The following text is an edited excerpt from Vibrations in the Landscape: The Imaginary Divinations of Mikhael Subotzky’s WYE by Nina Miall. The full version can be found in SCAF’s Mikhael Subotzky: WYE exhibition catalogue.
The overarching structural and conceptual framework of Subotzky’s film installation derives from the letter Y (the phonetically-spelt Old English ‘wye’ of the title), whose shape has traditionally lent itself to a variety of practical applications, from railroad construction to mechanical and electrical engineering. Adapting it for artistic purposes, Subotzky envisages an imaginary cartographic triangle enveloping the United Kingdom, and two of its former colonies, South Africa and Australia, its exterior sides etched by the migration of people over centuries. In drafting a Y shape into the middle of this triangle and elevating it into a third dimension, the artist admits the imaginary space for a new fictional narrative in which these three countries converge across time and space. A narrative structure for WYE is thus harnessed which spans three temporalities – historical, contemporary and futuristic – and three disparate colonial experiences: English, Australian and South African.
The point of spatial and temporal convergence, where the activity of all three films is concentrated, is the vast, windswept beach of the Cape Recife Nature Reserve, just outside Port Elizabeth on South Africa’s eastern coast. Washed up on the shore by Subotzky’s imagination are the three protagonists of WYE, surveilled with sweeping, panoptic authority by the Reserve’s zebra-striped lighthouse (1).
The first film focuses on the experience of the androgynous and perhaps disembodied Feio, an Australian psycho-anthropologist from the future who has travelled to the east coast of South Africa to study Craig Hare, a metal detectorist from Feio’s past (our present day). From a base in the Lighthouse Apartment, Feio accesses the beach-combing Hare’s bodily experience through the futuristic practice of ‘deep enacting in’ (note from the artist: ‘deep enactment’ is a Subotzky neologism), an extension of the pseudo-scientific twentieth-century anthropological principle of ‘deep hanging out’ (essentially, sustained and in-depth engagement with the subject of study). For a short period known as an ‘enactment’, Feio enters Hare’s ‘body-memory stream’, bewildered by the range of unfamiliar corporeal sensation s/he encounters in Hare, primary among which is the mental and spiritual disquietude he feels at the legacy of colonial rule in South Africa.
The second film revolves around Craig Hare, a present-day South African who seeks solitude through metal detecting, a preoccupation which is both symptomatic of a wish to connect experientially with this remote, incomprehensible landscape, but also of a latent colonial desire to exert control over it. Mining the post-apartheid landscape, he finds its natural beauty blighted by the presence of human suffering, a reflection of his own sense of white guilt. Hermanus, a coloured homeless man encountered by Hare while prospecting, forces Hare to reckon with the burden of his ancestral legacy. In the figure of Hare, Subotzky articulates the contemporary white postcolonialist mentality with its sense of shame about the failure of ingrained social and racial inequalities in South Africa to have been adequately redressed in recent times.
Armed with his favourite rod of Old English hazel, James T. Lethbridge, the 1820 settler transplanted from England to South Africa, dominates the third film in WYE (2). His fervent dowsing efforts unearth an ancient landscape resistant to being read in imperialist terms and leave him profoundly disoriented as, like the coastline he plumbs, he becomes ever more ravaged by the elements in the process.
United in their profound sense of cultural dislocation, Feio, Hare and James T. Lethbridge dowse into each others’ lives, seeking to understand the others’ unique physical and spiritual connection to the landscape in a fugitive circular narrative akin to three hares chasing each others’ tails. Each assumes the role of a cultural anthropologist, their varying tools and perspectives reflecting critically on developments in the discipline in the past two hundred years, as well as speculating on its application in the future. For Subotzky, representation of the body is invariably connected with an anthropological project. In WYE he problematises the shortcomings of anthropology as study and discourse, its contexts of domination and privilege, through his characters’ misunderstandings and misrepresentations.
1. Subotzky’s fascination with the all-seeing panoptic view and how it acts as a Foucauldian apparatus of power was announced in his graduation project Die Vier Hoeke (2005) and has continued in projects such as Beaufort West (2007), whose prison occupies a traffic roundabout in the middle of the town, Moses and Griffiths (2012), in which the Observatory Museum’s camera obscura offered a 360-degree survey of Grahamstown, and Ponte City (2009), with Patrick Waterhouse.
2. Four thousand British settlers were brought to the Eastern Cape by the British colonial government in 1820 in an effort to ease Britain’s unemployment problem following the Napoleonic Wars and to settle the troubled border regions of South Africa, defending the eastern frontier against the neighbouring Xhosa peoples.