A Stranger Cargo

Ashraf Jamal, A Foreign Land: Alastair Whitton Silver Prints, Barnard, Cape Town, January 21, 2020

In between the 'extremes of glamour and protest' that have to date defined contemporary South African photography, Alastair Whitton quietly regards himself as a 'voice' emerging from a 'grey area'. This self-appraisal deserves our deeper consideration, for it asks us to be more circumspect regarding the fashionable extremes dominant in the art world today, and to reconsider the importance of the everyday details which make up a life.


'The extraordinary is not our homeland but the land of our exile. The extraordinary is Babylon', Michael Foley remarks. 'It is the ordinary that is the only homeland'. But what if neither zone, be it 'extraordinary' or 'ordinary', is the true marker for a life? What if the salience of being, its frisson as it were, required both the recognition of the otherworldly and the familiar? It is this 'slippage', this gradation in a blur, which Alastair Whitton has chosen as the indeterminate focal point of this particular photographic project. For if he is unmoved by the 'extremes' which inform photography today it is because he has realised that no focal point, no sighted scene, is ever simply the sum of the sublime or prosaic. Worlds mesh, splice, interweave. Grace thrives within the commonplace. For Whitton, it is grace which fills the world and which gives us our sense of being, grace which impels us to suspend both the subjective and objective, the overly personal or coolly removed, the better to enfold ourselves within a greater mystery that is also commonplace. The ordinary, contra Foley, is not 'the only homeland'.  


While it may not at first appear to be the case, a sense of the spiritual, or, after Walter Benjamin, the 'auratic', is central to how Whitton sees the world within and about him. When he speaks of 'capturing ghosts', it is not only the 'archaeology' or empirical tracing or the pre-existing layers which a given scene or object contains and emits which intrigues him, but also its ineffable body, its soul. This is a large claim indeed, given that Whitton's photographs appear to be unremittingly secular composites of everyday scenes and things. And yet, resident within them, is the vestige of a deeper longing; a sense that that which exists and intractably occupies a given frame also harbours an as yet unknown and intrinsic state of grace. 


That Whitton's photographs are the result of repeated sightings, the record of a layering of time, should alert one to the fact that it is never the thing or situation in-and-for-itself which truly exercises the artist. Rather, what matters most, and which haunts him, is the knowledge that each and every thing, every place, is a rune. A given focus - say, a bus shelter - assumes its power as a magnetic and strange attractor not because the object contains its truth, but because, in the act of looking and restructuring of the object, its gnomic force emerges. One breathes life into that which is seen. One enlivens that deemed inanimate, and is enlivened in turn. And if this is so, it is because nothing exists solely within and for itself. Everything, be it an animate being or seemingly inanimate thing, is suffused with wonder. Therefore, if Whitton's photographs are not merely the objective recordings of a given scene, it is because what impels them far more is a folding of time and place. The act of 'marking changes in a particular environment over time', his photographs, paradoxically, are also the marking of the eternality of layered instants. His photographs, he says, are 'prayers through which grace passes'. 


High noon, when the light in South Africa is at its most 'sharp' and 'harsh', is Whitton's preferred rendezvous point for his most recent project. It is then, at 'midday', that he best finds a world bare-boned, impassive, mute, and yet also most revealing. This preferred taste for midday is not unorthodox within the South African photographic idiom. David Goldblatt too found this stripped bleached time sonorous and suggestive, despite its seeming nullity. J.M. Coetzee, however, has found this taste for high noon within South African aesthetics, be it writing or photography, to be lacking in 'an air of looming mystery'. This is because, for Coetzee, a noon light fixed South Africa 'in the mind as a place of flat, hard light, without shadows, without depth'.          

In my view, however, Coetzee's dismissal harbours its own failed insight, because it does not necessarily follow that that perceived as 'flat', 'hard', 'without shadows, without depth', should necessarily lack 'an air of looming mystery'. On the contrary, it is the seeming desolation of that moment which, for Whitton, also reveals its least dramatic and most mutely articulated truth. It is no accident, therefore, that Whitton should choose a time void of high drama, or a scene that, equally, should appear so utterly unyielding. In refusing spectacle, he has also refused the urgencies upon which a given spectacle thrives - hence his resistance to both 'glamour' and 'protest'.   


In his seminal study, The Rediscovery of the Ordinary, Njabulo Ndebele notes that 'The history of black South African literature [and here we can include the history of its art] has largely been the history of the representation of spectacle'. This approach 'indicts implicitly', he declares, 'it is demonstrative, preferring exteriority to interiority; it keeps the large issues in our minds, obliterating the details'. For Whitton, however, this limitation applies in equal measure to the culture of 'glamour'. This is because both seemingly opposed ideological dispensations - the cult and cultures of glamour and resistance - feed upon distraction and the withering of detail. It is not surprising, therefore, that in refusing both tendencies Whitton should consider his 'voice' as one that emerges from a 'grey zone' or unbidden crack.        


When Walter Benjamin described Atget's photographs as 'the scene of a crime', it was the photographer's ability to conjure portentous meaning within the seemingly nondescript that compelled him. 'Is not every spot of our cities the scene of a crime? Every passerby a perpetrator?', Benjamin asks. 'Does not the photographer - descendent of augurers and haruspices - uncover guilt in his pictures?'. Something akin is at work in Whitton's photographs. But it is not only guilt which informs his photographs, but the realisation of a more complex psychic entanglement of blight and hope. Whitton's photographs do not declare their intent nor distract us with the gloss of the iconic. Rather, they ask us to linger within the spectre of a charged and fleeting moment that is both personal and impersonal. For if the artist's quiet biography is implicated in the remaking and suturing of a psychically conflicted moment, this is because Whitton well recognises that he occupies a role in a drama that is never solely of his own making. He is both a perpetrator and a witness of a South African story - indeed the story of the world - in which immunity becomes impossible, and complicity inevitable. His photographs, then, are the enigmatic fragments of a time and place for which no record is ever final.


Whitton's photographs investigate the 'poetics and politics of place' in which, say, a cricket field sight screen, a derelict fuel station, or disused swimming pool, are not the sum of a detached and objective record, but the ciphers of a deeply private appraisal of a historical and psychically charged context, and one's place within that context. The artist's preoccupation with 'memory and geography', and the 'architecture of time and place', suggest a mode of apprehension, of seeing-as-being, which is always implicit. One infers a meaning, 'scents' a history, which, in its commemoration of the everyday, allows one to recognise one's own ordinariness in the instant of looking and feeling.


Born in the UK, Whitton arrived in South Africa as an infant, the youngest son of Scottish immigrants. This biographical detail, he reminds me, is one that asks us to reconsider where we truly belong. For the artist, we are all caught in media res - in the midst of things - our sense of place and belonging a register that always shifts, and which one manufactures at one's own peril. Which is why, for Whitton, the words of the mystic monk, Hugo of Saint Victor, have always been cherished: 'The man who finds his homeland sweet is still a tender beginner; he to whom every soil is his native one is already strong; but he is perfect to whom the entire world is as a foreign land'.


Hugo of Saint Victor's view, acutely shared by Walter Benjamin, as it was by Edward Said, also possesses a personal dimension. For if Whitton cherishes this realisation that we are not alone in the world, it is because, as a dear friend and mentor once reminded him, 'We are and will always remain as aliens in a foreign land because we were made for something else, another world, a better one which we are journeying towards in all that we do, think and are. Our art represents personal signposts staked out along the way'.


Whitton's photographs are the evocations for this lack and promise, this sense of loss and yearning, non-being and being, in which, after the mystic monk, 'the entire world is as a foreign land' - a place in which one must exist and which one can never wholly know. Intriguingly, for Whitton, this dislocated realisation is reassuring, for it is also his locus for grace. It is neither a wondrous strangeness nor a cloying familiarity that he courts. What matters to the artist far more is immanence - a sense of being in the world which, despite its intimacy, remains 'foreign'.


Imagination, or fantasy, while vital, can be as obstructive as any well-intentioned ideology. Better, then, to embrace the mirthless and stark nudity that is a South African high noon, an hour that does not care for looming mystery, which resists invention, because, in so being, it can yield its own blinding secret - a nothingness as austere as it is tender. It is, I think this moment, this realisation, which has seduced Alastair Whitton. That he has chosen to title this series of photographs 'A Foreign Land' reaffirms the artist's embrace of that which cannot be wholly embraced. A pathos therefore resides within the assessment that his photographs are 'monuments to the dislocated and overlooked', because for Whitton nothing is as familiar as it might seem. Resident within the cognitively recognisable, always, is a trace of something uncanny and unbidden. The memories unlocked are not, intrinsically, one's own, but a collective secret memory which each of us inhabits as a conduit.


If memory is central to Whitton's project, it is not because he seeks to recover a given past through the mechanism or filter of the camera, but because he realises that neither the human brain nor the machine he has chosen can, in itself, recover the residual presence of eternal time and truly record the ineffability of being. It is not sufficient to pronounce, after Benjamin, that 'The camera introduces us to the unconscious optics as does psychoanalysis to unconscious impulses'. Rather, one must also recognise that within and beyond this folding of the technological and psychological, there is also something else, a stranger cargo, which I have dubbed grace, or the soul. Because, for Whitton, that which exists, exists in passing, as a penumbral trace of a world far greater. The artist's humility stems from the intuition that in a photograph time past and time present can only ever appear as a ghosting or trace for a spiritual dimension that is unutterable, unrecorded, and yet profoundly intuited. Which is why Whitton's photographs must refuse the arrogance of the declarative or the coolness of the iconic.


Whitton is fascinated with the effects of time on a given environment or locale. He is drawn to the subtle layering of this phenomena and the related slippage and erasure that occurs as a result. 'I understand the process of my practice as a form of visual and cultural archaeology, a structuring of found fragments in an attempt to make sense of our place in time and the recording of our personal and collective histories', he says. This interpenetration of self and other, this realisation of one's place in a greater world which, at every turn, modifies one's sense of self, lies at the heart of Whitton's project. Conceived as anthropological 'field notes' situated within Cape Town, Whitton's project is unreservedly about location. And yet, despite this affirmation of place, the images remain untethered, as though caught always between places, or moments, as ghostings of some other indefinable place and time.


The opacity of Whitton's photographs, which allows one to see yet not see, is what gives them their enigmatic lure. Typically, the images are composites, splices, 'stitches, reversals, echoes', for what the artist seeks to technically achieve is symmetry - the doubling and reversal of a given focus. One is reminded of the Rorschach test, of symmetrical ink blots, used in psychoanalysis as tools to decode perception and decipher what it is we think or feel we are seeing. Intuition, or instinct, is key. But the overall impact of Whitton's photographs also come with a cognitive challenge. This is because his 'stitched' and 'reversed' images compel us to distinguish the seen object from its echo, and, in so doing, realise that nothing - no thing - exists without its ghost.


The poet, W.B. Yeats, intuited this unsettled and doubled world, this folding of the infinite within the finite, when he conceived symmetry to be something 'fearful'. Grace is not the sum of symmetry but that which exceeds it. If we are all doubled, twinned, we are also the sum of the enigmatic blur that exists between and beyond. Which is why, despite the beguiling symmetry which Whitton creates, we are reminded of the artifice intrinsic to the creation of this symmetry, and, all the more significantly, of the fact that no construct will, finally, resolve or complete us. Rather, after the theologian Hugo of Saint Victor, we are now compelled to realise that we can only ever truly recognise ourselves, and the world all about us, as the strange and estranging composites of an ever-mysterious and foreign land.


Selected Bibliography

Walter Benjamin, Illuminations, New York: Schocken Books, 1969.

J.M. Coetzee, Age of Iron, London: penguin Books, 1990.

Michael Foley, Embracing the Ordinary, London: Simon & Schuster, 2012.

Njabulo Ndebele, The Rediscovery of the Ordinary, Manchester University Press, 1994.

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