Archive: Issue No. 69, May 2003

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Geoff Grundlingh's Utopia
by Annwen Bates

Upon entering the Ivory Room one might not be surprised to hear the strains of Sam tinkling As Time Goes By, with Humphrey Bogart seated at the bar. The colonial exoticism of the Ivory Room's name and d�cor provides an apt venue for Geoff Grundlingh's 'Utopia' images, which themselves play with issues of colonial exoticism.

This exhibition is one of the many in various shops, restaurants and empty wall spaces, in the upper Long/ Loop Street area, co-opted as part of the 2003 Vision Photography Festival (March 20 - 30). Organiser Claire Breukel explains: "The Vision photography festival serves as the core visual component for this year's Night Vision, the art/party night that launches the Cape Town Festival". The idea behind both the launch party and the exhibitions in non- traditional exhibition venues is to bring art to the public, and the public to the art of photography. Breukel elucidates this objective by declaring: "Joe Soap deserves to see quality exhibitions".

And what would Joe Soap see if he walked into the Ivory Room? Well, not Sam and Humphrey, but rather two mannequins photographed against the landscape of the arid Swakopmund area. (Swakopmund is in present day Namibia, a former German colony in the latter part of the nineteenth century.) These two mannequins (a male and a female) are the protagonists of the 'Utopia' series. The male mannequin, clothed in a variety of outfits, is pictured on a deserted street corner in front of an impressive looking colonial building, and again, alone in a barren, rocky landscape in the falling duskiness of late afternoon.

The female mannequin, always dressed in a white puff-sleeved dress and wearing a matching white bracelet, gazes ever pensive towards the horizon. In this pose she is set before a tower, then again before a screen of some kind with a trio of palm trees on the horizon. In the two images where these characters are pictured together, the male stands protectively behind the female as they watch a train speed past and the sun set over the brown landscape surrounded by hills and rocks.

The juxtaposition of shop-mannequins in the Swakopmund desert landscape creates a surreal image. As in Surrealism, 'Utopia' juxtaposes the real with dream-like fantasy; the mannequins and landscape are playfully juxtaposed in an out-of-the-ordinary scene. The male mannequin, in hat and khaki attire, stands in a deserted street. The scene of a real town, sans people, but with a shop mannequin becomes a surreal sight.

For those cut 'n paste sceptics who believe that such juxtapositions are made possible only through technology, the artist reassures that, "these are straight images (not manipulated in any way) that are shot on colour process film and processed normally". The images themselves, although digitally scanned and printed, have thus been taken in the old- fashioned way.

Old and new fashions are also implied in the series' title 'Utopia' (which is also used unvaryingly as each image's title). Utopia is a term inherited from the Renaissance, and is used to refer to an imagined perfect place or state of things. In 'Utopia' the melancholy landscape with its diluted skies and lifeless greens, not to mention the lifeless figures captured in their posed nostalgia, point to a far from perfect state of things. The desert landscape is harsh and un-nurturing, even with additions of human technology such as trains, streets and towers. Furthermore, with the knowledge of colonialism and Namibia's history, this ironic meaning may be viewed in the light of unsuccessful colonial endeavours, which sought a new world, a utopia, but which led to a far from perfect state of things.

It is this ironic take on the notion of utopia that opens a fecundity of meaning and readings. Of all the Vision Photography Festival exhibitions I visited, I found this one the most conceptually rich. In his exploration of "a general backdrop of African/European colonisation", Grundlingh has taken an approach that requires both image and title to read his vision. The viewer must weigh up what 'Utopia' means against what is depicted in the photograph. Mannequins in the Swakopmund landscape only take on the intended loading if the viewer makes the conceptual connection with colonialism.

It is the subtlety of this connection that intrigues me, making these images, in my opinion, conceptually sophisticated. If these images had been untitled or unaccompanied by explanatory captions, their richness would have been diminished. Without the interplay between title and image these photographs would be mannequins in a landscape without the voice of the artist's vision.

These images are unsettling satire, an exploration of the irony of the colonial utopia. Yet in their surreal playfulness these photographs are also fantasy, fun. In their manipulated and posed states, the mannequins recall days of toy-box figurines and childhood dioramas. The youthfulness of the 'Utopia' figurines reflects the eternal promise of pre-pubescence. The first image of the series presents the confident stance of the male mannequin as he meets your entering gaze on his world - the desert landscape.

This is a world in which he is an imposed inhabitant. At the same time, your gaze is upon the photograph, itself a constructed 'realm' where the mannequin is in the position of viewed subject. The confident stance meets your gaze. This confidence is, however, undermined by the irony of the series' meaning and by the fact that the subject has been positioned as subject by a greater power, the photographer.

The photographer's use of mannequins as subjects recalls the Italian Metaphysical artist De Chirico's interest in the "man without voice, without eyes or face". Mannequins are protagonists in De Chirico's pictorial dramas and similarly, Grundlingh's mannequins are the protagonists in his photographic dramas.

The stasis of the 'Utopia' children in a world into which they have been (im)posed subverts any self-acquired, pastoralist utopia of colonialism. No longer does colonialism promise life and voice, it is an endeavour that leads to dystopian alienation. The last picture of the series is fitting as a closing image. The young mannequin figures stand in the shadows of the rocky landscape, surrounded by hills and a colourless, sunless sky. We look down on them; a lonely Aryan Adam and Eve doomed to isolation and insular barrenness.

Opens: March 20
Closes: March 30

Annwen Bates is a student of Art Criticism, currently studying her Honours at the University of Cape Town. Geoff Grundlingh's photographs were exhibited at The Ivory Room, 196 Loop Street, Cape Town.