Due to Covid-19 restrictions and erring perhaps more on the side of caution than its other major gallery counterparts, the Standard Bank Gallery in downtown Johannesburg remains physically closed for the moment. However, seeking to expand its exploration of the possibilities of the virtual world, the gallery has opened its first exhibition for this year, ‘Photographs in Our Mother Tongue’, on a virtual platform. That is all well and good and encouraging but in its execution, the VR platform used by the gallery for this show causes no small amount of headaches that detract from the works that are supposed to be and should be its central focus. Curator Dr Same Mdluli’s project may be a worthy one insofar as it attempts to reposition the focus of the vast photographic holdings of the premier corporate collection with a guide to initiating a new conversation between established and sometimes too overlooked photographers and the ways in which their subjects converge and contrast but its ideals here are overshadowed by the unignorable technical irritations of the experience.
The gallery has been recreated pretty faithfully in the realm of bits and bytes, complete with a friendly avatar sporting Mdluli’s signature beret and sartorial style to help introduce you to the navigation directions before you embark on your tour of the space. Within that space the architecture is a direct replica of that of the physical gallery space with the downstairs and upstairs spaces both used for the display of the photographs. Even the parquet floors and the flicker of your virtual shadow are visible as you move through the galleries, where there’s musical accompaniment and the option to unmute your microphone if you choose to make it seem like you’re sharing the space with other virtual visitors, in a valiant attempt to make the online environment seem less lonely. However, as you make your way to the actual photographs things become disorienting, disconcerting and increasingly frustrating.
Images are visible up to a certain distance but as soon as you attempt to get closer to the works, their resolution visibly decreases until you’re standing up against them with a plethora of pixels in your virtual face and no way to re-access the work without reversing back to a position that’s not close enough to fully absorb them. There is no option to click on the images and have them open up as fullscreen standalones and so the videogame novelty of the navigation and the replication of the gallery’s physical attributes overwhelm any proper attempt to get to grips with what should be the focus of all of this VR trickery – the works themselves. There is also no overall curatorial statement which might act as a guide towards the thinking behind the exhibition and its aims and selection. What it all adds up to is what looks like an experiment intended to showcase a VR platform rather than a VR platform that works in service of the broader curatorial goals of the exhibition.
That’s unfortunate because there are, at the too-far distanced glimpse available some choices, selections and juxtapositions here that warrant consideration. There are the ways in which the people in landscape photographs of Mikhael Subotzky work in juxtaposition to the animals and natural elements in the landscape photos of Obie Oberholzer; the contrast between the flickers of light that illuminate a series of works by Marcus Neustetter and the elegiac beauty of the play between body, fabric, light and water captured in the work of Bernie Searle on the wall opposite; the stylistic expressions that link Kudzanai Chiurai’s Minister of Enterprise and the street fashion portraits of Nontsikelelo Veleko; the difficult business of the capturing of the ethereal atmosphere of spiritual practice in the photography of Santu Mofokeng and the way that’s stylistically reflected in the fleeting moments of early morning inner-city life captured in the frames of Sabelo Mlangeni and the differences in technique and approach that work to evoke the atmosphere of Johannesburg in the works of Jo Ratcliffe and Andrew Tshabangu. There are also the works that use photography in less traditional or direct ways — Mary Sibande’s Sophie series; the Generations performance amusements of Candice Breitz’s Extra and the Victorian portraits of Kathryn Smith’s Euphemism. Works by high name recognition photography stalwarts such as David Goldblatt, Pieter Hugo and Guy Tillim share space with equally talented if less exposed practitioners such as Natasha Christopher, Bob Cnoops and Bridget Baker. Although there is perhaps a surprising amount of space given over to the lesser seen work of Pierre Croquet whose tragic early death left us with an archive that in recent years has increased his footprint beyond his most well-known and controversial Pinky Promise project.
These are all things to notice and were it the case that the VR platform and its failings were only a small misstep and part of an experiment that accompanied a physical exhibition rather than the entire makeup of the exhibition, then they would be worth proper and considered attention and analysis. Unfortunately the overall problems with the platform and its failure to work in favour of the seemingly perfectly virtual-world-suited 2D medium of photography leave you feeling that this is a missed opportunity that is far too focused on The Standard Bank Gallery than it is on the works hanging on its faithfully constructed virtual walls.
That’s additionally frustrating in the light of the fact that after over a year of the unforeseen challenges that the Covid 19 epidemic has presented to galleries, enough other virtual failures have clearly shown the gallery what not to do. If only Standard Bank had listened to some of its own advice and created a simpler, better and more effective means of highlighting the certainly intriguing but here criminally ignored selection of works from its collection.