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What do you desire?

What do you desire?

by Sean O’Toole / 20.11.2009

Last year I was conned by a curator into to taking a polygraph test. Actually, I obligingly agreed. Am I a liar? I was curious to find out. Sitting in a small room in Johannesburg’s Drill Hall, a professional forensic expert – my dictionary doesn’t list “polygrapher” as an occupation – repeatedly asked me the same five questions while monitoring my heart rate and sweat count. I can remember only one of these questions.

“Have you ever confidently spoken about an artwork to an audience when in fact you have no idea what the work is about?”

Routinely. This is one of those instances.

Let me say that I savour my doubt, which is different from saying that I nurture my cynicism. Doubt can be enabling. “Yes, but,” it proposes. It’s what distinguishes a democracy from sycophancy. I have recently been experiencing a lot of doubt, mostly about writing about art, in particular photography. In part, I blame Ivan Vladislavic.

What do you desire?

About two weeks ago Ivan, an accomplished author and brilliant editor, spoke at Johannesburg’s Goethe Institute. He was joined by poet Antjie Krog, Rivonia treason trialist Denis Goldberg, author Mandla Langa, artist Sue Williamson, composer Phillip Miller and a whole bunch of other creative practitioners, as many of them from Germany as locally. The brief: to talk about falling walls and nationhood.

Reminder: it is the twentieth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. In an act of solidarity, the Goethe staged a series of events under the banner “Cracking Walls”. It culminated in the actual and symbolic demolition of a part of the cultural centre’s perimeter wall, this as the rest of suburban Johannesburg builds incrementally higher walls.

Ivan’s talk, delivered during a session on literature, was in fact a response to Mandla Langa’s keynote address. Mandla, coolly dressed in black, spoke about many things. “Freedom in our country is a complex thing,” he offered, later floating the idea that, “it is only in the arts that we can try look at ourselves”. “How slowly and mysteriously culture works,” responded Ivan, his tone quiet, his choice of words precise. “Fiction,” he added, “makes it possible to feel the contours of another life pushing against your own.”

Sound Wall

It is here that my doubts come into play. Could one say the same about art, in particular photography? Is it possible to feel the contours of another life pushing against ours when looking at a photograph? If you answered yes, ask yourself how many of the photographs that prompted you to correlate seeing with feeling depicted poverty and war, not love and happiness. One more question, based on Mandla and Ivan’s approving quotation of Milan Kundera, who said fiction was a space where we could fashion, “experimental selves”. Is it possible to imagine an, “experimental self” while looking at a photograph?

I’m not so sure.

Photos are mute, inarticulate things. They exist as purely visual statements. To make sense of them, however, we need words. And yet, photographs are not reducible to words. They exist apart from words. And yet they cannot function without words.

“Images without text are embarrassing, like a naked person in a public space,” offers Boris Groys, a bespectacled professor of aesthetics, art history and media theory in Karlsruhe, Germany, in his recent book Art Power. “At the very least they need a textual bikini …” And yet everyone seems to doubt the cut and style of the existing bikinis on the market. Groys puts it succinctly: “… art commentary finds itself today in a confusing position, at once indispensable and superfluous. Other than its sheer material presence, one doesn’t really know what to expect of it or desire from it.”

Not even me.

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  1. Jason says:

    Nothing wrong with letting a work (painting or photograph, etching, print, etc) speak for itself, allowing us to draw our own embarrassingly(!?) personal conclusions.

    It need not be defined, sterilised by someone else’s pithy description, seasoned (soiled?) by their personal take on it.

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  2. urbanmosadi says:

    Post Modernism has allowed for the audience to decode whatever they wish from a photograph. I am cool with letting my imagination run, I think that’s the magic of this type art, it still allows you to engage…or not.

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  3. arnaud says:

    the images used render this subject naked. goethe institute very loud about pulling down their wall – most of it still standing today. the wall has been repainted , the speakers dismounted etc.. so much for breaking down walls.
    The photos shown are mere documents with no artistic value. Information of a media stageprop to advertise a meeting of big and important words .
    As for art : you should feel it “….the contours of another life pushing against your own” ,
    then you would ‘nt need to have sense made of it for you.
    Photographs capture a moment, the obvious thing is to title the photograph according to the moment and motive depicted. Or as in music: opus 123456789etc.
    As for the questions, hear my answers :
    1 it is not about either / or lovehappinesspovertywar , its first about empathy , then on to musing or understanding. Its not about which is better or worse, its about how communication is brought about with a shutterclick . First comes the image, then (because some people make a living off the arts) come the words. Their words, not the subjects or the artists words.
    2 .Its probably more productive using photography to fashion an experimental self .
    To have to imagine being an experimental self whilst contemplating “hungry madonna with starving child” in order to access the image in a feely way seems pretty sterile.

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