Mikhael Subotzky, WYE Study 8, 2016, Pen and J-Lar tape on paper, 20,6 x 13,8 cm

Covering paradoxes

in conversation with Mikhael Subotzky

South African artist and Magnum photographer Mikhael Subotzky is known for his critical engagement with the contemporary politics of mis/representation and narrative. The country’s penal system and Johannesburg’s iconic Ponte City building have caught his lens to great acclaim. He has also explored the technology, biology and psychology embedded in photography and seeing in other work such as Pixel Interface, which was included in All The World’s Futures, the main exhibition curated by Okwui Enwezor at the 56th Venice Biennale.

Nadine Botha March 2017
Now he has turned his lens on the white male psyche in a new three-channel video work, WYE, a study from which is the image on the DAMN 61 cover. Commissioned and exhibited by the Sherman Contemporary Art Foundation (Sydney) in 2016, WYE follows three characters from three different eras and three colonially interconnected countries (Britain, South Africa and Australia). One douses for water, another is a metal detectorist and the third a psycho-anthropologist from the future.

DAMN: Your iconic Pollsmoor and Ponte City work was based on a documentary process, and WYE is your first work moving into a fictional genre. What have been the challenges and opportunities that this shift offered?
Mikhael Subotzky: It has been a big shift, but it has been a gradual one. Each of my first three major works – Die Vier Hoeke and Umjiegwana, Beaufort West, and Ponte City – gradually developed my understanding of both the mechanics of making ‘documentary’ images and my own internal relationship to the work. Retinal Shift then became the body of work where I really pulled everything apart and rearticulated my relationship to image making. After that, writing a fictional script felt like a logical evolution. 
Sticky-tape Transfer 13, Quiver Tree / Robert Jacob Gordon, 2014 (triptych), 125cm x 95cm, 125cm x 99.5cm, 125cm x 100cm, Pigment inks, J-Lar tape and Micropore dressing tape on cotton paper
DAMN: How is WYE also a reflection and analysis of your own gaze as photographer and white male in this previous work?

MS: I think Retinal Shift was more a reflection on what you mention. As I say, WYE came from that both formally and intellectually. WYE is really my attempt to figure out my own relationship, as a white male, to the tides of historical narrative, and particularly in relation to the colonial gaze and the colonial subject’s bodily relationship to the landscape.
WYE, 2016, 3 channel film installation

DAMN: How do all of these paradoxes – divisibility, space, time, narration, projection and desire – play out in the work?

MS: Basically, I believe that all of our narrative understandings of space, time and politics (human relationships) are based on fundamental paradoxes – the stories we tell ourselves to try and comprehend the confusing vastness of lived experience. Sprinkling this notion down into the specifics of colonialism, whiteness, film-making, anthropology, masculinity, romanticism, England, Australia and South Africa, and so on, is the aim of the work.

DAMN: What is the significance of water in the work? With the current drought in South Africa and the North Dakota Standing Rock protests, it seems to have a historical biopolitical resonance?

MS: Its circumstantial to those current events, but very important in that colonialism would look completely different if it weren’t for the waters that both separate continents but also allowed the travel between them before we learnt to fly.

DAMN: After the Goodman Gallery show in Johannesburg until April 2, where and what next?

MS: I’m looking forward to taking WYE to Cape Town in September, and then hopefully at some point to London to complete the England-South Africa-Australia triangle. Apart from that, I’m really just looking forward to more time in the studio.
Mikhael Subotzky, WYE Study 10, 2016, Graphite and J-Lar tape on paper, 20,6 x 14 cm
Mikhael Subotzky, Sticky-tape Transfer 22 - South (or Africa-Political and Sea Routes), 2017 Pigment inks, correction tape and J-Lar tape on cotton paper
Mikhael Subotzky, WYE Study 11, 2016, Pen and J-Lar tape on paper, 20,6 x 14 cm
Mikhael Subotzky, WYE Study 7, 2016, Graphite and J-Lar tape on paper, 20,6 x 14,1 cm
Mikhael Subotzky, Sticky-tape Transfer 22 - South (or Africa-Political and Sea Routes), 2017, Pigment inks, correction tape and J-Lar tape on cotton paper

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Nadine Botha

Now based in Rotterdam, Nadine Botha is an editor, writer, reader, watcher, listener, student, curator and poet from South Africa. She has worked for Design Indaba, Mail&Guardian and VISI, and written for the FT, Metropolis, Coolhunting, Design Observer, Core 77, Art South Africa and Chimurenga, among others.

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