Veiled Repositories: David Lurie’s ‘Daylight Ghosts’

The Melrose Gallery
Nov 22, 2018 2:12PM
David Lurie
Dawn, Nirox Sculpture Park , 2015
The Melrose Gallery

David Lurie’s ‘Daylight Ghosts History, Myth, Memory’ is a body of work comprised of photographs taken during his six-week residency at the Nirox Foundation in 2015 at the Cradle of Humankind. In the accompanying book, both the brief introduction by the photographer and the lucid and thoughtful essay by James Sey stress the doubleness of landscape. Landscape reveals while concealing, is both a presence rendering the past invisible (or at most faintly visible) and a kind of residue, ruin or afterthought of the vast events of history which have taken place on it, and which it has silently endured. We may find this duality in Lurie’s photo taken at the Mount Savannah Farm, shot in early morning silver-blue light, the morning mist almost obscuring the wide tree whose branches are the center of the picture.

A water or chemical tank, color teal, the tank recessive in the photograph. Dried weeds of a reddish brown matching the dry Gauteng soil. A log and the branches of a second tree at the edge of the photo. The rest of the tree cannot be seen. The photo suggests the emptiness of this landscape but it also beckons the eye towards the recessive tank and the tree that is mostly outside the image, as if trying to lead the eye to something beyond. The viewer wants to know where he or she is being “led”, to decipher the blankness of this early morning scene as if it were a script, the branches a signpost. Lurie, who has spent a great deal of time photographing the signage (graffiti, posters, wall art, writing on walls) of the city of Cape Town, finds here in Gauteng another kind of signage–that of nature pointing beyond itself into a netherworld: that of what happened in the past. This signposting of the past is an invitation to the imagination to discover, imagine and acknowledge what was. And to meditate on the way time erases it from consciousness. Lurie’s photos are finally a meditation on time.

The past does not speak, it reveals itself in the form of an emptiness, an absence, that which was and is no more. Lurie’s issue in this series is how to prompt a landscape to reveal what it conceals. Some thirty years ago the French filmmaker Claude Lanzmann addressed a similar question by beginning his film Shoah in a clearing in Poland surrounded by forest. His camera there refuses to stay still and instead swirls obsessively around the space until the viewer feels the space has become unreal, dislocated, as if space had suddenly been evaporated into time, and the clearing and forest had taken on the obscurity of the past. Which is exactly the point of his evocation, for we quickly learn that this beautiful space was the site for the first death camp of the Nazi Final Solution: Chelmno. Later Lanzmann will bring one of the two survivors from this camp back to the site, Simon Shrebrnik, and have him practice the singing he did as a boy when he rowed German soldiers down the river, thus turning evocation into reenactment. But now, at the moment of the film’s opening, the point is to show that nature has over-grown the past, dematerialized it: that all there is to see is the green of a forest betraying nothing. This dramatic absence (of the “what was”) forces the viewer to poetically enter a space of nothingness, neither here nor there but swirling with memory and the loss of real things and people, the victims and perpetrators of among history’s most vicious and incomprehensible events. All of which resides beyond the frame of the present: of what you see.

A place may become a site through the swirling of the cinema camera, or the arrangement of time into the texture of a photograph. Otherwise it is simply a “somewhere”. The camera simultaneously expands space into its past and reveals how little of the past remains, that what you actually see is all there really is. It is this double attitude towards site/place that is so hard to capture in film stock, or photography.

Lurie’s photo is part of the series he shot in the area around the Cradle of Humankind, where the Sterkfontein Caves are located, where the oldest predecessors of humanity were discovered, and in the years since the ‘ascent of humanity’ where centuries of barbarity and battle, struggle for resources and for freedom and alternately, domination took place in the heat of battle. This is a place of British-Xhosa wars and conflicts between rival African chiefdoms and British-Boer conflict in the nineteenth century. The dead saturate this landscape; they are its hidden specters. This rough and dry landscape is as scarred with history as the earth itself. It cries, whispers, and is silent.

The cinematic, or in Lurie’s case photographic art is how to set forth a landscape suffused with the hidden variables of time and memory. Gauteng is in many ways a dull, even desolate landscape, seemingly bereft of poetry. William Kentridge has turned its scrappiness, its sense of being in the end a liminal kind of nowhere, into a fine art with its own hauntedness. David Lurie has done the same. But in Lurie’s work this landscape also becomes strangely beautiful, radiating serenity, while seldom hospitable. He finds a powdery silver and white in sunrise, with the pale pink and even paler orange of dawn light.

In Dawn, Nirox Sculpture Park, the entire scene is captured in a beautiful bluish gray, as if a nineteenth century white ballet transposed to that color, with two trees playing the role of the principal dancers, one bending (a willow) the other erect.

He is like a guide taking you back in time. The Cradle from Spioenkop is a photo taken from just above a kopjie looking down to the land below and across to a range of mountains in the far distance. It could be an iPhone pic shot in panoramic mode, but for its ability to place the viewer in the position of a traveler arriving here for the first time. The viewer feels this same spot was the place where countless arrived and surveyed and discovered before him/her: British troops, Afrikaner trekkers, Xhosa chiefs, Stone Age men. We stand in the photographer’s shoes, and he occupies the invisible tracks of those countless from the past. And so again time is evoked.

Perhaps Late Afternoon, Kromdraai Valley raises the question of meaning most clearly. It shows a road that bends like a chevron and points towards nowhere but a liminal, low-hanging blue sky. The photo makes it appear the road ends at the chevron, even though it clearly curves to the left and continues on, limitlessly. What mark is made by this chevron; what sign given? We do not know. We have the sense of being somewhere and nowhere, an existential condition so adamant to Gauteng.

In some of Lurie’s photos there are indeed elements from the past, a British blockhouse from the nineteenth century wars in British Blockhouse, Barton’s Folly, Hekpoort, the remains, and then the graves of Boer “pioneers” in photos of those titles.

As Lurie says in the book’s introduction:

“The Cradle region is the scene of numerous epic battles: ancient conflicts as well as those between the many African chiefdoms that settled or tried to settle the interior, during the period sometimes called the difaqane; between African chiefdoms and boer pioneers, and between Boers and Britons, as well as several Afrikaner rebellions. The Cradle provides a lens through which to view and comprehend a series of absolutely pivotal and formative moments of South African history.”

Most of the photographs are empty of these critical moments of history, which appear as scant leftovers. In every case Lurie’s lens on this landscape shows it to be at once utterly banal, and a veiled repository of what humankind has wrought.

Following its run at the Irma Stern Museum, ‘Daylight Ghosts’ will move to The Melrose Gallery, Johannesburg from 23 November – 9 December.

*This article was written by Daniel Herwitz, Professor of Comparative Literature at the University of Michigan (Ann Arbour, Michigan).

The article was first published on ARTTHROB, 6 November 2018

David Lurie
British Blockhouse G, built during the Anglo-Boer War, Barton Folly Hekport, 2015
The Melrose Gallery
The Melrose Gallery