Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Separating Fact from Fiction: Art and Journalism via Hugo and Chiurai

Sipho Ntsibande’s home, Soweto, 2013

 It was as a journalist that author Margie Orford stood over the body of a young girl who had been stabbed over 20 times that she  first understood, or at least observed, the rage that beats beneath the surface of our society. The language of journalism wasn’t up to the task of articulating what she could perceive and so she turned to fiction, though she has suggested that the form of reportage that she had been driving wasn’t such a leap away from the crime novels she came to write. Was she seeking the “novelistic truth” that Justin Cartwright, the South African-born UK-based author, identifies as the feature that the mask of fiction provides?

Sometimes the absence of answers can be satisfying. We expect artists to probe beneath the surface of our society, yet package their insights in a way that is palatable and marketable – and intriguing; we don’t want the bold facts overstated like an Ayanda Mabulu or Brett Murray portrait of President Jacob Zuma.
We don’t always want answers, when they can’t be easily supplied.  Mary Wafer’s quasi abstract mapping of the landscape where the Marikana tragedy took place in her exhibition, Mine, was such a body of work. In the absence of tangible clues to explain what had occurred,  she drew attention to our probing gaze and desire to get a handle on a truth or truths that the media supply and how we use them as a measure of “where we are at” – as if it is some fixed and knowable place that could even be visualised.

Does the language of art allow us to better grasp the unknown, in comparison to journalistic products which are designed to confront, reveal, what is (or should be) known?
At what point does the journalistic mode become insufficient and is it really that one dimensional?
Having worked for newspapers, Pieter Hugo knows the journalistic language well, you could even say he still works with it even though his photography is considered art and shows in galleries.
His latest exhibition, Kin, showing at Stevenson galleries in Joburg and Cape Town, is characterised by sharp images which imply that his subject matter has been thoroughly revealed or exposed in the documentary mode.

Every line on his subjects’ faces is rendered with such clarity and combined with the large scale of his prints, it is easy to believe we are bearing witness to reality. It also helps that he has selected subjects who bear physical marks of time or are marked by life; we see this in the veined, wrinkled hands of a man in Danville, 2013, an aged domestic worker, Meriam “Mary’ Tlali, who worked for the Hugo family, Daniel Richards, a young man who has tattooed his face, the portrait of Shaun Oliver, a man with a lined face and a burning cigarette hanging between his thin lips and Hugo’s pregnant partner, her body stretched by the child in her womb. These are subjects, therefore, who are moulded, scarred by life, the existences they lead – they know “reality”, are products of it.

The sharp lucidity with which Hugo renders them also makes them appear quite unreal, too real; we rarely observe people in this way, even in person. This imparts a hyperrealism that we tend to associate with figurative painting, such as Deborah Poynton’s highly detailed Baroque-esque brand that also zooms in on the unsightly minutiae of her (nude) subjects.

In this way the frailties and vulnerabilities of the subjects are enhanced or seemingly revealed, engendering the notion that the truth is there in front of us. It seems to be all about looking, not thinking.
The painterly analogy fits this oeuvre by Hugo, particularly the photographs that mimic the formula of the ubiquitous “still life” – like a vase containing flowers in the work Inside Hudson Kungu’s home Virginia. Or a plastic wrapped TV remote, ashtray and box of cigarettes on a table that allude to the habitual rituals for In Sipho Ntsibande’s home, Soweto, 2013.

As the dry, descriptive titles of the works imply, there is no mask of fiction at work here. In fact, if anything Hugo’s mode occupies the opposite end of the spectrum; a fascination, perhaps even pathological, fixation with facts and details. The devil’s in the details, as they say. But then there is no reality here that perhaps demands the mask of fiction; there is no child’s body riddled with knife wounds. There is no dramatic event that is so huge that it evades description, or perhaps even explanation. At the same time, while the objects and subjects of Hugo’s gaze appear ordinary, he attempts to monumentalise them, elevate them beyond the banal, so that they appear significant.
Portrait of Shaun Oliver

Obviously just the fact that he has chosen to photograph these people and things and show them in a gallery confers automatic significance but it is also the form of aestheticisation he embraces that achieves this; Hugo is not a dispassionate witness; his artful composition betrays the ego of an artist. These are not seemingly arbitrary snapshots in the mode of the American photographer Stephen Shore, who well and truly aims to capture the mundane without it appearing anything but what it is. Perhaps reality cannot ever be unmediated, but Hugo’s hand in these photographs is clear, his eye premeditated.

Yet there are some images that hint at chance encounters he has exploited, such as flattened red suckers on a highway. Some images are of expected subjects, such as Hugo’s daughter on the day of her birth.
The portrait of Thoba Calvin and Tshepo Cameron Sithole-Modisane locked in an embrace on a bed is also an expected image; two gay men in traditional garb are obvious subjects for a photograph, given some traditionalists’ view on homosexuality. This is an image for the newspapers - a page three story.
Each photograph tells a story, of course. But in the context of an exhibition the viewer is compelled to find ways of reconciling all of them with each other to detect the logic uniting them. This collection denies this; there is no obvious thread.

The title of the exhibition, Kin, might imply that Hugo is intimately attached to these images, either because the subjects are related to him, are people he knows well, or shares an allegiance through his work, but it is a slightly glib if not disingenuous title. As a photographer he is given access and assumes to wheedle his way into people’s intimate spaces, but this doesn’t seal a bond necessarily. In fact, it is the absence of a bond, kinship that ironically unites this body of work.

In the manner of Mikhael Subotzky’s 2011 Retinal Shift exhibition, Hugo appears to be turning his lens on himself. He does this most obviously by presenting an image of himself and images of his family, but also by presenting a collection of disparate images that work at revealing more about his own interests and experiences than the individuals portrayed.

Themes around intimacy and distance abound; he moves between people in their bedrooms to aerial views of Diepsloot and Dainfern. It’s as if he is searching for some kind of understanding about where he is placed in this scheme – or perhaps even displaced. This is his world and it isn’t. With their lined faces and mournful expressions his subjects looked beaten and battered; are they metaphors for his own psychic state, why else is he drawn to them? Or does their state weigh on him, like a heavy burden that he attempts to navigate through his camera lens?

This is a self-reflexive project that shows how the portraits reveal the portraitist. However, as with Subotzky’s show, this collection also confronts the viewer with the irreconcilable nature of the world of the documenter, or the journalist shall we say, whose curiosity and work involves moving through such a cross-section of society.

Typically, a journalist would concentrate on a particular theme, community or setting and package it into a narrative of sorts. However, like Subotzky, Hugo chooses to relinquish this role; burdening viewers with this objective. Is this just a fashionable cop-out; an admittance that there is no single truth, as per the post-modern turn? Or is the South African context irreconcilable or uncontainable, even too large for the conceits of art or Hugo’s subversion of the journalistic language? Or perhaps reality itself cannot be simply channelled through these filters?

Zimbabwean artist Kudzanai Chiurai isn’t preoccupied with reconciling divergent banalities or realities. His new exhibition, Harvest of Thorns at the Goodman Gallery, is described as “a culmination of projects around public acts of violence as documented and represented by the media”.
In other words he aims to look into dramatic conflicts – Marikana is cited as one such incident  - and “the state of the nation”, a Janus bronze sculpture of the artist even carries this title. The public realm where such conflicts or realities play out are in the press, yet Chiurai doesn’t rely on the language of journalism to delve into these dramatic occurrences; instead he relies on art history, religious iconography and African ritual to access an underlying “truth”.

In this way he draws on metaphors and powerful symbols while collapsing the boundaries between image and performance production, in an effort to get a handle on how rituals (of all kinds; religious, artistic and African) are used to frame and cope with, and perpetuate, violence. As such the (artistic, cultural) mechanisms to explain, motivate and alleviate violence are all wrapped in a single package – a flawed fiction that follows a sequential narrative but evades logic.

This circular kind of trap is given expression through a trilogy of films at the centre of this exhibition, which have been exhibited separately, but resonate in quite a different manner when closely juxtaposed, pointing at a never-ending cycle of violence, loss and cleansing or recuperation.
Iyeza (2011) is the first act, an African rendition of The Last Supper, where a slow-motion power struggle plays out. In the second film, Moyo (2013), a Madonna-like mother figure is bent over a bloodied body and the last one, Creation (from Conflict Resolution), which debuted at Documenta 2012, shows a woman in traditional African dress in a beautiful surrounding, singing, while washing in a pool of water.
This film could also mark the beginning of the trilogy as it speaks of a natural world in harmony, the scene before the games for control and power turn the world upside down in Iyeza. It doesn’t matter that this latter film plays so slowly, allowing us to see who the perpetrators and bystanders are, the power play and fallout cannot be averted.
This sense of inescapability or inevitability pervades this trilogy; violent battles cannot be avoided and conflicts seem to be the only way to resolve issues.

Deaths bring new life before the cycle is set in motion again.The female characters at the centre of each of these films are the observers and victims but also have the power (in the Creation film) to return order, albeit briefly and with a knowledge of what has been lost. Can the cycle be overturned, or escaped, this is a fiction after all?

As it is rooted in history, religion and thus deeply embedded in popular culture, there is a sense that you would have to rewrite the history of the world to be free from this cycle.Perhaps in this scheme of things, enough deaths will cleanse society of this trap, which is written into its fibre. Or does this idea perpetuate violence, make it acceptable? This tangled, complex cocktail of mythmaking, ritual, belief and truth, cannot find an easy place in the journalistic realm. For Chuirai, however, this arena, like the art history canon and even the visual character of Joburg’s urban palimpsest, forms his hunting ground, is part of the cocktail that he remixes.- first published in The Sunday Independent October 27, 2013

Hugo’s Kin will show at Stevenson Joburg until November 8, and Cape Town until November 23. Harvest of the Thorns will show at the Goodman Gallery Joburg until November 9

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