Wednesday, February 9, 2011
Life at a Subterranean Level
This might explain why within the past three years this exhibition of Billy Monk photographs taken at a club in Cape Town called Les Catacombs in the late 1960s is the third collection of photographs to document a club scene. Liam Lynch recorded the antics of his peers cavorting in trendy nightclubs in A Claude Glass, which showed at the Rooke Gallery in 2008, and last year at the Afronova gallery Musa Nxumalo exhibited photographs of the so-called “alternative kidz” – a young black subculture that embraces alternative rock music. Interestingly, as with Monk, who was a bouncer at Les Catacombs, both of these photographers were “insiders” – part of the scene they chose to document.
Thus there is a sense that these bodies of works are not only motivated by a need to record the fleeting comings and goings of these transient communities they belong to, but they are personally invested in claiming a place within society for these subcultures. It is quite extraordinary really that communities form in nightclubs; perusing Monk’s photographs one is immediately struck by the fact that they are quite dysfunctional spaces. Certainly the environment of Les Catacombs doesn’t at all appear to be conducive to any kind of socialising: the walls are dirty, stained and chipped, the floors are laden with rubbish and disused bottles. Even the sparse furnishings – mostly rudimentary chairs, of the sort you would expect to find in an impoverished public school classroom – are uninviting. These filthy and dilapidated areas of this club recall the backdrops of Roger Ballen’s images of maladjusted whites locked in their own psychological hell.
Undoubtedly the conditions in this club fit in with its name, which refers to subterranean cemeteries or passageways, and certainly there is a sense that the very dysfunctionality of this environment and the one that exists outside is what binds the young people who cavort in Les Catacombs. Of course, these interiors aren’t completely alienating – a faux fountain and plastic screens bearing stereotypical renditions of old-world Italian or European cities adorn some areas. But the artificiality of the decorations aren’t disguised; the fountain looks lopsided and flimsy and the pseudo-Italian cityscapes are badly rendered and the sheen of the plastic interferes with the look of the images. Nevertheless, these visual cues are part of a strategy to situate this environment within the realm of fantasy. Nightclubs are supposed to provide an escape from reality. The fountain and the bare floors all work towards situating this place as an “outside” location, engendering the notion that this is a parallel world, a sort of mini-city within a city. It is a city of the inhabitants’ own making and one where they do not have to conform to social conventions.
The most obvious acts of challenging convention are evidenced in a number of images of women showing their naked breasts. But do these acts constitute liberation? In one of the photos a man is squeezing a woman’s bare breast, consequently it is implied that this act is performed to satisfy the men and is just an exaggerated form of behaviour that takes place outside the club. Most of the women sport the fashions of the 1960s: beehives and thick eyeliner. And while one can tell them apart there is a kind of sameness about them that suggests that even within this setting, few genuinely pursue individuality. Instead they are all chasing some ideal that seems just slightly out of their grasp.
Some of the couplings Monk documents appear inappropriate and clumsy; large women with small men, or a young woman with a much older man. But one is always left with a sense that these couplings are transitory – they clutch each other so closely and with such a sense of urgency that one is left to conclude they are exploiting the moment for all that it can offer before it has passed.
So what had Monk intended with these photographs? Given that he was a bouncer at the club he might have simply taken them with the aim of preserving this fleeting night scene for posterity. It seems unlikely he was making an ethnographic study of the curious vicissitudes of the human condition, though that is precisely what they offer us today. And while these photographs evoke a particular time and place, they also exude a kind of universality; in some ways the subjects are not different to those who appear in Nxumalo’s or Lynch’s images, who also engage in what seems to be a futile effort to be liberated from societal chains. - published in The Sunday Independent, January, 2010