Stevenson, Cape Town
12.10 – 25.11.2017
The most arresting thing about Guy Tillim’s ‘The Museum of the Revolution’ is the complete absence of the decisive moment. The term, originally coined by Henri Cartier-Bresson is part of the fabric of what we expect from documentary photography, and from street photography in particular. Cartier-Bresson describes his decisive moment as ‘[…] the simultaneous recognition in a fraction of a second, of the significance of an event as well as of a precise organisation of forms which give that event its proper expression.’ It’s a moment of harmony between meaning and aesthetics, but also a way out of the tension between image-making, with its connotations of intervention, intentionality and value, and image-taking with its sense of objectivity and distance. In Tillim’s exhibition, there is little precise organisation, no man jumping over a puddle, no compositional tricks. Your eye skitters across the surface, from lamppost, to street surface, to people. Only the edges of the frame seem to hold the elements together.
The idea of the decisive moment has fallen out of favour amongst artists, where the anxiety of the world mediated by the camera is too strong, and documentary photography is approached obliquely, or with a knowing irony (I’m thinking here, locally, of artists like Mikhael Subotzky and Pieter Hugo). ‘The Museum of the Revolution’ doesn’t trade in its decisive moment for irony, the works seem distant, but by no means cool. Without these two cornerstones, which are fundamental to my understanding of how documentary works, Tillim’s works seem remarkably untethered and ambiguous.
This is in contrast to the title of the show, which implies a concreteness, an encompassing memorialisation of a moment of change, ready for reflection. But the ambiguity probably better matches the content of the photographs, the African capital city with its range of seemingly incompatible expressions from high-end banking to side-of-the-road commerce. But even within this theme there is a contrast between the super specific – ‘Gym Company Opp Bree Taxi Rank 011 838 0006’ reads a dustbin in Eloff Street, Johannesburg – and a generic African city – not helped by the lack of wall labels. With the exception of a single work, Avenida 24 de Julho, Maputo, where the focus shifts to a young woman in the foreground, the entire show is free of central characters. Lampposts and cars seem to be as important in a composition as the people, who are often heading out of frame, backs turned, eyes averted.
It feels odd in this context, but I’m reminded of Tintin comics, the panels which introduce a critical place to the narrative –in Port Said, Shanghai or the fictional South American Los Dopicos. These panels, with their frames cutting through objects, have the air of photographs. They are used in the comics to present a verisimiltude of place, to set an authentic-feeling scene. They have a curious stillness, waiting for the protagonist to arrive. In Tillim’s photos the boy-journalist never arrives, there is no trail of clues. The scene is set, but the story isn’t told.
The air of the comic is further reinforced by Tillim’s choice of portrait-format framing, and even moreso by the arrangement of prints into sequences, separated seemingly by the black gutters of the frames. ‘The Museum of the Revolution’ is mostly organised into gatherings of two or three frames, in each Tillim moves a few feet laterally, lining up the edges to form a panorama. But the time taken between frames is apparent: the clusters of people change, and the front of a car entering from the right is not matched by its rear in the next.
In his seminal comic about comics, Understanding Comics, Scott McCloud dedicates a chapter to the role of the gutter, the space between frames in a comic. The gutter is the key to comics as it provides a space for closure, transforming multiple images into a single idea. In a comic, the closure is very reader-intensive, demanding active interpretation to close the narrative gaps between panels. McCloud devises various categories for the transitions between panels, considering how they stretch time and place, or create complex combinations of mood. Most important to him though is the way that comics are both additive (in that images are brought into relationships) and subtractive (in that to create anything comprehensible, images are left out). This places a high demand on the reader to bridge the gutters, which he calls ‘the silent dance of the seen and unseen.’
In Tillim’s work the simplest bridge over his gutters is to understand them as a passing of time, a transition between moments. And time certainly passes between frames, but it is non-directional. We read them left to right out of habit, but there is no sequence of action. There is no narrative. And yet the gutters are demanding of their closure.
The show seems to be one then of lack: lacking the decisive moment, lacking irony, lacking protagonists, lacking narrative. But this is countered by those demanding gutters, producing a tension that keeps my eyes skimming round the image, settling here on a billboard for car tracking, over there on Steers sign. But also a broken bench, a constellation of satellite dishes, a crumbling facade. What we seem to be looking at is the hyper-capitalist city of signs, settling like dust into the interstices of the post-colonial city. A place where sneakers compete for attention with politicians, overlaid on the old architecture and infrastructure. McCloud suggests that whenever two elements are brought into proximity, even if it is a non sequitur – fuel truck, manicured lawn; litter bin, cashless payments – we attempt to create a relationship between them and strive for closure. The power of Tillim’s work here is that it can’t be closed to a capitalist phoenix-from-the-ashes story, nor to a critique of the failed idealism of the revolutions. What we see is cities in flux.