Friday, December 7, 2012

Treasure Hunting: Photography and Mines

Neville Petersen expects a song and dance when he arrives at a mine shaft. East Rand Proprietary Mines South East Vertical (SEV) shaft in Boksburg has been closed since 2005, but there are a few guards stationed at the entrance who aren’t keen to let us in. It’s not the buried wealth underground that needs protecting, or even the dilapidated structures above ground, it is simply a knee-jerk reaction; this compulsion to conceal its business from the prying eyes of strangers. After 15 minutes of patient negotiations, Petersen returns to the car and parks it under a large tree overhanging the driveway. We must wait for a more senior security manager to allow us entry into the mine’s premises. A group of men are tending to the manicured gardens leading up to the entrance.

There seems little reason now to maintain appearances; the only visitors are unwanted. They are mostly scavengers that enter under the dark cloak of night to steal cables. And then, there is Petersen, a former photojournalist who has made a habit of roaming around these abandoned institutions with a camera attached to his eye. This is his third or fourth visit to SEV, but he sees new things here all the time; because the imposing shaft building and all the dilapidated machinery and empty buildings are caught in an aggressive state of entropy, their exteriors are constantly changing. Nothing remains stagnant, not even a decommisioned mine.

There are all sorts of logical explanations for Petersen’s fixation with these edifices – it is the buildings, the discarded machinery that capture his interest. It might have something to do with growing up on the East Rand, Springs, in-between two mines. The imposing architecture of the shafthead frame is imprinted on his consciousness as in much the same way as the blue of a highveld sky. So, perhaps it was always written in the stars that he would one day want to survey the activities connected to this enduring motif, untangling the mystery that they weaved into his childhood dreams.

There are few Joburg-based photographers or artists who have not sought to represent the mines at some time in their career. Everyone from William Kentridge to Sam Nhlengethwa, to Natasha Christopher have grappled with this phenomenon. Currently, an exhibition of the images from David Goldblatt’s seminal photographic essay On the Mines, are being exhibited alongside Alfredo Jaar’s lightbox images of an opencast mine in north-eastern Brazil at the Goodman Gallery in Joburg.

This exhibition had been planned for some time, to coincide with the publication of a new edition of the acclaimed 1973 book by Goldblatt, but it fortuitously tied in with the renewed interest in the politics attached to the mining industry that the Marikana massacre generated. Of course, as the industry accounts for the rise of Joburg, the city’s identity is tied to it, but it has also provided the stage for prevailing power relations to be enacted.

The tragic events at Marikana brought this sharply into relief, evoking the twisted relations between the miners, unions, Lonmin, the police and the state itself. So, in a way the conditions around mining and the nature of the relationships it produces, has become a touchstone for the state of our nation. For Kentridge, particularly in his charcoal animations, the deep penetration the shafthead frame facilitates operates as a metaphor, for not only the imperial gaze but greedy exploitation. There is a sense that once this grand machine is set in motion and the pattern of exploitation is set, it cannot be stopped.

“Through these gates walk the safest men and women in the industry,” reads a sign at the entrance of SEV.
The mining industry isn’t unaware of how it is perceived. The manicured gardens and the suggestion box near the entrance are some of the small gestures towards deflecting negative perceptions. When we are finally given the go-ahead to enter the SEV premises, Petersen makes a beeline for the shafthead frame.

Three security guards trail us and watch us from a distance, perplexed as a speechless Petersen approaches his muse. It’s easy to see why this complex erection with an intricate interlacing of steel constructions interests him. In a way it looks like the spine or skeleton of a building that has yet to be completed. There are no superfluous decorative elements to it; everything is functional.

It brings to mind one of Goldblatt’s photographs of a makeshift wooden chair for the use of a barber, who presumably visited from time to time to provide haircuts for the miners. The photograph was taken in 1965 outside a compound on the Luipaardsvlei Estates, Krugersdorp. It’s not a sturdy structure; a lopsided bench is pressed up against a flat pole. It’s the crudeness of it that resonates with the architecture of the shafthead frame, and, much of the other structures at the mine. It is as if all civility, all niceties and small comforts, have been stripped away.

So perhaps it is no wonder that this industry above all others is associated with exploitation; there is a sense here that the architecture, the design, has facilitated a form of dehumanisation. Or perhaps we read this industrial architecture through the lens of the history and politics attached to this industry?

Wandering around an abandoned mine forces an intimate relationship with the architecture. This might have been what appealed to Goldblatt in the mid-1960s when he began shooting – also choosing vacant spaces. The diverse edifices attached to mines speak in ways that subjects can’t; you also aren’t forced into the uncomfortable position of summoning a fleeting form of empathy.

It isn’t just the crude structures, summoning the dehumanising culture that mining has perpetuated, that are important, but even the ornate ones that exude the imbalance of power, such as Goldblatt’s 1965 image of a pretty Victorian house belonging to a general manager in New Kleinfontein, Benoni.

This is in stark contrast to the 1965 image of the remains of a miner’s bunk at New State Mines, near Springs. One of the exterior walls of the structure has fallen down, allowing light into what must have been a dark hovel but for the colourful pin ups that decorate a wall. The miners’ hostels and other staff quarters are no longer standing at SEV. They were demolished some time ago and the land was sold, erasing the stories, the history tied to them.

SEV was established in the late 1800s, now it is embedded in a suburb of Boksburg: you approach the mine via quiet suburban streets that once belied the hard graft being carried out at subterranean levels.
“Some mines are slowly taken apart, when I return to them they have changed, there is less and less to see,” observes Petersen as we walk through the detritus of buildings, cracked glass and broken bricks that litter the ground. We are crushing what’s left under our feet.

It’s not just the gradual degradation that keeps the 50-something photographer making repeat trips to the mines but the actuality that what’s left of them will be destroyed completely. Part of his mission is to document these places before they disappear. In the five-odd years that he has been pursuing this offbeat passion, he has observed how this industry has shrunk.
“When I started there were mines that had 16 working shafts, now they only have eight left. The business is slowing down, it feels like a dying culture.”

For this reason he also photographs shafts that are still in operation – his aim is to record every mine in South Africa. He photographed the Aurora mine just weeks after its workers were told to leave; in one photograph, dubbed Unfashionable, miners’ clothing is suspended in baskets from the ceiling in the change house. It’s as if their absence is temporary and their return imminent.

Photographing disused shafts appeals to him the most; it’s the aesthetics of degeneration that seem to appeal to him. We enter a building without a roof, the paint on the walls has almost completely been eroded by the elements. There are still shards of glass held into the window frames. Petersen stops to shoot the shafthead frame through a shattered window. Immersed in this setting it’s hard to believe that this place once generated wealth and power. This is perhaps what keeps Petersen returning; the sense of disbelief and, paradoxically, relief that this notion engenders – this place has been divested of its influence.

It is in the tranquil engine or winding room that the arrest of power is most palatable. This is where large circular electric winding drums are located. The hoisting or winding ropes that allow the cage or kibble to descend or rise into or out of the shaft are coiled around these drums, so, in a way this is the heart of the action. Some time ago, that is. The concrete floor is almost completely covered in a fine layer of bird faeces and feathers. It is ironic that this bastion of industrial power has fallen into the clutches of pigeons.

“I see this everywhere I go. The pigeons get into all these buildings at some stage,” observes Petersen, before he moves off quickly – the winding room is his favourite area of the mine. He disappears into a small office located above a large drum. A door creaks closed, I see a flash go off. Chipped wooden boards bearing safety instructions and shift times and duties are still pinned to the walls. Traces of human activity are everywhere.

Jaar is fixated with (the cost of) human struggle in his study of the Serra Pelada, an opencast mine in a remote part of north-eastern Brazil. There are no machines enabling this mining, just the human body toiling in the earth, fighting against nature in the raw pursuit of survival. The miners don’t wear any protective gear and are covered in a film of mud that lends a shimmer to their skin, making them appear uniform and animal-like.

They bring to mind the Orcs, a race of sentient slaves toiling in the dark depths of Middle Earth, as depicted in Peter Jackson’s filmic rendition of JRR Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. Jaar doesn’t isolate individuals, the miners are anonymous, appearing en masse.

So, in a way he doesn’t aim to give them expression through his photography; redeem their status as individuals. He is interested in them as part of a phenomenon and because of this the display of the photographs – in the lightbox – is important as were the sites of display in New York’s subway where the images were initially installed when they were shown in the late eighties.

Jaar was looking to draw attention to the exploitation of Third World workers for the benefit of First World citizens as facilitated by a neo-liberal capitalist economy. The scenes he presents seem so extreme they appear contrived; like the dystopian fantasy world of Tolkien’s imagination.

Like Goldblatt, Jaar intended to expose human suffering by offering evidence of the reality of the conditions.
Goldblatt took a less sensationalist route; though he, too, documents the actual labour with a series of images shot underground. They are blurred and grainy as if the heat and condensation in the air has permeated, warped the film. However, it is a photograph of thousands of shovels retrieved from underground in a salvage yard in Randfontein estates in 1965 that subtly and powerfully evokes human struggle.

Miners trapped underground brought Petersen to various mine shafts during the time he worked as a journalist – first for The Citizen, then Beeld. He was confined to makeshift press rooms during those occasions and saw little of the premises. It was only after a long break from photojournalism that his interest had a chance to develop and blossom, and he began to hunt down decommisioned mines using Google Earth.

Petersen is hoping to transition into the art world with his photographs, though there is something quite mechanical and journalistic about them. The subject matter might make them sufficiently attractive to gallerists and buyers. These images are his gold; like a miner, he, too, has been retrieving them from the murky depths of forgotten places.

He has been sitting on them for some time, only choosing to show them for the first time at the Joburg Fringe during the Joburg Art Fair. The Marikana massacre has added relevancy to his work, while in turn, in documenting the gradual shrinking of the industry, he indirectly evinces the reasons that the fight to maintain it might become dirtier.

Thousands of miners lost their jobs when SEV closed. Presently, it employs only a handful of security guards, who shadow us back to the car.- published in The Sunday Independent, December 04, 2012

l On The Mines and Gold in the Morning are showing at the Goodman Gallery until December 14. Top image: Workers left this change house more than two years ago; now only their meagre belongings represent them in their absence. Picture by Neville Petersen. Below: A mine policeman’s sentry box and demolished lavatory, New Modder, Benoni, August 1966. Picture: David Goldblatt

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