23.09.2014 – 23.10.2014
Commune.1, Cape Town
Although David Lurie’s ‘Morning after Dark’ is in a many ways a more political and less poetic enterprise than Olivié Keck’s exhibition False Priest (running simultaneously upstairs at Commune 1), Lurie shares with Keck an interest in articulating the absent body. This series of urban landscapes documents Cape Town and surrounds in the early hours of the morning, maintaining a primary focus on deserted architectural spaces as seen through Lurie’s signature aloof, restrained lens. Together these works belong to an ongoing project intended for a book, ‘The Right to the City’, with a provisional date of publication in 2015.
I use the word aloof deliberately. Like much of Lurie’s practice, this body of work can be located within the ambit of so-called straight photography, in which the documentary is privileged over the directorial; the seemingly objective over the contrived; the window over the mirror. As I see it, straight photography is predicated upon a kind of transparency. I’ve always liked Alfred Stieglitz’s definition of 1919. This tradition of photography is ‘straight’, he claims, because it provides no evidence of trickery of any kind:
—No humbug. —No sentimentalism. —Not old nor new. —It is so sharp that you can see the [pores] in a face —and yet it is abstract. —All say that [they] don’t feel they are conscious of any medium.’ There’s an appealing lucidity to that standpoint and also a great deal of bullshit.
This way of looking is as burdened as any other, as gendered, as classed, as raced. More so in many ways, in that straight photography’s clinical purism has historically been configured as an extension of a profoundly masculine, heterosexual gaze. The claim to objectivity is not a right, after all – it’s a privilege. And like so many privileges, it is both unwarranted and irrevocable.
Every piece on ‘Morning after Dark’ is accompanied by a detailed title that locates the imaged scene in real-world space. These range from the simple View of city centre from N2 Motorway (2013) to the conscientiously descriptive, View of the city centre, Zonnebloem (formerly District 6) and Woodstock from above De Waal Drive (2013). That’s more than just generously informative. The terms of the gaze we are permitted to utilize as viewers are explicitly defined. Here is the view, an anchor to the Cape Town we share. Here are the properties of the real.
Although the sites differ, the consistent time frame creates a sense of atmospheric continuity that borders on the eerily uniform. Cape Town train station is depicted with the same brutal beauty as the power lines in Joe Slovo Park, and Hout Bay harbour reflects in the surface of a still sea echoed in a photograph of the flooded Isiqalo informal settlement in Phillipi. Really, the time captured here is as much a quality of light: cool and grey and frequently dewy. This lends an unrelenting crispness to each scene as it unfolds beneath the leaden sky of an oppressive dawn. They’re undeniably beautiful images, and very cold.
Lurie is at his best in his uninhabited cityscapes, composed with enormous attention to detail. As a choice example Cape Town train station from N2 Motorway has the quality of a postcard, compressing our spatial and temporal horizons into a single moment of unselfconscious looking. Railways recede irresistibly into the middle distance and take the eye with them. The gritty and industrial become picturesque. Despite the artist’s systematic approach to capturing time, or perhaps because of it, there’s a timelessness about the resulting image. Lurie observes intensely in order to preserve the transient and the momentary for posterity. He crystallises space and time.
Urban space, though, is never neutral and never frozen. Henri Lefèbvre points out that the properties of an urban environment arise from the successes, defeats, strategies and interactions of big social groups. We know that here more than anywhere. In Cape Town, past and present political violences describe the landscape and manifest in segregated extremes of wealth and poverty that mark each and every one of us in ways not always conscious or visible. That’s where Lurie loses me a little. The sheer uniformity of his mode of approach – his disengaged gaze – universalises space and time rather than making evident its singularities. There’s a need in ‘Morning After Dark’, I feel, for an expanded awareness of life within heterogeneous time, subjective time, which might be moving at different speeds and under different material conditions, even in different directions. To look at the world in the same way, let alone with any illusion of objectivity, is a dangerous gesture. Things are not equal.
This is perhaps an easier reading to develop in the photographs that foreground people. All photographs, and particularly those within the realm of documentary, author their subjects. Choices are made because they have to be… the you, the here, the now. Those are the rules of the game. However, the who – which subjects to isolate and which stories to tell – warrants as much consideration as the where and the when.
Every human subject on this particular show, every present body and indeed many of the absent ones, is a person of colour. Where are the white people? Or even the middle-class? Lurie frequently captures his subjects against a backdrop of informal settlements or in abject urban poverty. In our era of so-called poverty porn, when the lives of the marginalized are packaged and aestheticized for the consumption of a privileged few, Lurie’s disengaged mode of looking cannot but be problematic. I don’t doubt that he’s aware of the power balance at stake in a white photographer imag(in)ing poor black subjects, and disclosing (for lack of a better word) lives so often rendered invisible. He must be: his interrogation of Cape Town city spaces describes itself as an effort to engage with these very social disparities. And yes, god knows there’s a need for an ongoing and vocal engagement around the (in)visibility of the socially underprivileged and the spaces they inhabit. But that struggle for territory – the one that Lurie invokes with a strange lack of criticality – extends into the world of the photograph.
Art practice cannot be exempt from the socio-political structures that order lived experience, or the historical mechanisms that engineer it. That same ‘who’ called into question by imaging a chosen subject holds true behind the lens too, and deserves an equivalent degree of interrogation. These are subjective spaces, subjective experiences, and they should be met by a conscious acknowledgement of the role of the photographer as participant. Lurie is all too ready to assign roles to his subjects, after all. In other works on the show like Refugee from DRC, Zonnebloem, Cape Town (2013) or Members of the ‘IIitye Zion Church of God’, Sunday morning, Hout Bay beach, Cape Town (2014), Lurie confines his subjects to a social role rather than affording them a named identity and the status that accompanies it.
The odds are arguably stacked unfairly against him on this count. We ask more of photography than we do, perhaps, of other mediums. It testifies to the lived and the living, and gives itself to the order of the real. Admittedly the medium is subject to rules beyond those that govern more intuitive and visibly subjective creative practices. Nonetheless (and I’m going to quote Sontag here. I can’t help myself) in On Photography, Susan Sontag describes the lone photographer as
an armed version of the solitary walker reconnoitering, stalking, cruising the urban inferno… the voyeuristic stroller who discovers the city as a landscape of voluptuous extremes. Adept of the joys of watching, connoisseur of empathy, this flâneur finds the world “picturesque”.
Lurie’s empty spaces and the absent figures that haunt them are stronger when they abandon that empathic connoisseurship, that inclination toward the picturesque, in favour of acknowledging the unattainable: the unpresented, unrepresented and always at a distance.