Wits Art Museum, Johannesburg
03.05 – 18.06.2017
Authors, it is said, write (whether they know it or not) for an ‘ideal reader’ – someone who is well-placed to understand the author’s aesthetic or ideological project in a given text, and to appreciate the means by which it is pursued. Presumably, visual artists have ideal viewers, musicians have ideal listeners and theatre makers have ideal audience members.
This is simultaneously a dull and dangerous notion. Understood in a narrow sense, the ideal arts consumer would probably share the arts producer’s frame of reference: his or her background, context, experiences and view of the world. In such a case, creator and respondent could together achieve little more than self-congratulation and self-critique – a closed circuit, a perpetual feedback loop of mutual appreciation and perhaps, at best, gentle admonishment. Productive engagement is, instead, most likely when both the imagined reader or viewer and the actual reader or viewer are far from similar to the author or artist.
With this in mind I can’t help but worry that, when it comes to ‘Show No Pain: The Collected Films of Michael MacGarry 1999-2017’, I risk falling into the category of ideal viewer … and thus the worst possible reviewer of the exhibition. Like MacGarry, I am a WESSA (white English-speaking South African) born in the late 1970s and thus of a generation that might not bear direct culpability for the iniquities of apartheid but that, if it is honest, was and remains deeply complicit. Like MacGarry, I am interested in historical representations of ‘the white man in Africa’ and in their contemporary echoes. Like MacGarry’s, my own critical interrogation of whiteness in South Africa probably emerges from a deeply repressed desire to exculpate myself – even though I know that this is neither desirable nor possible.
The parallels are even more specific. Like MacGarry, I spent 2001 and 2002 in a vague stupor on a large muddy island on the western edge of Europe, experiencing what MacGarry describes as “voluntary South African alienation” and a “London-induced drowning of identity”: caught between an optimistic sense of opportunity and exploration on the one hand, and feelings of guilt and homesickness on the other. In my case, this resulted in copious amounts of second-rate poetry. Fortunately, in MacGarry’s case the result was more interesting: LHR-JNB, one of the films in ‘Show No Pain’. The title alludes to the flight from Heathrow airport to Johannesburg – and in particular to a fictional 747 plane carrying, MacGarry imagines, “numerous versions of myself: young, educated, white, middle-class South Africans returning home from London – some with saved money, others with property in England and most with one eye on their return ticket”.
After crash-landing in the Mediterranean, a handful of survivors struggle to stay afloat on a leaking life raft. Their fate is, however, sealed; as MacGarry explains in the slightly over-determined accompanying text, they have already “chosen to be isolated and adrift as participants in the South African brain-drain”, and when they eventually succumb to the waves this is nothing more than “the metaphoric drowning of their vague identities” as semi-expats. LHR-JNB avoids the charge of narcissism by explicitly opposing these doomed figures both to art historical precursors (unlike the occupants of the boats in Rembrandt’s Christ in the Storm on the Lake of Galilee and Gericault’s Raft of the Medusa, they are not to be spared) and to the twenty-first century ‘boat people’ traveling in the other direction across the Mediterranean, from north Africa to southern Europe (as ‘awkward colonials’, the white sort-of-South-Africans in MacGarry’s life raft are neither “plausible as ‘boat people’” nor are they convincing in their claims to be economic refugees). Migration, forced or otherwise, is a key concern in MacGarry’s work. The plight of African refugees and immigrants in Europe is expressed in Sea of Ash, at the end of which the protagonist disappears into the Venetian lagoon – ironically, like his counterparts in LHR-JNB, trying to make his way ‘home’ to Africa.
Another sea voyage is the premise of As Above, So Below. Here, MacGarry dabbles in alternative history. It is 1836, and Charles Darwin lands at the Cape of Good Hope. Instead of spending an unremarkable fortnight in Cape Town, however (as the historical Darwin did), this Darwin goes missing – takes flight – after mysterious encounters on the beach. In its attentiveness to the elements of the littoral zone, this film resonates with Mikhael Subotzky’s WYE, in which another colonial adventurer disappears from (European) view. These two micro-plots, in turn, almost inevitably call to mind that ur-narrative of the ‘white man in Africa’ gone wrong: Heart of Darkness.
Joseph Conrad’s novella and its various filmic iterations are an abiding interest of MacGarry’s, culminating in the current exhibition in Death From Above. MacGarry returns to the kaleidoscopic technique he has previous employed with this material, fragmenting and reconstituting the ever-problematic text itself as well as its echoes in Frances Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979). ‘Show No Pain’ is, in many ways, an almost Oedipal killing-off of such iconic literary and filmic precursors (the same applies to Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice and Luchino Visconti’s 1971 film version, which are intertextual signposts in Sea of Ash). But it is also a form of tribute, and indeed of reinvigoration: MacGarry’s The Battles is an attempt to breathe new life into Gillo Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers (1966), which is based on the Algerian war.
Such points of reference may seem at odds with another important aspect of MacGarry’s oeuvre, which is modern(ist) architecture. Yet even in short pieces such as Reclining Figure, 1959 and The Healthy World of Primitive Building Methods – which playfully deconstruct photographs of building interiors and exteriors – the intersection of the architectural and the political is implicit. It is made explicit in Flies, another of the mini-narrative works, this one set in an abandoned skyscraper, where personal tragedy and national socio-economic phenomena (crime, urban dereliction) collide. In the spectacular emptiness of its setting, Flies has a counterpart in Excuse Me, While I Disappear, which plays out in a ghost Chinese development near Luanda, Angola.
Finally, there is the two-channel piece Parang, which weaves together all of these strands into an autobiographical account connecting MacGarry’s father – an architect – to his artist son and to buildings that are a part of their family story, from Singapore to South Africa. Matching this multi-generational archive is footage showing the life cycle of the silk worm: birth, growth, mating and death, endlessly repeated. If the silk worm suggests a reductio ad absurdum of the ‘eternal recurrence’ (another of MacGarry’s obsessions, which no doubt makes the constant looping of his films in this exhibition gratifying to the artist), then the father-and-son dynamic suggests not only continuity but also change – that is, agency. Although a number of the films in ‘Show No Pain’ have fatal and fated endings, as an artist MacGarry is not limited to Nietzsche’s amor fati (love of destiny). On the contrary, he is shown carving out a place in the world even as his identity places limitations upon this process; and his viewers, one feels, may leave this exhibition encouraged to do the same.