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Symbolic Possession

by Andrei van Wyk / 22.04.2013

Tonight, windy and desolate in downtown Johannesburg, marks the opening of Mikhael Subotzky’s new exhibition Retinal Shift. At the age of 32, the Standard Bank Young Artist of 2012 has become an important, uh, ‘voice’ in South African art photography.

Susan Sontag once wrote: “To photograph people is to violate them, by seeing them as they never see themselves, by having knowledge of them that they can never have; it turns people into objects that can be symbolically possessed.”

And through his new body of work, characterized by documentations of sport and crime, mementos symbolizing the subtle heart and mindless degradation of our society, Subotzky has beautifully violated, contained and stuck up on the wall the characters and ideas that make contemporary urban South Africa unique. Unlike his previous work, such as the unflinching record of the squalor found in Beaufort West or the sullen humiliation of Pollsmoor Prison captured in Die Vier Hoeke; with Retinal Shift he has crafted a dense and complex series of work.

Walking up the stairs of the Standard Bank Gallery leading up to the main exhibition hall there stands a wall with two round discs elegantly suspended and pulsating. An image of the artist’s own retinas that brought forth a deep jumble of throbs and rhythms that went galloping through my body. The veins and tissue float, following you wherever you go. This is sight stripped to the core, the bare essentials, nothing but vague biological flinches and sensory tics holding us together. The opening piece, executed with the help of an optometrist, enthralls as well as overwhelms.

Self Portrait

“I was fascinated by this encounter. At the moment that my retinas, my essential organs of seeing, were photographed, I was blinded by the apparatus that made the images. So it is a self-portrait of myself, the photographer, at a moment that I could not see,” says Subotzky. And in that moment of blindness he has managed to capture the experiences, joys and struggles of the simple man, demolished and exposed, with nothing but perception holding him together. In that particular piece he has contained the universal.

The exhibition flows, the audience drifting from one side to the other. Looking up and down at portraits of masked men, shattered glass, lonely girls, drenched leaves and the inherent beauty one would discover if the time to just look was taken. A line of panels, faces of nobodies; politicians, celebrities, none worthy of enrapturing a gallery audience. This is the sight of men and women challenged and conquered by the camera flash. Subotzky’s work, though melancholic, is peppered with a humorous tinge and literally drenched in Menippean Satire which challenges the ideas that have become the foundations of our reality. These faces come and go while remaining as part of our memory.


With these and the surveillance installations of crime and desperation, the artist tests these ideologies, which come alive as we observe from a distance. We watch the society we live in, but know nothing about. He is jogging our fears and passions. Subotzky uses the sense of sight to bring these ideas to us. A mathematician of visual devices, he extracts the need to “analyse” and brings forth an empty plate. He breaks down the man-made wall between ingrained mental structures and the feeble façade and serves the viewer both his deepest desires and apprehensions.

The exhibition is an exercise in the process of vision, but more importantly the mechanics of perception and interpretation. In a society like ours this exercise is the most daunting we could ever imagine. Subotzky uses the history of the photographic medium to investigate the emotions and words that we drag with us like a great burden at the back of our heads, that side we will never show, these pieces display that side to us with disturbing effects.

Retinal Shift is nothing short of ground-breaking, a body of work hidden behind disarming humour and subtle violence. A multi-faceted work covering an encyclopaedic scope of subjects and emotions. As cerebral as it is disturbing and as satirical as it is brutal all delivered with subtlety and grace.

*Mikhael Subotzky’s Retinal Shift shows at the Standard Bank Gallery, cnr Frederick and Harrison Streets, Johannesburg, until 15 June 2013.

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