The Work of Mikhael Subotzky

Michael Salu

Decaying grandeur has a strange allure. Those imperious structures that once represented wealth and power, crumbled out of context by man’s destruction and nature’s ruthless erosion. Mikhael Subotzky and Patrick Waterhouse’s photographs of the dystopian Ponte City in Johannesburg intrigue for exactly this reason. To look at their images is to enter a compelling tale, narrated by the reassuring voice of the local griot. They lead you with authority through an unfamiliar and intimidating environment.

Subotzky’s work in particular is profoundly sensitive for one so young. The stories are preserved with an immediacy that grips – but is in no way gratuitous. Like any good story-teller his presence is unobtrusive, allowing the viewer to absorb the atmosphere. Anyone with even a hint of claustrophobia will squirm at the very thought of the conditions we see in ‘Die Vier Hoeke’, Subotzky’s photographs of Pollsmoor Maximum Security Prison in Cape Town. The Ponte City photo essay speaks in a similar voice. As with the prison series, it stresses the space that controls the movements and choices of the individual – recalling Michel Foucault’s meditations on space, power and control.

Claustrophobia is a recurring theme in Subotzky’s work, but what is arresting about this collection of images, particularly the series of window shots, is the individuality that defiantly peeks through a coarse thicket of decay. It is as though watercolour prints of a city skyline have been ‘crowdsourced’, as each canvas is individually customised. The composition of these photographs depicts each window as a collage. Layers of idiosyncratic objects are framed with ghostly silhouettes, creating images of contrast and solemn beauty.

Subotzky is unremitting in his documentation of an underexposed South Africa, but the Ponte City series also displays an intimacy that contrasts vividly with the building’s bleak exterior. See the domestic scenes in which the lively colour of a young girl’s dress illustrates warmth and a touching dynamic among a family making home in quarters designed for one. Or gaze as the bathing couple seemingly at ease with sharing such an intimate moment with the world. Irony echoes in the vacant hallways of this building, whose seductive marketing material sells an experience with the exhortation ‘LIVE YOUR LIFE’.

Although Ponte City was conceived as a monument to aspiration in a country trying to embrace universal capitalism, it ultimately represents South Africa’s failure to develop an infrastructure that could contain the inevitable fallout from apartheid and its resulting class structure. If this summer’s World Cup is even a tenth of the spectacle witnessed at the Beijing Olympics in 2008, a cloying fairytale of smiles and colour will be the prevailing image. We need artists like Subotzky and Waterhouse who choose to expose the reality beneath the sugar-coated façade.

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Michael Salu is artistic director at Granta.

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