Construct: Beyond the Documentary Photograph at the Durban Art Gallery
by Peter Machen
Capetonian gallerist and curator Heidi Erdmann and Pretoria-based curator Jacob Lebeko have put together a show entitled 'Construct: Beyond the Documentary Photograph'. The exhibition explores contemporary South African photography as it relates to notions of documentation. The exhibition finds that the variety and diversity of form is so wide that the very definition of documentary photography stretches and then breaks.
It's a definition that's been creaking under the strain for decades now - in still photography, literature and the moving images - as fiction and non-fiction move ever closer in attempting to achieve representations that are not so much truthful as resonant of truth. It's also an interesting proposition that much of contemporary photography is moving in the direction of something akin to poetry; the discipline increasingly acknowledging that the power of images and objects is far greater than the sum of their representational meanings.
Cinema uses this trick far more than photography, which even in the creative field tends to cling to strictly linear representation. In Gus van Sant's film My Own Private Idaho, a wooden house falls through the Mid-Western sky. It's a gorgeous image and, on the most obvious level, representative of the River Phoenix character's broken childhood. But it carries infinitely more weight than its meaning or aesthetic, reaching deep into our collective consciousness. This is frequently the terrain in which 'Construct... ' operates.
Abrie Fourie's Crossing, Tshwane, South Africa works in this way. A series of framed images depicts a broken plastic chair strewn across the eponymous landscape. The broken chair is exactly the kind of random detritus you might come across on a road trip across South Africa, but I presume Fourie destroyed the chair himself. Regardless, what is important is that the series of pictures constitutes a self-portrait. That may seem oblique for some, but accept that notion and the work, along with much of the exhibition, opens up. In fact, curator Erdmann says that when viewers are told this, their very expectation of what photography is often changes, and they suddenly become very enthusiastic about taking their own photographs.
This is interesting, in that so much contemporary culture - perhaps all culture - is defined and constrained by remarkably simple definitions. Galleries are places for paintings or sculptures, photographs are portraits or landscapes. Liberation from these constraints can only be good. In fact, one of the successes of 'ConstructÔøΩ ' is that it takes work that might be considered difficult for mainstream audiences, and makes it utterly accessible; the curation provides an intelligent pop sparkle that leads you deeper into the work.
Another of its successes is that the exhibition feels like a single body of work, despite its diversity. This might be one valuable definition of what makes for a strong group show.
Alongside Fourie, 'Construct... ' features a broad range of South African art photographers, or artists who use the camera as a medium. The works on display acknowledge a kind of bell curve of constructivity, using two of Zwelethu Mthethwa's contextual front-on portraits as the starting point of the exhibition. From that point on, the flow is towards abstraction, the curators deliberately ending the exhibition with Fourie's series, End of the world, a beautiful triptych of the waters at Cape Point. This work which is completely abstract, is, at the same time, technically a straight, unmediated document. In Erdmann's words, this loops the viewer 'right back to Mthethwa's work, in which the involvement of the artist seems minimal, but we know it is there.'
Self-representation forms a strong part of the exhibition. Nomusa Makhuba, Lien Botha and Jacques Coetzer all feature themselves literally - although transmogrified in some way - while Fourie and Berni Searle use metaphor as an exploration of the self.
Along the way, surrealism also creeps in, from the stark non-sequitur of Lien Botha's White Stick for the Arctic series to the surreal abstraction of Roger Ballen's images, which may or may not have been physically constructed but certainly beg the question. Dale Yudelman's digitally-manipulated panorama of a street that doesn't exist treads similar ground. And then there are Barbara Wildenboer's installation pieces which literally fuse photography with sculpture, pulling out photographic layers into the third dimension. Zander Blom's masterful works do the reverse, flattening - but also expanding - three-dimensional imagery into the photographic frame.
As well as a showcase of a diverse pool of talented artists who use the camera in unexpected ways, 'Construct... ' is a tribute to the evolving power and democracy of digital photography. The digital revolution may, in many ways, have diminished the purity of photography, both technically and aesthetically, but it has also limitlessly expanded its possibilities, both for the general public and for artists. The excitement of this democratisation bubbles beneath the surface of the show. And its broad array of content and approaches to photography suggest that the simple still camera, with its tiny set of essential parameters, remains one of the most powerfully creative human inventions, arguably rivalling guns and bombs and the internet and terrorism in its power to impact on our world.
Opens: September 19
Closes: January 31, 2009
Durban Art Gallery
2nd Floor City Hall, Anton Lembede St (formerly Smith St) Durban
Tel: (031) 311 2264
Fax: (031) 311 2273
Hours: Mon - Sat 8.30am - 4pm, Sun 11am - 4pm