Manufacturing Otherness from Within: Mikhael Subotzky’s ‘WYE’

Writing about white people, about whiteness, is tiring, unfulfilling labour. Not very different, one supposes, from talking to a wall about its wall-ness. You will shout your face blue, then green, then you will, eventually, filled with the nausea of the inexorable senselessness of the endeavour, vomit on yourself or the wall. Either way, you will not accomplish much except, perhaps, finally grasping one’s own predictable and insatiable rage. Rage is, I suppose, necessary for revolution but always looks out of place inside the cube. The space is already within fictionality and everything that falls within its glaring whiteness thrusts out into our view with cloying childlike desperation for our attention. It becomes, you might say, visible. This is no mistake on the part of the space of course for the white walls themselves contain and complete the ideal modern, that is, the creation of strangeness out of otherwise un-strange things.

Two weeks ago I went to Mikhael Subotzky’s new show at the Goodman in Joburg. The last I had spoken or seen anything by Subotzky was about two years prior, when we had a somewhat relaxed conversation about his work, especially the work that had attracted him some controversy. I could sense a disillusionment about the project of image-making in South Africa and the projections and positionalities involved in that process of re/presentation. Subotzky, everyone knows I assume, is a photographer – a documentary photographer at that – and a white documentary photographer whose work, the work that attracted him the blinding spotlight of media attention and its concomitant ire of rage and disapproval, concerned black bodies existing and instrumentalised within various boundaries of pathology: the prison, inner city squalor, poverty, etc. The kind of themes that attract precisely the kind of documentary photography which is lauded and rewarded by the institutions made up of people who get off on that kind of stuff. And so, I slightly looked forward to our conversation, given the themes and the analysis we’d shared in our last chat about image-making, South Africa, and so on.

It was sunny two weeks ago and I walked out of my Sandton electric-fenced bricks in shorts. I’d been cooped up for too long inside that maddening security I was becoming confused whether it was the criminal outsider (Other) they were keeping out or the sociopathic insider (Other) they were keeping in. In any case, the cruise to Goodman was fairly smooth. No traffic. I had promised myself to see this show, to speak to Mikhael if possible, if not for the reasons I’ve stated above, then for the simple reason of taking oneself out on a midday one-man date around the city in shorts, shades, a tote bag with a book and a pack of cigarettes. Nothing more.

Subotzky found me laughing. I was on one of the stretched out beach chairs that had been arranged for the viewing of his film WYE. It is based around Britain’s stretching out, almost as a yawn, into a Y that would map its colonial trajectory, from itself, then to South Africa and Australia. My memory of the film itself is quite vague and, at best, untrustworthy (go see the thing for yourself). But it involves three narratives set in three different yet simultaneous times, involving three men who could be seen as one, as though one were watching a hybrid digital motion picture of Charles I in Three Positions. Myth-making is, of course central to both the film and Van Dyke’s painting. In Subotzky’s however, the fictionality functions to unmask the functions of fictions of whiteness, drawing from colonial anthropological curiosity, exoticisation, and finally, the manufacturing of strangeness where none existed before.

Of course, this strangeness is not only projected outward onto the ‘African’ or ‘Native’ landscape but also inwardly, thus creating, an obscure internal alienation and internal instability which feeds into the narrative of white superiority where none exists. In one of the scenes in the film, the character, a colonial construct of the artist’s own imagination, an 1820 settler, pens a letter to his colleagues in Britain. ‘Gentlemen of the Dowsing Guild of London, I write to you from the distant shores, from where it is my prestige to furnish you with the inaugural scientific accounts of the practice of divination on the African continent,’ he writes. However, the viewer is made aware of no such scientificity in his account of these ‘distant shores,’ rather, his accounts, which follow a few scenes later, allow the viewer to witness the dubious fictions that the colonizer created for himself about a place, which might –I suppose which does– seem quite normal to me. At least before being drawn and framed within the civilizing sketch. But the colonial gaze, crazed by its own desperation to materialize its own superiority casts upon the normal the abnormality, which could only exist as a manifestation of its internal abnormality. When a few scenes later this same character writes, ‘Until you visit the Southern Hemisphere, you cannot comprehend the disarrangement of your senses wrought by the aberrant land’ he is fictionalizing his own exceptionalism, making for himself and the Dowsing Guild of London myths that would justify the project of his motherland. It is telling that he concludes this part by stating that ‘the flow of energy from the earth to my fingertips makes little sense,’ thus centering the place around his sensibilities as though the world were a vast canvass on which to project a portraiture of himself. ‘The vibrations,’ he continues, ‘seem to speak a language that I do not understand, can Nature itself move by different laws? No! The sun still rises in the east, an object dropped still falls to the earth, and the tides still follow the pull of the moon, despite the fact that its Hare is turned upside down.’

Hare is another character in the film, a prospector using a metal detector on the beach, involved in the same futility of searching for the strange buried in the shores of the beach, never for once beginning to question the strangeness that exists within. I will not pull out every single item of the film and neither will I dissect further that which I have already written, except to say that I found it rather amusing, the way it seemed that the past and the present, presented in the figure of Lethbridge, Hare, and the other fellow, seem to fit the contemporary preoccupations of white people, at least those who do believe, almost socio-pathologically, to be white. It was this that made me laugh. The sheer stubbornness with which whiteness has come to believe, defend and protect its own fictions as though they were scientific fact. Scientific phenomenon is forever open to discussion, however try remind a white person at a Spur that they are not white but rather fickle, fearful human beings wrapped in pink-pale skin, and you might get your head bitten off for separating fact from the fiction. Although satisfying, I imagine, it must also be terrifying being white, being so estranged from oneself, from objective reality, cocooned in a fantasy world of fantastic fictions, which end up giving you endless nightmares at night. Are ‘they’ coming for ‘us’ yet? It would be simply laughable if it weren’t for the material costs, the sustained injuries, of having to maintain white fictions.

The rest of Mikhael’s show plays along this register of the fictive narratives that have come to inform much of the psyche of whites, both here and elsewhere. There is also another dimension in this study of creating things out of thin air – there’s the matter of photography itself as a problematic, manipulative tool. The photographs pinned up on the white walls give off a documentary quality, the sea, the scenes from the film, appear as one might expect from the practice of documenting ‘reality.’ However, the scenes inside the images are all pre-empted, acted, and contained fictions. Even the light that falls on the landscape has, then, this fictional quality, in the end. The images, from a critical distance, blur the line of what is believed to be the capturing of ‘reality’ in the practice of documentary photography and the manufacturing fictions that satisfy the taste for the exotic other – this blank figure onto which we might project all our internal terrors and disfigure him to our horrific whims.

There’s a lot more to see in the exhibition, which I found interesting in parts and predictably boring in other (e.g. the beach chairs are set on sand as some kind of porous space between the contained filmed and the unrestrained outside as though anything could unrestrained and unpredictable within a gallery) but, as I said, it is a tiresome labour writing about white preoccupations and white people, in general. There isn’t enough gin in the world to justify undertaking such an endeavour, which is why I salute Subotzky for having the time and for giving it some thought. God knows white people would prefer being left to their superstitions and fictions that have taken them to the ‘edges of being’ as I believe Gordimer once wrote about the isolated white character of 20th century French fiction.

*Originally appeared in Art Throb.


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