Goodman Gallery, Johannesburg
18.05 – 13.07.2019
Who is Mikhael Subotzky? For many observers of the local and international art scene the answer goes something like this: Subotzky is the young man, who living in Cape Town in the 1980s and 90s and influenced by his photojournalist uncle Gideon Mendel, decided to pick up a camera and start looking at the world around him. He grew up in the Cape Town suburb of Constantia, went to the Waldorf school there where his father was a teacher, went to study art at Michaelis, where his lecturers told him to keep taking photos and stop doing the other things like painting. Subotzky heeded their advice, took his camera and looking around for a subject for his graduate project went into Pollsmoor Prison a stone’s throw from his childhood home and took a series of photos that became his first and highly acclaimed body of work ‘Die Vier Hoeke’ in 2004. From there Subotzky’s career progressed quickly and stratospherically – exhibiting at the world’s premier galleries, signed up by the prestigious Magnum Photo agency at the age of 25, winner of several prizes including the Standard Bank young Artist Award and photographic publications Holy Grail the Deutsche Börse Photography Prize for his 2015 book Ponte City, created in collaboration with illustrator Patrick Waterhouse and published by Steidl.
In spite of all the acclaim – occupying a position that is both the source of much admiration and a good dose of envy within the artworld and the community of fellow documentary photographers – Subotzky has seemed dissatisfied to continue to simply reproduce the kind of work he made his name on, particularly over the last six years or so. His recent shows have gradually attempted to deal first with the problematics of the documentary form. That is, as a dialectic between the perspective of an outsider on enclosed, carefully defined insider communities, and then as a questioning of the limits and technical aspects of the medium itself. How and why we perceive images in particular ways, and the broader questions of white masculine identity and their far-reaching effect on the shaping of post-colonial identity in South Africa.
The artist’s lens has gradually moved away from in front of his eye to further and further away before finally and most dramatically in his current show ‘Massive Nerve Corpus’, turning around to most completely focus on the subject of Subotzky himself as a multi-layered construct of various identities that require identification and deconstruction. Subotzky is white, South African, Jewish, Rudolf Steiner educated at a Waldorf school and – to varying degrees – occupies a position of undeniable privilege as a result of these threads within a country that is still the world’s most unequal society, 25 years after democracy.
He’s also an artist struggling to overcome ideas about what he should be producing and what he is able to create. ‘Massive Nerve Corpus’ is a big, ambitious, and complicated body of work that replicates the multi-layered and contradictory felt experiences of its creator. It’s sometimes hit and miss, but overall the hits supersede the misses and it manages to provide a constructive and intelligent method for dealing with issues of white masculine privilege and their indelible and undeniable influences on the shaping of the world over centuries. It does this through a mix of mediums that display evidence of the fact that Subotzky’s Michaelis lecturers, while setting him on a course to success in photography, were wrong about his lack of ability in other aspects of artistic expression.
The photography has been removed almost completely, fitting in with a vast reduction in Subotzky’s use of the medium over his last several shows. Here, it is replaced with paintings, his preferred sticky tape transfer works, and use of mixed media provided by works printed on old book covers; chosen for their reference to their use as a means of enforcing white male privilege during the apartheid era.
The references here are far ranging and display a vast array of interests and ponderings on the role of white male (read Western) civilisation in the formation of so many ways of being and ways of seeing. From Steiner to Kant, Sartre, American Civil War era politician James Calhoun, the canonical character of Faust, Dutch-East-India Company era “tall ships,” and of course the “Dutch Gangster” himself, Jan Van Riebeeck. ‘Massive Nerve Corpus’ slowly and convincingly creates an argument for the necessary and valuable reassessment and interrogation of white male privilege. One could argue that such a project might seem to walk a slippery line between broader questions of identity politics and navel-gazing, but by providing his audience with necessary biographical insight – through the form of an interview with a fictional European curator cheekily named “Hansolo Umberto Oberist” – Subotzky mostly manages to successfully justify himself as the subject of the work within a nuanced understanding of the many parts that make him up and in turn relate to the construction of broader white male identity.
So who is Mikhael Subotzky now? He’s still an artist who is trying to negotiate the increasingly murky waters of a country that’s deeply divided. He is navigating a world that is becoming more aware of its contradictions, but is also steadfastly trying to maintain its conservative traditions by clinging desperately onto what seemingly concrete pillars remain for it to claim. However, as this intervention into that debate demonstrates, those pillars are quickly been eroded, leaving little option for those who would hold on to them other than to finally fall into the sea. The future will belong to others, but the space for that to happen is at the very least being helped to be created by artists willing to move forward at the expense of the destruction through questioning of some of the basic foundations of an unequal world that has allowed them to get this far, no matter the consequences.
As Subotzky himself says in his ‘Oberist’ interview: “I hope that my attempts to be vulnerable and self-reflexive in this space, in these words, and in the works themselves, will contribute in some small way to the deconstruction of white masculine power, rather than reinforcing it. All around me I see amazing black artists who have been reconfiguring the canon, and I really do believe that white artists need to step up too, to take whiteness apart, and by doing so to meet them in the making of something new.” It’s not going to be easy and it won’t always be pretty or perfectly formed, but you have to think that this is the future of the artistic project not only in South Africa but in the rest of the world. Those who get on the bus now will be celebrated later for recognising that things are rotten and the centre cannot hold.