Archive: Issue No. 122, October 2007

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Peter Machen

Looking Aside (Punctum Editions 2006)
Photographs by Pieter Hugo
Text by Antjie Krog

Looking Aside / Pieter Hugo: South African studio portraits 2003 - 2006
reviewed by Ed Young

I like art publications. I like monographs. I like Pieter Hugo.

But Jesus, what was he thinking? There is certainly no question around Hugo's immaculate photographic skills. He is subtle, proficient and to the point. Hugo is the proud recipient of numerous awards in photographic media, portraiture, fine art and the like. The latest being the prestigious Standard Bank Young Artist Award, whose previous winners such as Pippa Skotnes and Malcolm Payne.

Looking Aside marks Hugo's first monographic contribution to the artworld, one that is long overdue. The book looks nice on the surface, but closer inspection raises many concomitant complexities. As I am sure that Hugo understands his position, ethical complications are brought to front. Hugo is a kid, born in raised in Hugovale (pardon), and is now making a living photographing white black people, blind black people and extremely ugly people, and he sells prints for a pretty dime to a predominantly white market. This is all neatly packaged in his new monograph.

Some ethical implications of this type of monograph, and exhibition format, are comfortably located in the physical event of exhibition attendance where highfliers of the artworld bounce around in last week's Issey Miyaki, toasting bad sparkling wine and buying/selling prints at inflated prices to the Friends of the National Gallery and numerous corporate collections. The book seems to promote social awareness but lacks subtlety in terms of substance and general tact, for that matter.

A challenged individual called in local lit expert Antjie Krog to write the introductory text. Krog is fucked in the head and makes Hugo's work smack of Afrikaner idealism, never spoken nor raised, but overtly poeticisedO^?�� badly. The text removes all critical authority that Hugo's work might command, and dumbs it down to Afrikaner housewife arty mentality. My mother will love it, but will international critics share the sentiment?

Krog has a moment: 'I look at her. She looks at me. I feel my lips soften, reacting to her slight smile. Her eyes affirm me. It feels to me that I affirm to her that she is fearlessly looking back at me.'

As a smelly pile of codswallop, the text seems to succeed. But I hold Hugo responsible for a lack of rigorous approach and response to his work... when in book form. Krog brings out the Sandton in him. It doesn't really work.

Krog does not directly comprehend the term 'African': 'despite her white [albino] skin, she is black. She is an African'. It is now a well-known fact that the particular text in question is being taught in some of SA's top universities on how not to write a catalogue introduction.

Enough about Krog and the essay entry. Critical discourse gets neglected while the waffling of the aged poet remains. Where are the guns? Only a few may take this seriously; possibly recent investors.

What I do like about the publication though, is that it compiles Hugo's aesthetic sensibilities, albeit extremely Colours magazine, and the fact that Hugo did not really distinguish between separate projects. But that's about it.

This reviewer is well aware of the financial implications of producing a publication of this nature, and simple things such as catalogue text lend weight to the work. The title and text are Camembert.

But, if you are going to judge a book by its cover, this one looks pretty cool.