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.
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.”
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.