The Devil’s Own

I arrive just as Jo Ractliffe’s Vlakplaas, 1999/2000 is finishing up. The audio is a collision of overlapping voice over tracks, so I can only pick up snatches here and there: “a short jerk and that was it,” “no longer say that it was just rumors,” “thank you, no further questions.” The projection on the wall is a long pan of stitched together still photographs: a landscape of bristly plants, deserted paths and fences. Too soon the end card comes up, so I settle in resolved to catch the rest when it comes around again.

The collective eye of SF Camerawork is unflinching. I’ve never been to an exhibit in their space that I won’t be thinking about for the rest of life. There is an unbroken line of sadness that runs through each successive show, yet in each case the artists struggle to transform the harsh truth of their memories and experience. You see it in the staged exorcism of Katsushige Nakahashi’s The Depth of Memory and the demolition squatters of RongRong and imri’s Ruins to Renewal. They never offer just a lament. These are acts of rebuilding, hopefully making the foundations stronger.

Test Patterns: Recent Video From South Africa, one of their current shows, is a presentation of the work of nine filmmakers who tackle the changing face of their nation post-apartheid. I’m here for the first part of the program which runs through the 14th, at which time the five pieces looping in the back gallery will be replaced with ones that’ll be on view until March 25th. Whereas much video art is an exploration of the possibilities inherent in the medium itself, there is a definite skew here toward the need to document, an urgency to record the moment to serve as a barometer of social progress, a snapshot that one can hold up and appraise in light of what has come before. That is not to say that the works are straightforward verité. Each of the artists takes a unique conceptual approach, but collectively it feels like all are taking a sounding, dropping their lines to see how deep the waters are.
Slyly, Cameraworks places Ruth Sack’s work right at the entrance to the back gallery. Her piece records a staged event from 2005 for Human Rights Day in which a skywriting plane over Cape Town spelled out the words “DOnT PAniC.” While the exercise demonstrated in humiliating fashion the hysteria of a portion of the white populace for all to see, it is also acts as a nice introduction to the exhibit by acting as a release valve for the tension built up in a visitor steeling themselves for what they may expect to be a fairly affective exploration of a country in the midst of transition.

Back to the loop: after Vlakpaas comes Penny Siopsis’ long, languorous tale of displacement and identity My Lovely Day. I’m not knocking it by calling it “languorous:” the included home movies are cut to the reminiscence of her grandmother, relating her successive periods of settling and relocation. It is unhurried, with many asides to remark on the people and places she has known, described in collective terms that make us uncomfortable at times. But the meandering narrative that grows bit by bit, doubling back often forcing the viewer to pay close attention to cues of place and sequence, comes across as if you are there as her grandmother was asked to recollect on the spot her life story. Her “voice” (the tale is told in onscreen titles) is fascinating. Often she sounds defensive, as if she felt the need to justify her life and identity (she especially bristles whenever she recalls others not considering her British, or not British enough).

The accompanying home movies, with their yellowish tinge, many so blurry as to be collections of marching shadows, make you feel as if you have built the images in your mind from her grandmother’s description as she searches her memory. In some of the oldest clips, a white blob has erased the images in the center of the screen, heightening the effect of not being able to see the past with perfect clarity. There are many shots of water: tumbling over rock, pools where children are at play. The happiness of children on camera is often undercut by the grandmother’s observations: that they don’t know true suffering, that they’re allowed to run amok in the name of “expressing themselves.” They live “charmed lives” she observes with contempt, an envy born of a lifetime faced with the reality of massacres, disasters and marginalization. Of the death of a child she advises “associate his death with the trees and the pigs slaughtered at dawn.” As she defines for herself which places are “civilized” or notes that the “people on the island were kind but strangers” we find her attempting to construct a self by contrasting it against others, even when she takes pride that she married a man who was Greek and lived a life far too adventurous for the likes of those she left behind in England. Her experience enriches our apprehension of what at first seem benign images on screen. A clip of a parade is followed by the admission that “marching reminds me of so many terrible things.”

The clips that follow are more bite-sized. Eight to Four, 2001 by Usha Seejarim takes us for a long trip along a highway, the eye following the railing, giving us glimpses of passing signs, a cityscape partially visible through the trees, the antenna shadows of streetlamps and the occasional pedestrian trudging along the shoulder. I learn later from the exhibit booklet that this is the stretch of the M1 South connecting Johannesburg and Lenasia. The latter town was “marked exclusively for Indians during apartheid” meaning the mundane (this could be any highway on Earth) conceals an invisible imposition on the landscape of social demarcations. Like many of the works, there is a contrast between the bitterness of such realities and the presentation. The attention to the shadows of cars racing against the side barriers has a lightness to it like a child running their hands along a fence as they pass by, leaving an impression tactile and with a note of tenderness.

devil2Ranger Circle, 2007 by Simon Gush is a slow pan in snapshots that dissolve into each other of man on a horse in the tall grass that reminded me of the more solid memorials on plinths around the world dedicated to those who generally spent their life running down others on horseback with saber and rifle. Struggles of the Heart, by Churchill Madikida shows the artist’s face in close-up, covered in white paint as he shovels handfuls of gruel into his mouth. At some point it became apparent that the film was playing in reverse, or had it always been? As he slurps the paste, nearly choking, more of it comes leaping into the frame from below into his mouth. His eyes are pressed tightly closed in concentration and perhaps wrinkled in a grin.

We finally come around again to Vlakplaas and I’m struck again at how much foreboding is inherent in the empty landscape of black and white photographs. It is as if we are meant to bear witness more than anything else: the images will not give up their secrets even though the voice over begs us to pay attention. Even though it is hard to make out often what is being said, there is the unmistakable stamp of inquiry: a hearing, or a journalist’s investigatory piece. The answer comes again from the booklet that explains that the location was “the former headquarters of South Africa’s counterinsurgency operations and where more than one thousand anti-apartheid activists were tortured and killed.” The voices are those of the commander of the installation and an official giving testimony to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

The booklet also reveals a stunning fact of life under apartheid. The paranoid and oppressive government restricted the use of a television, fearing the subversive effect of exposure to unprocessed, unpropogandized information. And so Test Patterns carries with it, along with a feeling of reclamation of acquired territories of space and spirit, an undercurrent of experimentation and liberation in exploring a medium whose most popular vehicle for delivery was described by the government as “the devil’s own box for disseminating immorality.”


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