WRITING THE CITY. A photographic exhibition by David Lurie. At the South African Jewish Museum until May 1. DANNY SHORKEND reviews
DAVID Lurie describes Cape Town as “a city in crisis: a failed city that somehow works” (2016). This is reflected in his photographic exploration of the derelict, of spaces that we often do not see in the city or merely glance at without taking much notice.
For it is precisely these spaces, at once aesthetic in their raw expression, yet sad, lonely, even angry. By showing us these fragments of the “undercity” as it were, we enter a realm wherein Cape Town’s tourist glitz and glamour is clearly not the full – or only – story.
Psychogeography is a technical term that refers to “a set of strategies for exploring cities to uncover the effect on emotions and behaviour”. (Sey 2015). And this is precisely what Lurie achieves: the city is used as a canvas of sorts: walls, billboards, bridges, roads, even trees becomes a vehicle for exposing political and personal sentiments via writing “into” living space, however derelict that space/place may be.
In this respect, there is a kind of organic lived art, only it is not art, for it is real, not simply imaginative diversion or an excursion elsewhere.
There is no ideal realm. Only investment in a city that both discards and also houses people, albeit in ways that for the most part renders them forgotten, out of sight and below the regulated radar that is the city’s organisation and infrastructure. In short: agony, destruction, gentrification, homelessness and the like are often overlooked (or is it underlooked?).
The critical question is: does Lurie aestheticize these rough realities and therefore skirt over the problem or by highlighting such issues and exposing them, create an empathetic response – inspiring through art a call to action, at least emotionally, forging a desire to uplift the city with the awareness that Cape Town has many faces, many voices.
Thus in the photographing of graffiti, there is a double bombing: the incursion of graffiti art in public spaces and now the raising of this performance, if you will, within the (safe) confines of fine arts photographic display.
In the process, perhaps Lurie succeeds in gently coaxing one to see art in the everyday – here in the subversive underworld – and an aesthetic sensibility, a human touch. But here I run the risk of what Duchamp may have called mere “retinal art” that prompted the Dadaist anti-art polemic, in order to reclaim life as art and disregard bourgeoisie values and culture.
That attitude is perhaps still pertinent. Hence, one finds in many of Lurie’s pieces graffiti side by side with road signage as if there is no clear-cut distinction between life and art, nature and culture.
Moreover, the linkage of words and images – recordings of incisions on trees in the company gardens, for example where “x was here” is marked and so on – points to an intrusion within the city. Yet here is equally the potential for chaos and disarray and of been lost in the city.
Writing the city is certainly marked by strong, crisp images, a certain ease on the eye that contrasts with the seriousness of many of the images. This jarring visual juxtaposition perhaps reflects the historical fact wherein “the origins of the city (Cape Town) as a colonial outpost and its subsequent history of slavery and apartheid, have become overlain with its reinvention as a glittering global tourist playground” (2015, Sey).
When looking at the work, one might be immediately struck by its lonely, greyish tone. One might perceive that there is a sense of the lack of an individual voice, a certain silence pervades the imagery even as words are critical.
One might also find that there is a sense that Cape Town does function adequately, that even though there are clearly aspects that need to be improved, Lurie perhaps intimates that deficiency and lack can yet be fertile ground for growth, as Leonard Cohen famously sung: “Here is a crack in everything… that’s how the light gets in.” Decay often precedes growth and new life.
Lurie thus captures a Cape Town where there is the potential for regeneration and rehabilitation, precisely where there is an image of the dysfunctional and abject.
l At 88 Hatfield Street, Gardens, 021 465 1546, www.sajewish museum.co.za