Looking at the land with David Goldblatt
The raw, primeval beauty of South Africa's landscape has long fascinated artists. Indeed, many of the earliest travel drawings, etchings and paintings depicting South Africa focussed the European imagination on the landscape and its rich abundance, the Khoisan/ Bushmen trumping these colonial visions by simply appropriating the land as canvass. It is said that JH Pierneef, one of this country's foremost landscape artists, hardly ever painted a human figure in his immense body of work.
The weight of this history forms an unseen backdrop to David Goldblatt's new colour photographs, whose subject is the forgotten hinterland of rural South Africa. Recently exhibited at Johannesburg's Goodman Gallery, following their unveiling in Cape Town at the Michael Stevenson Contemporary, these large-scale colour studies explore relatively new terrain.
"I have been offered an exhibition in Dusseldorf, Germany, in 2005," explains the 73-year-old Johannesburg native, currently one of four photographers shortlisted for the prestigious Citigroup photography prize in London. "This prompted me to investigate something different. I saw it as an opportunity to move into new areas, areas that I have only partially looked at before."
One such area is the land. "When I say that I am interested in the land," Goldblatt purposefully clarifies, "I mean this in the broadest sense and not because I am a nature lover. I am interested in the way we act with the land, work with the land, move on it, mark it." Not that these interactions are immediately evident in his series titled South African Intersections.
A part study of the intersections of whole degrees of latitude and longitude in South Africa, the idea underpinning the project almost made Goldblatt's blue eyes smile: "It was really very exciting because I didn't know what to expect, you could find anything". Unfortunately this novel idea didn't quite live up to expectations.
"After going to a number of them, about 16 of the 122, I saw that there was just nothing, absolutely nothing that I found inherently interesting to me, that made me feel I wanted to photograph them," he says.
"I found myself 'creating' photographs, which I hate doing for myself. One does this professionally because you have to earn your keep but that's not what I do for my personal work. I want to find things that in some way move me, or that I feel are relevant or significant to what I am concerned about. So I abandoned the idea."
One would be hard-pressed to describe the large-scale digital prints shown at the Goodman a failure. There is a loose, atmospheric intrigue in the vast subject matter depicted. Studied carefully, they also demonstrate a remarkable continuity in terms of his practice.
Last year, at the time of Goldblatt's participation on Okwui Enweznor's much-feted Documenta XI, the Goodman exhibited a collection of obscure and unknown images by Goldblatt. Amongst these was a small selection of black and white landscape studies dating back a few years.
One of these images depicted a lonely stretch of veldt alongside the N1, just outside Colesberg. The rhythmic pattern of the grass, as well as the linear geometry of the photograph's composition has been lovingly repeated in Goldblatt's newer, colour work.
Goldblatt's interest in the landscape is, however, by no means a celebration of emptiness. Although not shown in Johannesburg, his Asbestos series of photographs, largely photographed in the Northern Cape, explore the damage done to the land and its people by asbestos mining in this region. The series insinuates an element of conscience into what some tend to regard as a purely aesthetic genre: landscape photography.
In many respects it is near impossible to regard South Africa's landscape as purely physical, a mute thing. Too much has happened on it to simply regard the land as a brut, physical earth. Simply consider how history has unravelled since 1913, when the Native Land Act was promulgated. Contemplate too the Restitution of Land Rights Act of 1994, the goings-on in Zimbabwe and the recent utterances of the Landless People's Movement. In South Africa, land is a central problematic.
All of this has tended to make depiction of the South African landscape fraught with circumstance, ideological rather than representational in some critics eyes. I ask Goldblatt what his thought processes were, how he looks at the land as he stands astride his Isuzu four by four taking pictures on his rural ramblings.
"I guess I am no more aware or conscious than I ever have been," he remarks earnestly after a brief, thoughtful pause. "I have always had a peculiar, almost perverse awareness and bring that to what I am doing now as well. I have always felt that there is a very close interconnectedness between who we are and what we are in this country and how we build and express ourselves in structures and the land itself."
An edited version of this article originally appeared in the ReviewArts section of ThisDay newspaper, on Friday November 14, 2003, under the heading 'David Goldblatt: Artist of the beloved land'.