SMAC Art Gallery 01

artthrob picks

The Best Event of 2013 - Jo Ractliffe's The Borderlands

By Chad Rossouw on 21 January

Floor slab, temporary military base, Riemvasmaak

Jo Ractliffe
Floor slab, temporary military base, Riemvasmaak, 2012. Silver gelatin print

ArtThrob's staff have been asked to reflect on the most interesting event of 2013. This is the deputy editor Chad Rossouw's choice:

Photography is good at recording traces, but it is more tricky to imbue those traces with a sense of their origin, history, narrative and significance. Photography is good at symptoms, less good at causes. But a good artist can hint at these causes.

It is for this reason that I have chosen Jo Ractliffe’s 'The Borderlands' as my art event of the year. Not because it was the best show; that is an impossible choice. Nor because it was the most exciting event; the opening was like infinite others. Rather, the work achieves something fascinating in its combination of aesthetics and content. It reveals something about the subjects she is working with and about the potential for photography to engage meaningfully with those subjects.

'The Borderlands' picks up from her two previous series of works on the civil war and battle sites in Angola, but brings it closer to home. She focuses on three locations in South Africa: Pomfret, Riemsvermaak and Kimberley. These three locations were used by the SADF during the mobilization for the war in Angola. Ractliffe tries to pick out the traces and remnants of that time in the present. This is tricky, as all that is extant is the surfaces of the landscape and the people occupying them. The traces are often subtle: the ruin of a barrack, a sheet of poured concrete, late afternoon shadows and makeshift cemeteries. The traces are even invisible, a group of children play in a mineshaft, or a man reads his bible. Ractliffe, however, manages to make these subtleties seem significant.

Over these series of works, Terreno Ocupado, As Terras do Fim do Mundo, The Borderlands, Ractliffe has developed a very specific style. The photographic grain seems to sit on the surface of a white void and the image seems etched into this emptiness. This seems to hint at there being more: the image isn’t the final destination. This leads you to want to look closer at the subtleties, to instill significance in an arrangement of rocks, a dry landscape. This clever play between her aesthetics and her content, is what, for me, makes this the stand-out show of 2013.

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