BY Ara H. Merjian in Reviews | 01 JAN 10
Featured in
Issue 128

David Goldblatt

New Museum, New York, USA

BY Ara H. Merjian in Reviews | 01 JAN 10

David Goldblatt, After their funeral, a child salutes the Cradock Four, Cradock, Eastern Cape, 20 July 1985, 1985, black and white photograph

A photograph of a seaside garden near Cape Town depicts a panorama almost Edenic in its sun-kissed repose. It is only in light of the image’s accompanying wall text – which identifies an entire coastal area once described by the Standard Encyclopaedia of Southern Africa as ‘a White Group Area’ – that the picture curdles into something sour. The tension between the photograph’s blithe tranquility, and the violence to which it obliquely attests, typifies David Goldblatt’s approach to image-making. In their often dry and wry idiom, Goldblatt’s pictures – gathered for the New Museum’s major retrospective, ‘Intersections Intersected: The Photography of David Goldblatt’ – seem to have anticipated something of the writing by his countryman and contemporary, J.M. Coetzee. Like Coetzee, Goldblatt clearly experienced a degree of alienation, despite (or more precisely because of) his privileged status as a white man during Apartheid. The son of Lithuanian-Jewish immigrants, Goldblatt turned his own particular estrangement to aesthetic purpose, taking stock of his country’s many visual contradictions, both glaring and insidious. The range of travails, offenses and injustices captured by his camera – often with deadpan, almost offhand simplicity – is seemingly endless.

From the scourge of asbestos upon the landscape of the North Cape, to the government’s destruction of squatter camps, to the more implicit aggression of reactionary memorials to the proponents of white supremacy under Apartheid – almost no major issue of political or social conflict escaped his lens. Still, their presence in his imagery often takes the form of an absence, for Goldblatt has long been drawn to how spaces, monuments and landscapes repress history as much as record them. Even the putative absence of Apartheid – officially dismantled in the early 1990s – still echoes in his more recent work, whether in lingering institutional consequences, or in the foibles of the post-Apartheid government. The artist himself played a significant role in the mounting and hanging of the exhibition, personally writing its substantial wall texts, including relevant historical background and first-person accounts of the photographs’ taking. His effort was generous and effective. At no point did the show’s manifest didacticism submerge its aesthetic components, both singular and cumulative. The exhibition’s hanging also both acknowledged Goldblatt’s 40-year career and deftly negotiated an oeuvre that continues to evolve. Its different rooms and walls each bore a different disposition and alternation of images (in scale, series and subjects), yet each section seemed to draw upon and contribute to a more unified momentum.

The gallery’s main room coupled smaller framed black and white works with larger unframed colour prints. United in subject, each pairing was separated by many years, often several decades, revealing both the span of Goldblatt’s career and its dogged revisiting of specific sites, themes and problems in South African society. In one black and white image, a child in tattered clothes salutes the graves of the Cradock Four – anti-Apartheid activists murdered by government police in 1985. An image from 2004 hones in on the same site, now marked by headstones and a memorial, though the crime of their death remains unpunished. One of Goldblatt’s recently completed triptychs spans five decades. Depicting the Synodal Hall of the Dutch Reformed Church in Cape Town (a close ideological supporter of Apartheid), the triptych features an exterior view (1986), an interior shot of its riveted congregation (1965), and an image of its exterior in the process of reconstruction as a hotel (2007).

What becomes of the history that once marked these spaces? How is it recorded? Is its erasure, instead, a salutary event in a country still seeking to redefine itself? Such questions of space, power and memory have long haunted Goldblatt. (His 1991 essay on Peter Eisenman and the architecture of ‘deconstruction’, entitled ‘The Dislocation of the Architectural Self’, remains a readable classic of its time, fresh and unpretentious even in its engagement with heady concepts.) His recent series of triptychs, large and unframed, seem to take a more phenomenological approach to space and (dis)orientation, presenting three different, but interconnected, views of street scenes. The fabric of South African society – and its often frayed and fraying edges – still remains central to these images, whether the sign for ‘Dr. Paul (traditional healer)’ or the street scene near a Cash Loan centre on the Western Cape.

Goldblatt’s series of photographs on AIDS represents the disease’s ravages not through an exposition of bodily horrors, but rather the incidental banalities of everyday townscapes. In their nearly indiscernible presence, those details – like the red ribbons painted onto street signs in makeshift memorials – evince the often unspoken depredations of a disease that claims nearly 1,000 lives a day in South Africa. One photograph reveals a small advertisement in the town of Ellerines, Beaufort West, placed near another announcement for a Toyota giveaway, and nearly invisible. It reads: ‘JOIN! OUR CLUB for only 12.94 a month and receive over 13 family benefits including a funeral plan.’ For all of their subtlety, however, these images’ context and consequence are made explicit in their titles: Goldblatt has appended ‘in the time of AIDS’ to their calendar dates. With picture after picture, this line echoes in the head like a liturgical refrain, an exponential and haunting anaphora that invests the images with a weightier sense of temporality, and duly turns the gallery into a more solemn space.

Ara H. Merjian is Professor of Italian Studies at New York University, USA, where he is an affiliate of the Institute of Fine Arts and Department of Art History.