Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Organised Chaos: Subotzky's Retinal Eye

There is such an overabundance of art forms and works at the National Arts Festival that the adjective “excess” comes to mind. It's a polyphonic explosion: multiple voices, images, gestures and dialogues seem to coalesce into a chaotic continuum as the days progress. This is what makes this annual arts explosion in Grahamstown such an invigorating and stimulating experience. However, for an arts critic/commentator tasked with making sense of the festival, it is tricky attempting to fashion a clean narrative. 

Mikhael Subotzky’s exhibition Retinal Shift, which showed at the Monument Gallery and Gallery in the Round, serves as a useful model to read the festival for it is, through this progressive show, that he meditates on excess, the excess that reality, the South African experience, presents. How, as a photographer, do you make decisions about what images to isolate from such an endless stream of experiences that all beg to be captured before they disappear with time? 

Historically, Subotzky has isolated and zoned in on particular subjects, the Ponte, the Pollsmoor prison population. In this exhibition, however, he embraces a self-reflexive stance, analysing, sorting through his archive (and others), which leads him to probe the mechanics of photography – or the process of documentation. This inward gaze is best expressed in Self Portrait; an image of the retina of his eyes taken by an optometrist. Winning the Standard Bank Young Artist Award seems to have compelled this young artist to survey his photographic “eye”. I suppose the idea is that every photograph he takes ultimately reflects more closely on him than his subjects. With this in mind, he becomes undiscerning about what “class” of photography his images belong to. 

In I was Looking Back (2012), he presents photographs from his professional work and those charting his personal life: photographs of friends, himself. So it is that images from Pollsmoor Prison are juxtaposed with ordinary family photos, a girl leaning on a gate in a rural setting. This diverse collection covers a wall. It’s an excessive display, presenting a cacophony of imagery that appears chaotic, haphazard even, though there are discreet narratives that thread through, loosely uniting some photographs.A visual mirroring occurs between a picture of a man lying on a bed in a prison and a woman lying on her stomach getting a skin treatment. There are no captions, no contexts to these images; they are free-floating, allowing for multiple kinds of narratives to be assembled or disassembled. It’s up to you.