Wednesday, July 16, 2014

When visuals fail: Marikana and art

JUST as the Marikana Commission has presented a long process of unearthing what took place during the massacre of striking miners in Marikana, artists have also taken time to respond to it.

Perhaps it is the magnitude of the massacre and its effects on our collective psyche, or its reflection of the state of our nation, that have contributed to the time delay. Among this year’s National Arts Festival’s more contentious works are some centred on this tragedy, such as Aryan Kaganof’s Night is Coming: Threnody for the Victims of Marikana. These are not the first works to do so; Rehad Desai’s documentary, Miners Shot Down, has garnered attention, as did Ayanda Mabulu’s contentious artwork, Yakhali’inkomo – Black Man’s Cry, at the Joburg Art Fair last year, which depicted Jacob Zuma crushing the body of a striking miner under his feet.

Artist Mary Wafer weighed in, too, in Mine, an exhibition presenting a quasi-abstract engagement with the predominant motifs associated with the tragedy that emerged via the media – such as the landscape and the workers assembled on the koppie.

The approach to the massacre that Kaganof embraces in his unconventional film (has Kaganof ever made a conventional one?) is probably best described as an abstract documentary. He achieves this by splicing footage not only from the day of the massacre, but from an academic conference and encounters with impoverished people at a dumpsite to create an abstract engagement with it, which seems engineered to get beyond the surface. This desire has much in common with Wafer’s approach; her quasi-abstract paintings showed an attempt to dismantle the images of the massacre that appeared in the media.

Kaganof attempts to do the same. However, he is a bit bolder; he advances the idea that this tragic event and what it signifies for our society cannot be visualised, or at least perhaps to do so would be to ignore what cannot be seen. This idea is driven home with a quote that reads: “Images see with the eyes of those that see them.”

The film is peppered with many insightful and philosophical quotes and other texts, as if confirming this theme regarding the limits of the visual and, of course, challenging the film medium itself.

Further exploring this motif are episodes meditating on a blind woman, who is advanced as this sensitive and paradoxically, “all seeing” being because she can’t be taken in by the world of appearances. It is not so much that sight is unreliable. It is probably just the form of visual fixation it facilitates that works at dulling our perception of all the invisible forces that might shape occurrences. Particularly violent ones that have ramifications that far exceed the moment in which they take place.

As a result parts of this multilayered film inevitably deal with memory and the landscape. In one such episode an academic observes that “landscape is a site of non-revelation”. Simply put, the landscape cannot relay the events that have occurred on it. This idea isn’t new; artists from William Kentridge to Jo Ratcliffe have all made work that meditates on or challenges this, though always in relation to our apartheid history. It is interesting, therefore, that this theme might re-emerge in relation to a post-apartheid event.

At first, it is the sounds of the massacre – the rat-a-tat-tat of quick gunfire – that is “depicted” (or heard) in the film, before we see the horror unfold in the footage. These haunting aural phrases are repeated throughout the film as a reminder that the effects of the massacre go beyond the present. In this way he suspends this act of violence, detaching it from reason or cause or effect, so that it looms as something that cannot be harnessed or processed. It is a way of holding on to the horror without it becoming acceptable.

This is partly because he wants to make a film about Marikana without representing it, or he must reconcile with the difficulties inherent in doing so. This may explain why he opts for an aural representation of it and also chooses to extend his gaze towards an academic conference and impoverished people, such as some men foraging on a dumpsite. By juxtaposing these two contradictory settings and communities of people; he delves not only into the differences between the haves and the have-nots but exposes the gap in the space between theory and reality. Not a predictable chasm, but the place between the visible and the invisible; the academics are completely absorbed by this invisible world of ideas and theory; they look so far beyond the world of appearances. They do not know what it is to live off the land.

The most uncomfortable scene in Kaganof's film is not the one where we see the massacre of miners by the police, but the juxtaposition of a homeless man showing this small space in a derelict building where he sleeps and Willem Boshoff talking about a small booth he set up a Basel Art Fair in 2009 that he lived in for the duration.  Aside from the obvious difference between being privileged enough to choose to sleep in a confined space and being forced to out of necessity, which adds to this discourse on spatial politics and class/race that Kaganof drives superficially, it exposes the unbridgeable gap between the seen and unseen. Boschoff can chose to experience sleeping in a small space but he can't ever really grasp (read see) what it might be like to not have that choice, even if he plays it out in a context or territory like an art fair where such complicated and obvious politics around 'space' abound. In other words if he enacts a battle within a territory that is within in his realm of existence, he still cannot understand the homeless man's predicament.    Not that this is the motivation for this performance - Kaganof is an irrepressible  visual cannabilist; he overwrites existing material in his visual deejaying. This is why he warns us not to trust visuals. Boshoff doesn't come across as some kind of pretentious art twat bent on voyeurism, in fact his druid walks appear to be driven by a genuine desire to connect with the world around him and gain knowledge about it. Despite these authentic gestures, he somehow still comes off looking like a fraud during his wanderings, with a group of people in tow who want to understand him rather than what he can't 'see'.    

Kaganof reduces the Marikana massacre to one that is tied to the politics of space and land ownership. As with Wafer’s exhibition, Kaganof doesn’t seek to pin anything down; if anything, through his documentary deejaying he attempts to open up different avenues through which to come to grips with how we understand and process not only this event, but a country where such extreme poverty has become its Achilles heel. Ultimately, as with Wafer’s work, he doesn’t deliver the viewer at a place where you can make sense of the Marikana massacre, but leaves you with the impression that you haven’t even begun to see (in depictions of it) what is not there. - an edited version of this article was first published in The Star, July 8. 

No comments: