Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Out of Sight: Jo Ractliffe

It is as if nature has overwritten history. A concrete grave is cracked and partially obscured by grass and other vegetation, which has penetrated its hard surface. In time this grave will be completely overgrown and its existence will be obscured from sight. The surfaces of buildings have disintegrated and the iconography that once adorned them has faded. Nothing lasts. Not even the traces of a violent war. The natural landscape might exude a sense of permanence but it is constantly shifting, erasing history.

So, superficially, it seems as if Ractliffe’s attempt to document sites along the routes of the border war fought by South Africa in Angola during the 1970s and 1980s is futile. There is nothing left to see. Hence she maps the edges, the boundary where the visible is passing into invisibility. Like the grave stone that is gradually being concealed.

The landscape’s inability to keep a record of the violent and abhorrent events that have taken place on it has preoccupied a number of South African artists. Driving it is a frustrated compulsion to reconcile with a past that cannot be fully accessed. Without visual or physical markers to substantiate and navigate history, the past becomes indiscernible, ambiguous, and slips into the abstract territory of myth. Thus the landscape’s inability to speak evokes a psychological form of erasure and paralysis – until the past has been recovered it cannot be transcended.
In William Kentridge’s animated films such as Felix in Exile (1994), he inserts bright orange lines into his monochromatic palette to draw attention to the places on the landscape where dead bodies once lay. This sense of nature conspiring to erase the past pervades Ractliffe’s exhibition.