Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Life at a Subterranean Level

Peculiar things happen in nightclubs. It is in these dark spaces that social boundaries are challenged and temporarily dismantled and where individuals explore and advertise their sexuality. It is perhaps for all of these reasons that photographers gravitate towards them. Certainly photographers find more amenable subjects in these places; or at least the barriers have partially collapsed.

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.