery of Ryszard Kapuscinski’s book ‘Another Day of Life’ (1988), a recollection of events that occurred in Angola leading up to independence in 1975. In it Kapuscinski describes how people fleeing the capital in panic, abandoned their pets, leaving behind a roaming pack of dogs that eventually disappeared mysteriously. Curious about their disappearance, Ractliffe set out with the improbable task of finding them three decades later, travelling to a country only five years out of a brutal civil war. The result of this first expedition, ‘Terreno Ocupado’ (2007) is an exploration of the “social and spatial demographics” of post-independence Luanda. It forms the backdrop to ‘As Terras do Fim do Mundo’ in which Ractliffe’s focus shifts from the urban to the interior, ‘the actual space of war’ – Angola’s vast hinterland that barely registers in comparison, but which saw the extended drama of South Africa’s Border War fought upon its soil throughout the 1970’s and 80’s.
In an attempt to pierce the mysterious veil that shrouds this place, known only in the South African imaginary as ‘the border’, Ractliffe has, over the last two years, been tracing the routes of the SADF in the company of ex-soldiers returning to sites at which they previously did battle. In so doing she has sought to explore the manifestations of war, both physical and psychological in the landscape of the present. It is the word ‘trace’ that is important here. To take a photograph is inherently to make a trace of reality, but in Ractliffe’s work the process of tracing is at once a geographic configuring of space as well as an act of memory. It is an effort to locate space in time, time within space.
Ractliffe writes of how the remnants of war are palpably visible throughout the country in the litter of abandoned military vehicles, bombed buildings, damaged roads and destroyed bridges. Yet, these barely figure in her black and white images. Instead she focusses on the physical features of the land itself; barren fields which were once military training grounds, snaking furrows and mysterious holes that open into the earth – the remains of the Namibe Base bunker system. Three consecutive images showing forest scrub are just that, except for the knowledge that this forest is strewn with landmines. Although it is not known exactly how many were employed/discarded in Angola, it is one of the most heavily mined countries in the world, and some estimates are as high as twenty million.
The photographs of memorials erected in the wake of this devastation (explicit and latent) are similarly unforthcoming. Strange tableaus and assemblages; a tyre and a stick with a ragged strip of flag balanced on a small mound are juxtaposed with more formal commemorative sites. Two corresponding images show large flat rectangles of concrete inscribed with text, faintly legible, surrounded by bush. These are the mass graves of 624 people killed at the small town of Cassinga in a pre-emptive strike by the SADF. (The texts read “Massacre at Cassinga 4 May 1978” and ”We Will Always Remember Them”). Other photographs simply show roads demarcated by pebbles, woodland, cornfields, burnt trees. As a result of thirty years of continued warfare vast areas of Angola’s interior lie silent and deserted. Most of the natural wildlife has been annihilated, and the ever-present threat of mines has driven the majority of people to the safety of urban areas. It is a telling absence made all the more explicit by the very obvious presence of those remnants left behind.
Like the ex-soldiers who Ractliffe describes, struggling to find their bearings as they travel through a landscape previously familiar, what we experience when viewing these images is a sense of “the resistance of things, their refusal to deliver into this moment.” In many respects they are hardly recognisable as images of the aftermath of war. There are no portraits of people who have suffered debilitating injuries, few damaged or demolished structures or other obvious visible scars. In traditional documentary photography the photograph is very often spoken of as something that ‘bears testimony’ or acts as ‘witness’. As a truthful conveyor of facts, it is implied that there is a visibility of meaning which it is able to bring about through a process of self-narration. Ractliffe’s photographs demure, convey the trauma of war in a different way. One of the primary features of traumatic experiences is that they disrupt the capacity of the individual to narrate effectively. Traumatic events refuse to be consigned to the past, keep re-appearing in the present outside of a cohesive memory narrative. What becomes apparent in Ractliffe’s images is how, in landscapes (traumascapes) like these, past and present are not separable from one another – physically and psychologically they occupy the same space. Thus, rather than taking representation as fact, what these images evoke is the other of representation, a kind of speechlessness, a lack of meaning, resulting from the inability to narrate effectively and thereby consign the past to memory. It is this that gives these images an unmistakable felt quality beyond their documentary surface.
For Simon Gush the idea of “not approaching things directly” is an important strategy in relation to the complexities of political statement. Rather than make direct reference he relies on allusion and poetic device as a means of communication. In ‘4 for Four: A speculative montage for David Oistrakh and Sergei Prokofiev’, Gush presents the notion of speculative montage as “an open-ended response to (Sergei) Eisenstein’s use of montage as a political tool.” For Eisenstein montage presented the opportunity for new ideas and meanings to arise from the combination of opposing or unrelated images.
‘4 for Four’ is, as per the galleries’ press release, “a musical and visual composition with four storylines that are both independent and interrelated.” The work takes as its starting point the relationship between the prolific composer Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953) and his friend and colleague the Russian virtuoso violinist David Oistrakh (1908-1974). To describe the piece briefly; The first video begins with a performance of Prokofiev’s ‘First Violin Sonata in F minor’ which provides the soundtrack and pace for the installation as a whole. The second is a simple shot of a panel of blue sky. Filmed from the Odessa steps in the Ukrainian port city of the same name, it makes reference to Eisenstein’s silent film ‘Battleship Potemkin’ (1925) of which the best known scene is the massacre that occurs on the Odessa steps. In the third video Gush creates, with the help of a number of actors, the illusion of walking through a wall. What is interesting here is the uncanny sensation of being deceived while simultaneously having the trick revealed before one’s eyes. The reference is to David Copperfield’s famous 1986 illusion in which he walked through the Great Wall of China. For Gush the sense of potentiality encapsulated in this act – the moment of being inside the wall – is a critical idea to his practice as a whole. The fourth video shows a static image of a glacial Norwegian landscape, a reminder of the slow passage of time in relation to the transitory nature of human life. Accompanying the entire installation is an extended text of thoughts, facts and footnotes relating to the lives of the two musicians, and the context in which they produced their music.
On their own, these videos in combination are subtle, curious and haunting. The balance between action and stillness captures the sense of flux in the relationship between two different people, the capacity of alternating energies to set events into motion, the interplay between temporality, potential, personal histories, and the broader set of events in which they may play a small but invaluable part. (At least that is what it evokes for this viewer.) However, the addition of the extensive accompanying text, although it is common practice for Gush, creates a frustrating tension between the set of associations that the video opens up, and a more prescriptive set of ideas that the artist would seemingly like us to access, as though illustrating the potential scope of the work outside of what is immediately available to the viewer at an affective and aesthetic level. In short, although it extends the piece in both content and form (the facts and footnotes are loosely associative), it somehow feels excessive, and to a degree undermines one’s conviction in the understated allusive quality if the work itself.
What it does do however is highlight the extent to which the organising of information is an important strategy within Gush’s practice – in what he chooses to make available and what remains hidden. Gush maintains a fine balance between control and chance, setting up the conceptual parameters of the work very precisely, and thereafter allowing events to unfold according to circumstance. The use of montage is exemplary. In describing the relationship between art and politics, Jacques Rancière talks about ‘the distribution of the sensible’, the sensible being a kind of unstructured matter that precedes all else. Both art and politics act so as to structure, frame, identify and contextualise, in other words define the way in which this matter is distributed. For this reason the distribution of the sensible is synonymous with aesthetics – aesthetics being the system of forms which determines what is seeable or sayable. In Gush’s work, it is not simply the content to which he alludes that defines the nature of his political engagement, but his concern with the political nature of aesthetic decisions, and the way in which this impacts on the viewers experience of the work.
What becomes apparent in both Ractiffe and Gush’s work is the power of latency and the potential of things unspoken in their approach to representation and politics of a different kind.