Cigarette smoke, red wine and art jargon. The hive of contemporary art was swarming in the trendy quarter of Woodstock. It was the opening night of Guy Tillim’s exhibition at the Michael Stevenson gallery and Cape Town’s creatives were on the loose.
Second Nature is an exhibition of recent photographs of the landscapes of French Polynesia, including the fabled island of Tahiti. In the exhibition write-up Tillim cites as his inspiration the voyages of Captain James Cook, in which accompanying artists claimed it was impossible to convincingly represent these landscapes. Challenge taken.
At first I was overwhelmed by the sensory overload of photographs shot in enormously rich detail. The relentless lush greenery of the islands, untouched by modern industry, spills out onto the walls and floor of the gallery. The overgrowth of my mind went into overdrive.
Frankly too much. After a lap or two it was similar to being stuck looking through the giant holiday photo album of a friend’s trip, complete with the tourist aesthetic of foreign landscapes and the occasional peaceful native. I found myself humming Michael Franks’ song ‘Tahitian Moon’:
I bought a round trip cheap
I broke my lease and gave away my heap
I flew down to Tahiti where soft breezes blow,
and I rented a grass roof bungalow
Had Guy Tillim taken a year long holiday in paradise and come back to sell us his Kodak moments? Indeed the holiday snapshot quality of these photos confused even avid followers of Tillim’s work. I wasn’t alone in searching in vain for some kind of meaning or message. Tillim is renowned for his use of political friction in his photographs of the post-colonial aftermaths of Africa. But it wasn’t there in these images, or at least not in the way we were looking for it.
Perhaps that sought-after friction lay not on an island paradise 8000 miles away, but in the 1-2 metre space between viewer and photograph. Having sobered up from the initial sensory overload I found a new appreciation for the photographs when considering the whole and the detail at the same time. Much like those 3D puzzle centrefolds from You Magazine I found myself squinting and crossing my pupils.
In essence we were not there to visit Tillim’s representation of French Polynesia. Rather we were invited into our own perceptions of paradise and allowed to explore them in those brief cross-eyed moments.
Justin Joshua Davy
Guy Tillim’s Second Nature runs till 3 September 2011 at the Michael Stevenson gallery in Woodstock.