Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Spring Art Tour Joburg: more detailed reviews

SPRING Art Tour seems an inappropriate title for what took place in Joburg last weekend. Spring art frenzy more succinctly captures the frenetic pace of the plethora of art openings and events squeezed into the Thursday night and Saturday programme. Art lovers were spread thinly across the city, leaving many exhibitions looking under-patronised. It was a pity because most galleries delivered with aplomb, offering stimulating shows.

David Krut presented Alastair Whitton's Patmos and the War at Sea, an unconventional series of photographs presented like pages of a valuable book. Whitton reworked photographic and filmed footage from WW2 into an array of photographs that had an abstract and ambiguous quality. One had to study each image closely to perceive what they represented - a satisfying twist on the documentary genre, which usually offers no impediments in discovering visual information.

This kind of photography is supposed to offer viewers undeniable truths, the ambiguity of the imagery challenges this feature. By obfuscating the nature of his images, Whitton slows down our consumption of them and forces us to engage with their textural and abstract qualities. This has theoretical ramifications, in terms of how we digest history and how our obsessed gaze into the past, and particularly our fixation with World War 2, a predominant theme on the History Channel, often takes us beyond the events and leaves us meditating on the mode of representation. By keeping us distanced from the images, Whitton encourages us to engage with the content anew, even if it hails from a time in history that has been the subject of intense study in popular culture. Even when we are able to identify what the images represent, such as a man lying down and looking through a pair of binoculars, we are still unable to penetrate the full nature of the image. He is just barely visible and we cannot perceive the object of his gaze. This echoes our relationship with events that happened in the past; though photographs and films allow us to have some access, it is only ever partial.

The blurred and abstract forms that dominate these images impart a surreal flavour, leaving one feeling as if one has entered a dream-state over which we have no control. We are left with snatches of obscure information, which we try to decode and interpret. In this way Whitton reaches towards conjuring the experience of intense trauma, such as war. Certainly for the post-war generations, the events of those times appear senseless, so our study of the events is motivated by a desire to unravel the logic that led to such extreme loss of life and destruction. Each photographic image is teamed with a page of what appears to be Braille or some sort of coded message, which, like the photographs, resists being decoded. Printed on thick, textured paper, the artworks appear as if valuable documents or pages from a book that has been dismantled. This relates to the process of deconstructing and reconstructing history, two activities that appear to happen almost simultaneously, further obscuring the truth. In other words while we are presented with an open book, the information it contains is closed to us.