In WYE, an immersive three-screen film installation, Mikhael Subotzky treads the tumultuous terrain of the “white male psyche”.
When three fictional protagonists travel between England, South Africa and Australia, their projections onto these landscapes mirror colonial mindsets in the historicised past, the vexed present, and an imagined post-corporeal future.
According to Subotzky: “The white South African man carries the mark of the colonial explorer whose ‘superior’ relationship to ‘foreign’ lands sticks stubbornly to their projected and internalised positioning in the contemporary body politic.”
An unsettling and beautiful piece, WYE tackles white guilt with demanding complexity. While, on one screen, we inhabit the intrinsically arrogant mindset of a 19th-century British settler on his arrival to the Eastern Cape, on another we follow a 21st-century South African man who walks a Port Elizabeth beach seeking a ‘blank canvas’ free of crime and ‘politics’ before emigrating to Australia. on the third screen we enter the white male body itself, which has become ‘colonised’ in the name of a futuristic form of psycho-anthropology.
According to curator and writer Nina Miall: “At the heart of WYE is an artist attempting to convey the evolving political nuances of his own position in relation to his subject, and […] to ‘scratch at the surface’ of the vexed terrain of post-apartheid South Africa, to mine its […] historical scars, contemporary anxieties and future disaffinities.”
The title WYE alludes to the 19th-century Romantic idealisation of the River Wye – the spiritual home of the English picturesque at a time when European imperialists swept inland in Australia and Southern Africa. The title also invokes the ‘wye’ structure of the letter ‘Y’, which is used in engineering and railroad parlance (two of the building blocks of the British colonial project), and a shape that echoes the triangular narrative structure of the three interconnected films.
This exhibition marks WYE’s debut in South Africa, after it was commissioned and exhibited by the Sherman Contemporary Art Foundation (Sydney) in 2016. WYE was produced by Laurence Hamburger (goodcop) and filmed by the legendary German cinematographer Jörg Schmidt-Reitwein (Werner Herzog’s Nosferatu the Vampyre and Woyzeck).
As an artist working mainly in film and photography, as well as collage and drawing, Subotzky engages critically with contemporary politics of mis/representation. For this show, he flips the lens inwards to channel the colonial perspective, collapsing it from within rather than criticising it from the objective distance that often characterises historical documentary forms.
Further works exhibited contextualise WYE within the artist’s broader practice include his colloquially named Sticky Tape Transfers, which peel apart depictions of past and present South Africa to interrupt the surface of images and complicate their function.
“At the heart of my work is a fixation with revealing the gap between what is presented (and idealised) and what is hidden, coupled with a desire to pull apart and reassemble the schizophrenia of contemporary existence,” says Subotzky.
Mikhael Subotzky’s work was included in the Liverpool (2012) and Lubumbashi (2013) Biennials, and Pixel Interface, a multi-component video installation, was included in All The World’s Futures, curated by Okwui Enwezor at the 56th Venice Biennale.
Subotzky’s work is exhibited and collected widely in South Africa and abroad. A large installation of his work was recently acquired by the Centre Georges Pompidou (Paris) and he is represented in public collections worldwide, including the Museum of Modern Art (New York), the Solomon R. Guggenheim Collection (New York), The National Gallery of Art (Washington), the Tate collection (London), The South African National Gallery (Cape Town) and the Johannesburg Art Gallery.
Recent awards include the Deutsche Borse Photography Prize (with Patrick Waterhouse, 2015) as well as the Standard Bank Young Artist for Visual Art award (2012) and the Discovery Award at Rencontres de la Photographie Arles (2011).
Subotzky was born in 1981 in Cape Town, South Africa, and is currently based in Johannesburg.