In 1820, British authorities sent some 4,000 settlers to an area in the Eastern Cape of South Africa known as Algoa Bay. This was a shrewd decision: the Napoleonic Wars had created a spike in unemployment at home and the British Empire was rapidly expanding its tendrils, including the strategic hub of South Africa – a gateway to the Indian Ocean and the territories that lay beyond. These settlers, portrayed by painters such as Thomas Baines, alighted on an uncanny landscape and a social fabric riven by frontier wars among Afrikaner farmers and local people such as the Xhosa.
From a British perspective, then, South Africa always emerges as a waypoint in a deeper colonial history. At the same time, the distinct encounters of the settlers in Algoa Bay or the Natal colony laid the groundwork for the system of white minority rule – Apartheid – that was codified over a century later.
With the three-channel projection WYE (2016), Mikhael Subotzky returns to this primal scene: a lighthouse in present-day Port Elizabeth and a striking horizon dotted by offshore islands. The setting suggests both distant shores and the deep psychic trajectories of fantasy and memory alike. While this is Subotzky’s second film, it builds on two leitmotifs in his ongoing project: one being an attempt to visualize people and places that bear the marks, in various ways, of an enduring national trauma; the other, an interrogation of photographic clairvoyance, the promise, stemming from its early days, to put us in touch with the ghosts of the past. The film tells three interlaced stories set in distinct time periods but centered around the middle-aged lighthouse keeper, Craig Hare, who discovers a hidden chest long-buried beneath the sand. Excavating it with the help of a local drifter – Subotzky’s actual longtime collaborator Hermanus – Hare finds the account of an 1820 settler, James T. Lethbridge, whose own encounters with the beach are shown on a separate channel. The third vantage is that of Feio, a voyeuristic psycho-anthropologist of the future, visiting Hare’s memory through a virtual reality interface. Feio, too, sees the beach and witnesses Hare drafting a letter to someone who has moved to western Australia.
Local visitors undoubtedly picked up the subtler cues, notably Hare’s ambivalence – shared by many white South Africans – around whether to remain in a place where they are a minority, yet are accountable for a long history of domination, or to move on further into the Commonwealth. Other moments, like Hare’s initial fear of the black South African Hermanus, and his subsequent shame, will resonate with anyone who has experienced those small, but revealing moments that materialize the intractable relationship between racial and nationalist politics. But even for the uninitiated, WYE is formally riveting, working as it does to visualize the intricate folds of time and space that form the psyche – our sense of desire, longing, shame and location.
Subotzky handles the parallax of time by anchoring the exhibition in more literal acts of excavation – of the written testimony of his protagonists on the beach in South Africa, and also of his own archive of texts and found images. This latter process is on display in 29 ‘sticky-tape transfer’ pieces. These collages rely on the physical ripping of pigment from photographic surfaces with archival J-Lar Tape to produce distressed translations of the originals that resist the high-gloss pictorial surfaces so central to a great deal of recent South African photography, including Subotzky’s.
In taking up both questions of representational ethics and collective shame, this installation of WYE is nuanced and timely. Student protests, the leveling of a Cecil Rhodes statue, outcry around the 2012 massacre of miners at Marikana, and heated debates about South Africa’s political future are all reminders that the schisms of a violent past are always close to hand.
Main image: Mikhael Subotzky, WYE, 2016, film still, three-channel film installation. Courtesy: Goodman Gallery, Johannesburg, South Africa