Titled ‘Daylight Ghosts’, David Lurie’s solo exhibition at the Irma Stern museum evocatively
conjures the mysterious power of photography to evoke that which is hidden, which we
cannot or refuse to see, and which refuses the satisfaction we call ‘insight’. A record of six
weeks sequestered at NIROX, a sculpture park located in the Cradle of Humankind, Lurie’s
images are not a document of his residency, but a love-song scripted photographically,
which reminds us of the pathos which resides in the act of seeing.
One imagines oneself connected to the environment which contains us, and yet, gnawing at
the edges of our imagined composure is the acute-yet-inchoate sensation that our belonging
– our being in the world – is one which is also terribly fleeting and vulnerable. ‘How …
capture this perspective in landscape photographs in this achingly beautiful region’, Lurie
asks. ‘How … excavate below our conventional sight level to recover the views of myth and
memory that lie beneath a surface that conceals more than it reveals, given the … limitations
of the medium?”
Is it an archaeology which Lurie seeks to recover? Not quite. Rather, the ghosts which
emerge in daylight – the ghosts of myth and memory – seem to resist the closure which,
mistakenly, we ascribe to the photographic image. A tracing, rather than a recording, Lurie’s
photographs ask us to forego both disquiet and ease, the better to arrive at a constitutive
irresolution – neither history nor myth can truly explain itself, for they occupy a parallel realm
to ‘the conventional sight level’ which, typically, informs what we understand-imagine-feel
ourselves to be experiencing.
A ‘perspective in landscape’, Lurie’s images hark back to the picturesque in which, after J.M.
Coetzee, ‘a landscape … composes itself, or is composed by the viewer, in receding plains
… a dark coulisse on one side shadowing the foreground: a middle plane with a larger
central figure such as a clump of trees; a plane of luminous distance’.
This viewpoint, structured as a composite of the close-up, medium, and long shot, expresses
the degree to which the picturesque – which as a term enters the English language in the
1600s – remains central to our pictorial imagination today. Lurie, however, is not wholly
convinced that this convention can truly bind us to the viewed world which we imagine
ourselves completed within. This is because the artist possesses a keenly contrary sense
that the eye and I, an acculturated optic and an acculturated idea of being, is
‘The Cradle provides a key lens through which to view and comprehend … pivotal and
formative moments of South African history’, Lurie espouses. ‘A vantage point from which to
understand what it means to be human and what it meant and currently means to be South
African’. This espousal, in my view, is both compelling and fantastical. This is because the
artist hankers after a hidden truth which cannot be disclosed other than as a ruin, a
gravesite, a bank of broken rockery, a misted lake, a rocky escarpment, a calligraphic
arrested dance of water-logged reeds. In short, there are no glaringly evident historical facts
here, only traces of lost and intimated worlds.
Nevertheless, Lurie holds fast to the residue. Simon Schama – who Lurie references in the
preface to Daylight Ghosts – notes that ‘Even the landscapes that we suppose to be most
free of our culture may turn out, on closer inspection, to be its product … and this is a cause
not for guilt and sorrow but celebration’. In countering guilt, and along with it, suppression,
Schama asks us, more positively, to enshrine a joy which stems from the shredded grasp of
history. It is human intervention within and upon the land which, the critic reminds us, allows
for the apprehension of our ghostly presence.
That this is a matter for ululation is intriguing. For Schama, our lives can only be understood
in passing, in fragments – in the traces shored up against our ruin. John Fowles, however,
takes a very different view. ‘What I gain from nature is beyond words’, he paradoxically
writes. ‘To try to capture it verbally immediately places me in the same boat as the namers
and would-be owners of nature: that is, it exiles me from what I most need to learn’. One
senses not only a terrible irony here – the superfluity yet necessity of words – but also a
deeply existential pathos – the realisation that there are too many barriers, too many filters,
which obstruct a human being’s capacity to instantaneously exist and think upon that
existence. As for photography? It is perhaps an even more inconsolable means through
which to access that which must be learnt in-and-through nature.
J.H. Pierneef, perhaps South Africa’s best beloved landscape painter, refused both irony and
pathos. Instead, through the artificial means of painting – a method distinctively stylised and
self-reflective – Pierneef sought to control the seen, to wrench together the seeming
impregnability of landscape and the forceful, controlling, man-made aesthetic. ‘To be blind to
beauty is crass’, he memorably remarked, ‘but to be swallowed up by it seems
equally foolish’. Attentiveness-and-control, therefore, became his defining signature.
David Lurie, however, does not aspire to transforming the seen, or the scene. Neither,
however, does he imagine the act of photography as something neutral. Rather, it seems to
me, that the artist has embraced a constitutive irresolution – his images are doctored
testaments. The temperament which undergirds this doubled gesture is subtle and quietly
redolent. The artist allows the viewer to breathe inside the unresolved and immanent
moment, and, therein, begin to drift and wonder. Sonorous rather than elegiac, sure-footed
rather than transcendent, his images offer us a momentary tethering. For these are
consoling images – fleeting portals, fonts, pools, in which we can allow ourselves to linger.
They carry no portentous meaning, no burdensome gravity. They do not expect us to arrive
at any definable conclusions. Therein, rather, history, myth, memory, is a rune.
Travelling through the South African landscape between 1811 and 1813, William Burchell
experienced no such state of grace. An Englishman thrust upon a distant southern outpost,
Burchill bemoaned the harsh light – central to David Goldblatt’s noon-day vision – as he
bemoaned what he perceived as a lack of vegetal variety. Roundly dismissed as ‘a desolate
wild and singular landscape’ his ‘Africa’ was a place in which ‘we look in vain for those
mellow tints with which the sun dyes the forests of England’.
However, the atmospheric moistness which he failed to encounter – along with the
temperate balm it generated – was not in fact as invisible as it might have appeared to a
heat-struck jaundiced eye. Looking at Lurie’s images caught at dawn, it is precisely this
depth of perspective which soddenly emerges. As for the supposed lack of variety, one need
only look closely at a Lurie photograph and suddenly, in the glow of insight, a myriad
sparkling hues appear. For if there is one thing which Lurie’s photographs unerringly reveal,
it is the subtle interlacing of reed and field, a slated stone and slated water, rich congeries of
luminous colour, a land seemingly void and yet unutterably poignant.