STEVENSON, Cape Town
02.06.2016 – 16.07.2016
‘1994’, Pieter Hugo’s most recent exhibition at STEVENSON, Cape Town is exceptionally beautiful. The large-scale, ridiculously high res photographs are crisp, luscious and glimmering; without a hint of pixellation upon close scrutiny. Centred on their subjects, Hugo’s images are carefully framed with vibrant interplay between the sunlight and the natural environment which romantically recedes into the background. The artist has clearly honed some chops while photographing shoots for fashion labels such as Bottega Veneta. This extends into the exhibition’s presentation as well: the photographs are perfectly complimented by the choice of wooden frames and are evenly distributed around the gallery space in an appealing layout.
Simultaneously, the exhibition feels incredibly uncomfortable and a lot of this has to do with their afore-mentioned seductiveness. It is the kind of aesthetic appeal which precludes critical distance because the viewer is so entranced by the quality of the imagery itself. Perhaps that is enough to enjoy the exhibition. It’s probably also why it’s far easier to assume a critical position about it from low res reproductions on the Internet, where the actual content usurps the form.
On some level, ‘1994’ sees Hugo returning to the thematic terrain of two of his prior bodies of work, the contradictory social intersections of contemporary South Africa (see: 2013’s ‘Kin’) and the aftermath of the Rwandan Genocide (see: 2004’s ‘Rwanda 2004: Vestiges of a Genocide’). Actually, ‘1994’ is more of an escape fantasy than a return, one of shedding the socio-political baggage of those exhibitions and instead being baptised by nature to frolic in innocence.
Of the impulse underlying the work, Hugo reflects: ‘I noticed how the kids, particularly in South Africa, don’t carry the same historical baggage as their parents. I find their engagement with the world to be very refreshing in that they are not burdened by the past.’ This veers dangerously closely to ‘apartheid was the previous generation’s problem’ rhetoric although obviously not on the part of the children who are being spoken for.
In his New York Times essay discussing Sally Mann’s Immediate Family photographs[i], Richard B. Woodward made the observation that ‘Rather than preserving their innocence, the photographs seem to accelerate their maturity by relying on the knowingness of the viewer.’ The same is true here. Even if the actual children are afforded the bliss of (temporarily) existing free of their countries’ pasts, their photographed images are automatically entrenched in the political sphere by art discourse. If that innocence does exist, it’s not something which can be claimed by the camera lens; and especially not from Hugo’s subject position.
The metaphor of childhood innocence can really be read in two ways: either as a wish for the future generation to live unencumbered by the trauma of the past, or as a fantasy of escapism. In conflating childhood innocence with nature (as these works do), ‘1994’ tends towards the latter. There’s an element of the Fountain of Youth myth here; particularly in the Juan Ponce de León incarnation of the story. Briefly, the story goes that Ponce de León – a Spanish conquistador – was intent on finding the Fountain of Youth allegedly used by indigenous peoples in the Islands of Benimy for perpetual youth. He claimed the territory of Florida for Spain in 1513 (‘La Florida’) in the process of searching for it. Here, the idea of eternal youth is tied to some secret ‘primitive’ knowledge and an object of colonial desire.
Acknowledging that Hugo’s photographs are staged and the children are intended to portray an anonymous combination of youth, nature and innocence; they become fantasies of a similar idea. ‘It’s as if the further you leave the city and its systems of control, the more primal things become,’ Hugo suggests in his artist statement regarding the setting of the photographs. By later bringing in Lord of the Flies references and suggesting that there’s something ‘feral’ about the children (and noticeably the Rwandan images), things start to get a bit weird. Particularly when art historical odalisque-type poses enter the fray (the gold sequin-clad figure in Portrait #7, Rwanda for instance). There may be an underlying point about intrinsic evil in humanity (à la Golding) but it sits in a questionable relationship to the images.
Ultimately, this is where the discomfort to which I referred earlier sits. ‘1994’is a bit like a Vice magazine editorial shoot. The images are striking but the ideas underlying them often seem careless and a tad dubious.
[i] For another day, there’s certainly merit to be found in an extended discussion of the similarities between Hugo and Mann, particularly in relation to their fascination with family members, photographing corpses and a self-conscious unwillingness to subject themselves to the same nudity in self-portraits which they ask of their sitters.