It was a great surprise when the director of Deepest Darkest Gallery informed me that the leading commentator on South African Art paid a visit to the gallery and afterwards wrote an essay on the show! Since the exhibition comes to an end tomorrow, this text will not be published in any art journals in South Africa, but I was given permission to share it with you here:
EUCATASTROPHE – HANNALIE TAUTE
Hannalie Taute has taught me a new word for happy endings – eucatastrophe – ‘a sudden turn of events at the end of a story which ensures that the protagonist does not meet some terrible, impending, and very plausible and probable doom’. This is what happens when we wake ourselves in the mist of a nightmare, when, snagged in some terrible dread, we engineer our escape. We know, of course, that happy endings, while avidly desired, are paradoxical – joy in and of itself defies endings. And yet, despite this absurd anachronism, this unending search for a time outside of time, we all plummet fitfully into the ramshackle happenstance of our everyday lives which no design can ever scupper.
Desire, after all, is a verb, never a noun, a quest, unabated, that cannot close in upon itself. Desire is our crucible, our condition for living, and, as such, the awful opposite of fulfillment. Page through a glossy or coolly matte magazine dedicated to ‘lifestyle’, and what we find is the glory hole that feeds fantasy. The pages are achingly beautiful, utterly unlike our messy daily lives. Art too offers us atonement. It feeds our mistaken craving for beauty. There is a good reason why we prefer pretty pictures, why Impressionism, of all the modern art genres, is favoured by a global majority. In Taute’s world, however, pictures are never quite pretty. She distorts the optic, rubs against our matrimonial fantasies, our longing for togetherness. The photographs which form the basis of her works are predominantly of couples, scenes from a marriage, some enshrined vision of conviviality – all the names we give to love: Eros (sexual passion), Philia (deep friendship), Ludus (playfulness), Agape (communal love), Pragma (enduring love), Philautia (self-love).
All these forms of love matter greatly to us, yet all are fragile. What Taute does is expose the fragility of our most deeply held yearnings. She cuts out the faces of her couples, replaces them with black rubber, and then another garish embroidered layer. Why? Is it because the faces, once present, have lost their charm? Because all the faces we prepare, ready for the camera, are posturings devoid of substance? Because a photograph, no matter how impressive in its objective certainty, is always an abduction? That love, too, is both an illusion and a heist?
Photographs curdle like milk, says Roland Barthes. If, for Sally Mann, photographs are treacherous, it is because they are ‘the malignant twin to imperfect memory’. They cannot tell the truth, despite all claims to the contrary. I think Taute intuits this wager, which is why her images are repurposed, their ever-altering state further discomposed. Why rubber? Why embroidery? The compound of textures is jarring. But it is also affective, evocative – they speak to a psychology that understands that all photographs are spectral. The French philosopher, Jacques Derrida, invented a word – hauntology – to explain the haunted nature of all ontological or seemingly tangible things and experiences. In other words, all things, all experiences, possess their ghost – they are never one thing. Matrimony is a beautiful idea, but it is also a catastrophe. Its objectification in a photograph is, necessarily, perilous, because such is life, despite our optimistic yearnings.
In ‘Prey’ (sic) for Them, Taute reveals her dark hand. The inclusion of the bracketed (sic) reminds us an erroneous intention is left unchecked – that error courses through words, images, hopes. Taute’s titles are biting captions – His Only Crime is that He Dearly Loved the Beautiful Princess, Once Upon a Time, Happy Couple, Evil Curse, Putting a Smile onto Your Face.
However, to assume these words to be ironic is to miss the mark. Taute is no interested in bittersweet cautionary tales, she is no fence-sitting know it all. Rather, it is pathos that courses through her works, the exhausted-yet-inexhaustible nature of hope, that point where parody meets pastiche, when all we hold dear is tenderly destroyed.
Ghoulish, macabre, Taute reveals the night-world of colonial inheritance, the precarity of place and position, the surreality of conflicting custom and tradition. Hers is a white world that has curdled, turned rank – off. And yet, in her nightmarish vision there remains a tender pathos. We, the viewers, participate in the radio-active afterglow that courses through her collaged photographs. They disturb us, true, but they are also consoling, for what they tell us through their muted speech, is that haunting is the inevitable by-product of any aspiration – be it colonial, or matrimonial. In fact, the two cannot be disconnected. Matrimony, like colonisation, is an aspirational project riddled with darkness. Both are contractual, and, as such, subject to breakage. This is because, for Taute, nothing is ever whole or immune. She guts, replaces, stitches. Hers is an act of suturing – a stitching up of a wound or incision. The result is carnivalesque, inverted, perverted, topsy-turvy, in the manner, say, of the Mexican Day of the Dead. It is also a refreshingly eerie take on blackface – a reverse projection, an insult to injury, a reminder, after Fredric Jameson, that history hurts.
Ashraf Jamal is a Research Associate in the Visual Identities in Art and Design Research Centre, University of Johannesburg and a leading commentator on contemporary art in South Africa. He is the author of In the World: Essays on Contemporary South African Art, published by Skira in 2017.
*Photographs of my work by Kleinjan Groenewald