Ponte City Windows, Televisions, Doors - Three Lightboxes

Mikhael Subotzky and Patrick Waterhouse spent much of the years 2008, 2009 and 2010 engaged in the quixotic task of taking a photograph out of every window, of every internal door, and of every television-set in Ponte City. This circular 54-story building has been the subject of their three-year investigation of its structure and its position as the crucible of Johannesburg´s urban mythology.

The result is three light-boxes, each measuring almost four meters, which tower above the viewer in similar proportions to the building itself. The photographs, taken with as much formal consistency as was possible in a chaotic building, are presented exactly in order, floor above floor and flat by flat.

The first light-box, featuring the internal doors that open from the circular corridors into each apartment, at first looks like a giant stained-glass window - a seemingly composed arrangements of reds, pinks and blues. But in fact, the photographs are arranged accurately and truly to the building. The different colours are dictated by the building´s history - the old pink paint from its 1970s heyday still remains near the top, while recent renovations which started near the bottom included blue neon lights which cast a strange glow onto the black doors. Punctuating the closed doors of these various colours, one periodically comes across a door thrown open to reveal a portrait of that apartment´s residents. Working at night, the artists knocked on each door in the building to request this portrait, and then photographed the closed door if it was refused, or if the apartment was empty. Where a portrait was taken, the glare of the raw electric bulbs in the apartments is accentuated by backlighting of the light-boxes. These small squares of light and life jump out towards the viewer, giving the work a sense of depth which strains against the many closed doors that pull the eye back to its surface.

If one studies closely the striations of light and colour of the work, an archaeology of the building reveals itself. The ornate patterns of the doors and security gates on the higher floors are in stark contrast to the plain black wooden doors installed lower down during the building´s last failed renovation in 2007 and 2008. Floor 32 was photographed during this period when it housed the show apartments that were being used to advertise the renovated building. On some of the doors, the decor schemes that investors could choose from are clearly marked. “Future Slick”, Moroccan Delight”, “Glam Rock” and “Zen Like” are all at odds with the visions of the building that surround them. The comprehensive methodology of the photography reveals both these layers of history as well as individual fragments of interest. Right at the bottom, on the very last floor that the artists photographed, they came across the doors to what used to be the building´s public restrooms. Amazingly, these were still clearly marked with the exclusions of Apartheid - “European Here” and “European Dame” (European Gentleman and European Ladies).

The next light-box, featuring photographs of the building´s windows, is a fragmented landscape. One can trace the structure of adjacent buildings upwards, photo by photo, from their foundations which are seen through Ponte´s parking-floor windows, to the point where their pinnacles disappear from view as Ponte towers above them. Horizontally, the twelve photographs of each floor roughly stitch together an overlapping panorama as seen from this centre-point of Johannesburg´s skyline. But it is when the windows are blocked that the most interesting details emerge. The bright colours of closed curtains, the stacked furniture of an overcrowded apartment, and the silhouettes of many residents all interrupt the fragmented landscape, turning the exterior gaze of the work in on itself. The ´windows´ work unfolds the building onto a flat surface which maps its internal structure and the relationships between lives’ lived stacked together and on top of each-other.

While the artists where drawn at first to photograph the windows and their spectacular views, they soon noticed that the residents of the building were much more pre-occupied with their television screens. So soon these alternative windows were included in Subotzky and Waterhouse´s list of typologies, and this third light-box becomes another colourful mosaic of light and colour. Local soap operas, Congolese music videos, and Nollywood movies dominate the screens. Every television reveals a different fantasy - both the real and the mythical places where these images come from trace the journeys of the residents from their homelands to the building, and then perhaps onwards to the places to which they aspire.

These three towering light-boxes present three distinct yet overlapping directions of view. The internal, the external, and the imagined are separated by the typological method that made the three works, but confused in each instance by the richness of detail that each one includes in its 600-odd photographs. But step back from each, and they become almost completely abstract, fractals of colour and light that make it hard to believe that they are organized true to the building rather then the artist´s design.

Ponte City overview text / Ponte City images / Ponte installation