LUCIENNE BESTALL responds to van de Heuvel’s murky landscapes with a short story about murder, politics and empathy.

Reading time approx. 00:06:00
Download text ︎︎︎

or continue with the exhibition ⟶

There is a staircase in Rome made of wood, now polished to a shine and worn down by the pilgrims who ascend it on hands and knees. They climb the steps in slow procession, pausing to cry and whisper at each rise and tread. I once walked up those stairs, some twelve years ago, up between those huddled figures, to stand on the landing and watch the pilgrims move towards me like a slow, black river running uphill. At the time, I neither counted the steps nor considered their significance. 

Arriving at my family home to wait out the national lockdown, I found David Goldblatt and Santu Mofokeng’s books – The Last Interview and Chasing Shadows– left out on the coffee table. The second I am familiar with; the inscription on the title page is dated 2011. I have looked through it countless times these past nine years, returned to its photographs with growing familiarity, sought out different images at different times. The Last Interview I had not yet read, and did so one afternoon – Day Eight of our imposed isolation. Unlike Goldblatt’s earlier photobooks, this final book (published posthumously) is small. It is a curious text – the photographs footnotes to the places, people and times Goldblatt speaks of in his conversation with Alexandra Dodd. The images, for the most part, I know well. I recognise them with the pleasure of a friend seen after a long absence – those taken from the ‘On the Mines’ (1973), from ‘Some Afrikaners Photographed’ (1975), from ‘The Structure of Things Then’ (1998).

Paging through Goldblatt and Mofokeng’s books, I have found a new resonance in images previously overlooked. Perhaps I am only now recognizing their austere, distanced quality, or perhaps they have only recently emptied out. Among these images are two photographs from Goldblatt’s series on ‘Sandton’ (2017), with their forbidding structures and vacant streets, and Mofokeng’s pictures of “shadowed ground” – those places that have witnessed great suffering, now populated only by ghosts. Mass graves in Mozambique, a lake at Auschwitz, the site of a Boer War concentration camp, Katse Dam in Lesotho. There is a particular bleakness to these images, a shared absence, appearing at first as benign scenes on which history’s writing all but faded. All these photographs – Goldblatt’s and Mofokeng’s – are spare, all without colour. They are all landscapes too, in the broader sense of the word, both physical and psychological terrain; “a construct of memory,” as historian Simon Schama writes, “a work of the mind built up as much from the strata of memory as from layers of rock.”

I find further echoes of this absence a day later – Day Nine – revisiting a work by Simon Gush I first saw in 2013. Sunday Light is a 13 minute 14 second, black-and-white film, which takes as subject inner-city Johannesburg emptied of weekday activity and traffic. It is constructed as a montage of long, largely static shots, punctuated by white text against black frames. The only sounds belong to scenes filmed, to the city on its day of rest – a church service heard from outside, the occasional car, indistinct voices. What is particularly intriguing about this quiet, understated film is how precisely it describes our current collective moment. Now, the light Gush writes of belongs not only to Sunday but to every day:
Sunday brings its own quiet.

It is on Sundays that the idle city,
the city of time off,
is revealed in the light…

I can still hear the noise of those who live here
or make use of it in some way.
…but, if you look out of the wrong window,
the streets appear almost empty…

The occasional open shop seems strange
and out of place.

That I look to photographs and films in our shared solitude is perhaps unsurprising. Such images, be they still or moving, lend themselves to our newly-confined lives. There are few better ways to commune with photographs than in a book, to sit with them a while, unhurried and undisturbed. As Goldblatt tells Dodd, “a book is tangible and that quality is, to me, very important. The tactility. The sensuousness.” Moving between pages, backwards and forwards, “inwards and outwards,” offers the viewer a more engaged relationship to the images. With Goldblatt and Mofokeng’s books, which are summaries of lifetimes’ work, one moves not only between photographs but through time, from the photographers’ earliest images to their last. As with pictures printed on bound pages, so Gush’s film makes for intimate viewing on the small screen. It is perhaps not its intended form, but being accessible online, one is moved to watch and re-watch it.

A handful of photographs and a film – all indexical recordings, all black and white. What does my new affinity for such work reveal about their medium? Reducing an image to black and white, Okwui Enwezor writes in his contribution to Chasing Shadows, “has less to do with nostalgia for the old techniques of reportage with their grainy, truth-seeking, verité posture… but underlines an important critical debate between the supposed pastness of black-and-white photography, and the presentness of colour.” But even black-and-white photographs exist in a unique arrangement of time and space – as all indexical recordings do – “an illogical conjunction,” as Roland Barthes suggests, “of the here and the formerly.” Indeed, black-and-white images appear, if anything, more receptive to projections, to being seen again and anew. They lend themselves to be coloured by the times in which they are viewed, are at once historically located and curiously free-floating. Where colour saturates an image with specificity, its lack invites the viewer to engage in a more reflective communion, to project something of their own life onto the subject. Desaturated, the image offers both an historical distance and a contemporaneous closeness.

The uncertainty of the times, of these times, has settled on these images, and I look to them that they might tell me something of the uncertain place we find ourselves. I find I am already trying to understand this moment historically, to experience it less as the present moment than as one to be reflected on in the future. I think ahead to revisiting this time of solitude, remembering it with friends, recounting it to disbelieving children. Much as the photograph consigns its subject to the not any more (Thierry de Duve) or the having been there (Roland Barthes), so I too establish a certain distance between myself and now. “We will all have our own metaphors and images to make meaning of this time,” Megan O’Grady writes in a poignant essay for The New York Times, “the visuals that endure, reflecting us back to ourselves. We don’t yet have the image, the one that stands for everything that went wrong…[but] it seems important that the most potent images of this time thus far have showed us what our world looks like without us in it.”

For all the emptiness of these images – Goldblatt’s, Mofokeng’s, Gush’s – much is latent in them. These three artists have quietly chronicled South African life, born witness to how this life is written on the land, in its structures or their absence. “I was drawn,” Goldblatt wrote, “not to the events of the time but to the quiet and commonplace where nothing ‘happened’ and yet all was contained and immanent.” Writing of Mofokeng’s collected works, Sabine Vogel notes that the absence of spectacle grounds his aesthetic. Gush too, approaches his subjects obliquely, focussing on small, everyday moments to illustrate more abstract ideologies. Contained in all their images – even those that now affect me as hauntingly deserted – are histories and politics, desires and dread, layered like Schama’s strata of rock and memory.

If there is any comfort in these images, beyond the initial pleasure of recognition, it is the promise of time’s movement, even when it feels it might have stopped. To document life on film, Susan Sontag writes, “is to participate in another person’s (or thing’s) mortality, vulnerability, mutability. Precisely by slicing out this moment and freezing it, all photographs testify to time’s relentless melt.” People have come and gone, those photographed and those who photographed, and places once familiar have become unrecognizable. What would Mofokeng and Goldblatt think of their shared muse, the city of Johannesburg, now emptied of people? For Gush, it is a place shaped as much by the built environment as by the movement of labour. Johannesburg – white text reads against the black – is a workday city defined by the rhythms of employment. What is it then in a month of Sundays?
‘Untitled One,’ Oil on canvas