Dave Southwood - 'Nothing in the Particular' at Bell-Roberts Art Gallery
by Chris Roper
It's often a mistake to get too hung up on what artists title their exhibitions, as it can sometimes lead to a lack of focus on the works themselves. But in the case of the Dave Southwood show at Bell-Roberts, the temptation to adduce meaning from the title is irresistible. 'Nothing in the Particular' ... What in the world does he mean? And it is an entire world we are dealing with here: the world of a certain kind of South African landscape, at times urban, at times rural refracted by the urban sensibilities of Southwood's camera.
'Nothing in the Particular'. Could he perhaps mean that these images, these richly coloured and finely articulated pictures - a petrol station forecourt in Robertson, the lines of buildings fighting light in Durban - are general representations of South Africa?
Surely not. The images strike at your heart with too much pain, and you recognise every one of them. At the opening, I overheard a woman describing the way she felt this pain. She said the photos made her feel claustrophobic, because they reminded her of being trapped in the environment that they showed. She said they were symbolic of everything in South Africa that traps people and categorises them. She hated the photographs. I think she bought one.
One could always make the trite assumption that for Southwood, 'Nothing in the Particular' refers to the fact that the subject matter could be considered banal. I don't think we'll make that mistake. Banality is an overused apology for forcing the viewer to do the work of telling the picture's story. When you stand before one of these photographs, you know the artist respects his audience, he knows they will attempt the work of understanding. They are difficult, dense works, effacing and jarringly odd at the same time.
For example, a photo of Durban beachfront. In the left foreground, some kids caught in a balletic moment of imminent motion. Centre foreground, the lifesavers' podium representing a demarcated area of safety and institutional surveillance. As your gaze moves further out, you encounter the next line of figures, strung across the second of these horizons of ever-decreasing safety, the place where the sand meets the sea. They all seem to be gazing out to sea, waiting, not expectantly but with certainty. The next line are the swimmers in the water, silhouetted against a sullenly crumbling wave.
There's something ominous about this progression. Finally, on the real horizon, a line of black ships, the emblems of commerce on the ocean, of technology's power over nature. But it isn't actually the final line. Tumbling above these carefully delineated, carefully differentiated lines of humankind's defiance of nature, of "what's out there", are ominous, roiling black clouds, a reminder that all these sociological formations are fragile. The "what's out there" is what makes this a very South African picture.
Still, the compositional skill evident in these photos is not what makes them so excellent. What separates them from the ranks of the merely good is the way Southwood has forced time, that constant enemy of the photographer, to do his bidding. This was forcibly brought home to me - and I do mean home - when I saw his photograph of the swimming pool at the Sea Point Pavilion. As someone who grew up in Sea Point in the 1970s, the geometries of liquid and concrete in the photo hit me hard, about as hard as the first time I jumped off the 10 metre board to smack face-first into the salt water.
Struggling to understand the emotions provoked by the photograph, I suddenly felt a wash of nostalgia. Ha, the good old days. Yippee. But for someone who absolutely loathes nostalgia in any form, this was a strange feeling. Then I realised: with Southwood's photographs, you adopt nostalgia as a defence against seeing the present. What he is actually showing you is the now, and being forced to confront the now means being forced to understand the past.
Not all the images are as successful, of course. There are some portraits, for example, that sit uneasily with the landscapes, perhaps because the landscapes impose such a rigid way of seeing on the viewer that it is difficult to switch frameworks. But in the main, these are works to cherish, works that will change with the viewer over time, growing in meaning and resonance. They are not photos of something - they are photos about something, and struggling to understand what that something is will make your relationship with them a happily contested one.
Until April 3
Bell-Roberts Art Gallery, 199 Loop Street, Cape Town
Tel: (021) 422 1100
Fax: (021) 423 3135
Hours: Mon - Fri 8.30am - 5pm, Sat 10am - 1pm