“Any one who has common sense will remember that the bewilderments of the eyes are of two kinds, and arise from two causes, either from coming out of the light or from going into the light”

                                                                           ~ Plato

Mikhael Subotzky (b. 1981, Cape Town) is the only alumnus in the history of the prestigious Michaelis School of Fine Art to achieve a mark of one-hundred percent for his final year. He has since become a world-renowned artist, currently represented by the Goodman Gallery in Johannesburg. He is the youngest photographer to become an associate member at Magnum Photos, and the first South African artist to have a solo exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York. He openly declares the influence of David Goldblatt, which is likely one of the most important photographic oeuvres to capture South Africa’s colonialist history, evidenced through his characteristic depiction of the landscape and its people.

Subotzky grew up within a certain cultural pedigree of social democracy, and it is from this backdrop that ‘struggle photography’ played an important role in his work, particularly the work of his uncle, activist Gideon Mendel. Another influence in this regard is the work of prolific Czech photographer Josef Koudelka, who’s work captures the tenacity of the human spirit within landscapes of sheer desolation and alienation. Subotzky takes his cue from these influences, depicting the fortitude of human beings, despite their inherent fragility and unstable nature, amidst dire situations and against all odds.

Subotzky uses the divide between the rural and the urban to communicate the ambiguity of inside/outside perceptions, focussing core binaries: accepted versus rejected, enlightened versus alienated, diffuse versus concentrated, and abandon versus restraint. His images suggest various culturally assumed socio-political norms and perceived ‘A priori givens’ within South Africa. He does so in the wake of Apartheid, but goes further to uproot the underlying opposition between oppression and emancipation, examining the uneasy grasp that most South Africans have as they attempt to build a sense of identity, marred by the  apathetic in an infantile democracy still jaundiced and anchored by its unjust past of racial segregation and quasi-totalitarianism. Subotzky reveals the historico-economic hierarchies of ethnicity and status that exist in Post-Colonial South Africa. More specifically, he finds his artistic voice in the context of specific power structures, such as notorious prisons, historic gangs, iconic architecture – all signifiers of authority and control, products of containment and repudiation. His images document the broadly accepted politics of degradation, prejudice, victimization and desperation to be found in many sectors of South African society, tracing the remnants of a recycled Apartheid infrastructure.

“The prison, that darkest region in the apparatus of justice, is the place where the power to punish, which no longer dares to manifest itself openly, silently organizes a field of objectivity in which punishment will be able to function openly as treatment and the sentence be inscribed among the discourses of knowledge.”

                                                                     ~ Foucault*

The prison is an overarching archetype in relation to the city and its structures, be it in the form of power, architecture, institutions, placed in contrast to the land and its supposed catharsis. The prison is an analogy leading to the central point: the vast integration of typecast individuals - citizens,  denizens, criminals - into a dominant political system, segregated into castes, creeds and classes, adhering to an invented system of discipline and punishment, which succeeds at the exploitation of human beings as opposed to liberating them. 

Perhaps Subotzky’s most recognisable series to date is his 2004 student thesis project, which he completed for his honors degree at Michaelis. This debut, titled Die Vier Hoeke (The Four Corners), referencing the interior geometry of a prison cell, is a series of gripping panoramic photographs of prisoners at Pollsmoor Maximum Security Prison in Cape Town, where Nelson Mandela spent many years of his political imprisonment. Pollsmoor is notorious for its overcrowding, questionable correctional techniques, and gang related violence. Following the writings of Levi-Strauss, Die Vier Hoeke marks Subotzky’s first critical analysis of the history of the prison system in South Africa, where for three months he lived with the prisoners, establishing his conceptual foundation: immerse oneself in the situation, develop relationships with ones subjects, and expose the hidden structures that engineer the status quo. To compliment his anthropological inquiry, Subotzky introduced dystopian elements of Orwellian fiction, coupled with the post-structuralist discourse of Foucault – all elements that inform the core of his work to this day.

After Die Vier Hoeke Subotzky compiled his infamous Beaufort West series, which documents the day-to-day life of a near-forgettable roadside town situated on South Africa’s longest national highway, the N1. One would be forgiven for simply passing through this distant hamlet in the middle of the Karoo desert; never realizing that a prison lies at the heart of the town, situated within a large traffic circle that abruptly interrupts ones journey through the endless landscape of the Karoo.  A dark socio-economic underbelly contrasts with the mundane timbre of this humdrum town. This is a contrast that transforms ones understanding of incarceration, inverting the notion of the prison; the outside, the rural, becomes the four corners. The geographical positioning of this prison-town in contrast to urban centre’s, Johannesburg and Cape Town, is key to understanding Subotzky’s stance on the contradictory ethical principles of the penal system, culled from dated Apartheid structures; all muddled, in disarray, demonstrated by Beaufort West’s history and methods of segregation. All this fermenting within the axis of emancipation and incarceration, and the symbiotic relationship between liberty and fraternity, detailing the harshness of the institution, displaying how the human spirit survives within the inhumane environment of the Panopticon, under the gaze of the ever-present authorities and the spectacle of age-old institutions.
Inverting all previous archetypes for his next project titled Ponte City Subotzky upended his original conception of the Panopticon. Running counter to the original vision of the prison series with more deceptive, ghostly elements of authority and control, he sets the prison within the urban sprawl of downtown Johannesburg. The ‘insider’ qualities of the city come to the fore as the archetypal prison. Subotzky collaborated with British artist Patrick Waterhouse for three years on this project, meticulously piecing together the ineffable domesticity of a high-rise apartment block, monumentalized by the spectacle of an iconic cylindrical 54-story structure called Ponte City in Hillbrow. This building is a veritable breadcrumb trail of socio-political change and economic turmoil. Circa 1994 Ponte City had become a shadow of its former self, a citadel of the Apartheid regime, meant to cater to a generation of ambitious and enterprising young professionals, now plagued by escalating gang violence, which transformed the high-rise into a ghetto. The tallest residential tower block in Africa had now become a Panopticon in-itself, observed from all angles, looking out in all directions. The images in this series are at once introspective and retrospective, reflecting upon the remaining mechanisms of South Africa’s colonialist legacy during the Post-Apartheid era. Although many of the images in this series look outwards towards the city and the distant northern suburbs, they are dominated by an inward feeling, based on the domestic interiors from which they were taken, notwithstanding the unconscious presence of its residents, many of whom are portrayed in Subotzky’s documentation. Subotsky’s Ponte City has a monumental air, comprising of hundreds of contact prints, each print detailing an individual window, interior, and television in Ponte City, presented as three colossal light boxes, suspended within the gallery space.

Subotzky’s work stresses mechanisms of control, power relations, and territory wars governed by augmented structures and prosthetic institutions that stunt growth more than they develop and sustain; where the overall maturation of South Africa is quelled in favor of a select, elite, politically-backed few and their material interests, whilst the proletariat increasingly becomes indifferent; passive-aggressive. His work displays South Africa’s tumult and disorder, unable to develop an infrastructure that can consolidate the effects of Apartheid, failing to contain social degeneration in a country plagued by endemic poverty, crime, and violence. An ode to Plato's Cave, after the dust has settled, the cultural revolution, thought to have been won, is now imprisoned in an ivory tower, franchised by the powers that be in order to manipulate the masses. This is absolute freedom, total abandon, pure war; all in preparation for more dust to settle.

"The history of modern culture during the ebb tide of revolution is thus the history of the theoretical and practical reduction of the movement for renewal, a history that reaches as far as the segregation of minority trends, and as far as the undivided domination of decomposition."

                                                                     ~ Debord


Image Copyright © Mikhael Subotzky 2014.
Text Copyright © Shane de Lange 2014.

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