TALL SHIPS: A SHORT mikhael subotzky STORY
Online viewing room
September 23 to October 13, 2020
Sometime in the early 1700s, an artist whose name we have neglected to record painted a remarkable image of a four-masted Dutch ship on a rock face near present-day Porterville, South Africa. One hundred and sixty kilometers southeast and four hundred years later, Antony Rosendal filled his hours at the notoriously brutal Pollsmoor Prison building matchstick boats, schooners and men-o’-war.
I was born and raised in a quiet suburb only a few kilometers away from Pollsmoor, in another universe of middle-class comfort completely shielded from this neighbouring hell; the eye of the carceral system that was essential to the maintenance of this comfort for a small minority. I too drew tall ships as a young child, obsessively filling my Waldorf School notebooks with masts and rigging, imagining them taking me away rather than bringing me here to the Cape.
The prisoners at Pollsmoor regularly cleaned the corridors in a process they called “pasvang”. They would sing to keep the rhythm, and told me that their songs could be traced back to the slave boats that forcibly carried over sixty thousand humans to the “Cape of Good Hope”, mostly from what is now called Indonesia. Outside of Pollsmoor, many still choose to remember this period as the “Dutch Golden Age” of Rembrandt and Vermeer, conversing about the “quality of the light” in the seascapes and willfully ignoring the trade in slaves and the rapacious extraction of resources that the ships enabled.
In 2004, at the age of 23, I entered Pollsmoor, not as an inmate but as an observer. At times suspicious of the single still image, I held down the shutter to make a crude stop-motion video of “pasvang”. I was only ready to engage with this footage in 2015, while making a work called Pixel Interface. The rhythm of pasvang’s looped swabbing found its place in a taxonomy of recorded violence where each excerpt was subjected to a perceptual experiment that magnified representations to their breaking points. Pixel Interface pushed my early photographic ambivalence to its logical extreme.
Back in 2004, I still hoped that my best photographs had elements of Barthes’ ineffable puncture - a lesion in their formal unity that emotionally captured the viewer. I quickly became frustrated that this was not enough. By 2011, I had started smashing some of the pictures’ glass mounts. Looking back at my images enraged me; I could now see in them unconscious projections from my own life, and how their formal qualities so often obscured their relational politics.
The smashed glass brought attention back to the surface of the image to emphasise the triangle of subject, observer, and viewer. It disrupted this flow, asking how and why anyone could assume the divine right to look through representational windows on their own terms, without mediation, self-reflection and a tangible sense of violence.
By 1820 the British had seized the Cape and imported four thousand working-class families to inhabit the Colony’s border as a “buffer” between the expanding Dutch farmers and the Xhosa nation, whose land was gradually being stolen through a series of “frontier wars”.
In 2011, as I was smashing my old photographs, I met two remarkable men who helped me to situate these historical narratives in relation to my disjointed contemporary experiences. Both Moses Lamani and Griffiths Sokuyeka worked within the confines of contrasting colonial architectures in the small town of Grahamstown; Moses in a 19th century camera obscura and Griffiths in a mid-70s monument to the English language. These septuagenarian museum docents each narrated Grahamstown’s history to me, first from an institutional perspective and then from a personal one. The overlay of their narratives in Moses and Griffiths, 2012 laid bare the extent to which the stories that we tell ourselves publicly are profoundly at odds with people’s lived experiences, and illuminated the institutional violence that required these men to segregate those stories within themselves.
Moses and Griffiths was my first attempt at film-making since I had held down the shutter in Pollsmoor Prison in 2004. It encouraged me towards new forms of storytelling and different kinds of collaborations that would better express the enduring relationships that I had developed with some of the subjects of my pictures.
I first photographed Hermanus on a building site in 2005, and I continued to visit him as he moved around Cape Town over the years. In 2015, while finishing Pixel Interface in Venice, I wrote a fictional version of him into my next film project and asked him to play this character.
WYE is narrated by three colonizers from the past, present and future. As they survey the landscape from the shore, their sense of embodiment charts colonial assumptions from within, rather than measuring them by their impact on others. I wanted these men to bear the weight of their own presence, and that of their actions.
WYE’s three protagonists share an assumption that the landscape exists for them, to be penetrated by their gazes and scientific tools. In a series of related “sticky-tape transfers”, I pulled the ink from the paper surface of printed stills, then scrubbed away at it in an attempt to ghost the characters back to the past or future from which they had intruded into WYE.
Since 2016, I’ve continued to rip, scrub, and re-print my way into images - clawing at their skins until they give way and then adding ink and paint to create forms rather than just destroying them.
Tall ships and white male figures have constantly emerged from online archives, the pages of encyclopedias and books handed down from my parents. I found that once I removed the context of what made these figures “important”, they started to look ridiculous in their contradictory performances of exceptionalism and normalcy. I came to understand that this purposefully obscured binary functions as a fundamental pillar of white privilege and supremacy.
So the ships eternally return. I draw them with child-like repetitiveness as I “stop-motion” my way towards my next film, thankfully uncomfortable in my skin as I repurpose the stolen gold of Dutch gangsters during the great pause of 2020.
Mikhael Subotzky (b. 1981, Cape Town) is a Johannesburg based artist whose works in multiple mediums (including film installation, video, photography, collage and painting) attempt to engage critically with the instability of images and the politics of representation. Subotzky has exhibited in a series of important international exhibitions, including most recently Global(e) Resistance, Centre Pompidou, Paris (2020-2021), Masculinities: Liberation through Photography, Barbican Centre, London and Gropius Bau, Berlin (2020-2021), Inheritance: Recent Video Art from Africa at the Fowler Museum (UCLA) in Los Angeles (2019) and Ex Africa in various venues in Brazil (2017-18). His award-winning Ponte City project (co-authored with Patrick Waterhouse) was presented at Art Basel Unlimited in 2018. The full exhibition and archive of this project has since been acquired by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and will be the subject of a monographic exhibition there at a date to be announced once the museum reopens after the Covid-19 epidemic.
Subotzky’s work was included in the Lubumbashi (2013) and Liverpool (2012) biennials. Pixel Interface, a multi-component video installation, was commissioned by Okwui Enwezor for All The World’s Futures at the 56th Venice Biennale (2015).
SELECTED MUSEUM COLLECTIONS
Museum of Modern Art, New York, USA
The National Gallery of Art, Washington, USA
SFMOMA, San Francisco, USA
Solomon R Guggenheim Museum, New York, USA
Tate Collection, London, UK
Victoria and Albert Museum, London, UK
Centre Pompidou, Paris, France
South African National Gallery, Cape Town, South Africa
Johannesburg Art Gallery, Johannesburg, South Africa