Monday, November 23, 2009

The Ponte: Mikhael Subotzky and Patrick Waterhouse


Initially I had planned on doing a straight review of Subotsky and Waterman's two part exhibition that was showing at The Goodman Gallery in Joburg and their Project Gallery at Arts on Main. My editor was on the lookout for a feature story and I wasn't going to pass up the opportunity to write a feature on the Ponte, the main focus of their exhibition at the Goodman on Jan Smuts Avenue. I have been writing about the regeneration of Joburg for years; it's an ongoing project that has thrown up an endless range of juicy angles. I felt almost immediately that Subotzky and Waterhouse's images articulated some of the themes that I have been writing about, especially one of my latest features on the Mythologizing of Joburg, where I attempted to unpack the myths surrounding Joburg’s inner city. Nevertheless had I simply reviewed their exhibition I would have come off feeling slightly underwhelmed; as thrilling as it is to see work that relates to my own, it is slightly disappointing: I want to be confronted with images that surprise and challenge me. This two part exhibition did neither, especially the second part at Arts on Main, which focussed on Subotzky’s interest in the crime phenomenon: another topic that I have mined from hard news pieces, to softer more abstract investigations. I wanted more from this exhibition: I wanted it to offer more than a journalistic analysis- perhaps the documentary genre isn’t up to the job?  

This is my feature on the Ponte and Subotzky and Waterhouse's survey of this Jozi landmark:


AT FIRST it was simply a symbol of architectural innovation. With its cylindrical construction and hollow inner core that would allow natural light to flood the apartments, Ponte, or Ponte City as it was called, was envisioned to be an ingenious architectural wonder that would not only be visibly intriguing but would alleviate some of the drawbacks inherent to conventional apartment blocks. But architect Rodney Grosskopff's vision was flawed. The building's cylindrical design meant that when strong gusts of wind circulated around the inner core it created an eerie hum. Sometimes the wind even sucked out glass windows. The extensive rubbish shoots, which ran the length of the 54-storey building didn't function properly, spewing rubbish into the inner core, according to a leading property developer. Some of the balconies proved inadequate for children and are rumoured to have caused at least one fatal accident. Consequently, the building quickly lost its cachet as a symbol of utopian urban living. And when the inner city's persona began to change from the late 1980s to the early 1990s, turning into what many perceived as a dystopian African city Ponte, which had fallen into a state of disrepair, became emblematic of the city's demise - and failed dreams.

To a certain degree Ponte lived up to its illustrious reputation; reports suggest that at its nadir five-storey high layers of debris filled its inner core, prostitutes and drug dealers operated out of the building and it became a popular site for suicide. In other words the Ponte was one's last pit-stop if one had given up on life altogether. Its proximity to Hillbrow - believed to be the apotheosis of Joburg's slide into iniquity and still considered a no-go area of Joburg - sealed its status. At one point it was reported that ANC Youth League had suggested that it be turned into a prison. Consequently people projected all their fears, anxieties and negative perceptions about Joburg on to Ponte and its character grew to mythological proportions. A base jumper once quipped that his jump off the Ponte tower wasn't half as terrifying as entering the building. Its status made it a popular source of interest for artists, writers and film-makers, with some exploiting and intensifying the myths surrounding the building and others choosing to confront and unpack those myths. No doubt British film-maker Danny Boyle, who is turning Norman Ohler's 2002 novel, Ponte City, into a fast-paced thriller will probably fall into the former category.