Archive: Issue No. 74, October 2003

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Stephen Hobbs

Stephen Hobbs
Photographic extracts from The Mirage City

What lies beneath?
by Suzie Copperthwaite

"Ultimately, photography is subversive not when it frightens, repels, or even stigmatises, but when it is pensive, when it thinks" - Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida

One often wonders if we are any closer to negotiating the paradoxes that have come to naturalize and characterize the way in which we live in Johannesburg. I found myself reflecting on this after viewing 2003 DaimlerChrysler Art Award nominee Stephen Hobbs' solo show 'M23 70 (2003)', at PhotoZA. Inspired by the experience and investigation of incongruence, 'M23 70 (2003)' exposes certain internal and inescapable contradictions of the (sub)urban context.

Hobbs' photographic images indicate a personal and dynamic exploration of his urban environment. The grid reference in the title refers to the Newtown site, in downtown Johannesburg, an appropriate space for an artist who is interested in the urban environment. Divided terrain: Johannesburg's city centre, activated by the arrhythmia of man's endeavors, is at once put forward as a literal and metaphorical site of transformation. A conglomerate of temporality, subjectivity, memory and prospect, it holds and discloses certain elements related to economic, political, social and individual condition and transition.

In representation that is immediately perceptible and more abstract, Hobbs documents a world that is both familiar and strange (even to those who know it). Part spectatorship, part belonging; in and amongst the obscurities inherent to the subject matter at hand is an identifiable, distinguishable conviction and dexterity in production.

As a cityscape, downtown Johannesburg is chaotic in character; there is aesthetic inconsistency arising from numerous eclectic influences. Functioning as 'photographic extracts', many of the images on show record reflections, fragmented facades (of buildings within buildings), visual discordances and irregularities transpiring from, and transcending the ordered architectural grid.

The structure documented in Signs of a Transforming City (2002) distorts and melts against a lucid sky. Mirage images prompt questions relating to stasis and substantiality. Hobbs has worked closely with the effects of the passing of time, the idea of camouflage and of what is concealed, what conceals itself in 'invisible' activity. Light Camouflage (2002) expresses something of the nuance of light and shadow as well as the ephemeral.

In many ways, the work on show affects categories of vision. Weighty titles are at times provocative, always evocative. The awkwardly delirious sepia-tinged series Your trains run on time, but does the blood run through your veins? (2002) presents out of register, misshapen, indiscriminate pedestrians.

Hobbs' work is more suggestive of an 'urban dysfunction'. Uncontained by physical, visible boundaries, and in the process of funded 'renewal', Johannesburg is particularly ambiguous. Here many of us have to take possession of the active (psychological) distancing from our capital. Which brings me back to Barthes. 'M23 70 (2003)' holds that potential: by permeating boundaries of a city that is sad, sinister and luminous, Hobbs keeps it close to home.

October 4 - 31