WHEN Brent Meistre asked me to open this exhibition, I was dubious about my ability to introduce what he does to the general public, as the material, while visually accessible, carries the weight of a very particular philosophy and approach to landscape which is less easily explained. I am thankful that, for most of us, the experience of standing alone in landscape is relatively easy to do as we live close to the kinds of landscape which he has photographed. To be physically in landscape in this country is a primal sensation – it is literally where we’re grounded – where we develop a sense of place and belonging - and it is the space in which we conduct our lives and where we are buried.
To be physically in landscape in South Africa is to have your feet on a particular piece of ground –and to have the horizon and the sky in front of you. It sounds like a simple and uncomplicated event. Any one of you will recognize the sense of being wrapped in infinite space and light and being aware of atmosphere and the theatre of weather. It is also a very different experience to that of being in landscape the Northern Hemisphere.
However, translating these intangible sensations into a photographic record becomes another story altogether…
What Brent has chosen to do is use photography as a conceptual tool to document facets of the physical and mental experience of being in the landscape. He works mainly with traditional photographic processes (including hand colour printing) which he incorporates into bodies of work which feature video, stop-frame animation and sound installations.
In SOJURN, Brent documents several personal journeys of some 81000 kilometers he made in an adapted Eskom truck through all kinds of terrain. He says of his work - “I am fascinated with the outer margins of photography. I wanted to see if I could photograph a landscape with nothing in it – a landscape devoid of meaning, history and trace. Prompted initially by the stark and detached approach instigated by the New Topographic Group who overturned notions of landscape photography in the 70’s in America, he set out to “allow” landscape to infiltrate his psyche. What defined the New Topographics ( and I quote) ” was that the pictures were stripped of any artistic frills and reduced to an essentially topographic state, conveying substantial amounts of visual information but eschewing entirely the aspects of beauty, emotion and opinion. Emphasis is placed on rigorous purity, deadpan humor and a casual disregard for the importance of the images."
This is not about nostalgic landscape or is it a travelogue. This is the record of one man’s physical and mental journey through landscape spaces that are remote and isolated and outside of the urban gaze - spaces that shift seasonally - spaces that are in transition or are under construction or are being reshaped by nature.
I’ve been fortunate enough to watch Brent’s work develop from his Masters work in1999 to the current exhibition hanging here tonight. Through an intellectual process – which was first presented in his student work called RODE - he began photographing the detritus, embedded objects and road kill found on road surfaces…. as evidence of human and animal passage. This has progressed through a body of work done over a six year period to the wider platform of open landscape. In the short 12 minute documentary video he has made called “At the Brink in No-Man’s Land” (which is available on the Internet) and which introduces this SOJOURN series, he provides an intimate and revealing profile of his passion for his subject.
Sojourn focuses on two main strands that run parallel to one another. The first is aesthetic. Brent says: It’s very basic practice for the novice photographer to photograph the road leading towards the horizon, a one-point perspective that creates a simplified and graphic pictorial structure. I play with conventional pictorial elements by using an extension ladder placed on top of the vehicle. He says - “To drive through the landscape, imagining what it may look like from an elevated position, is to drive in a constant state of displacement and ascension. Driving and turning your head, watching the land approaching, foreground, middle ground and background coming into composition as your eyes align parallel to the roadside, fence and telephone poles. This is driving in a suspended state, seeing, projecting and inverting the image “in the camera lens’’ of the vista before you.” He is also very much aware of the technical choices the photographer has to make – the centering of viewpoint, the boundaries and borders which are part and parcel of photography.
He says “Secondly, as in most of my work, I interrogate the ideas of migration and movement…”
(‘… and I extrapolate….)
Landscape imagery in art in South Africa has a complicated and politically infused history with many facets, given that at one time or another, the land has been occupied or owned by different people. Once solely inhabited by animals and the early indigenous people, it has since then been possessed, dispossessed and abandoned by warring factions, colonialists and liberators - and even now, is evolving under democratization.
Landscape in this country is recognizably particular, and has been photographed in documentary form ad nauseam. We are all familiar with the images of panoramic landscape - from the Karoo to Namibia and the Cape. It has been recorded manually by artists and scientists in the era before photography and is now being recorded digitally on cell phones and from Space. When you get away from the obvious panoramic and nostalgic recording of “view”, and start looking for ways to present the idea of landscape as a witness to events in the history of the land, the signs become less obvious. This stance requires recognition of both ancient and modern changes in social history, as well as sensitivity to physical changes in the topography of the land itself. In this context, Brent uses the photographic and the filmic to unravel and complicate the notion that the photograph is not simply a documenter of historical fact.
Nature is by definition natural and random. Humans have always tried to order nature by imposing systems, so when these either breakdown or are abandoned, the signs, photographically, of human passage could be interpreted as “events” in an otherwise featureless view. He has become interested in the things people leave behind: things which embody very specific memories and experiences yet have wider social and cultural resonance. Things like roads, dongas, fences, ruined buildings, mounds and poles are the evidence which remains of human passage through it. He also investigates the antitheses of these overt signs – other subtle events in the landscape - things like false starts, dead ends, blocked paths, closed gates, roads that appear to be roads but go nowhere. Central to this is the notion of the path, road or runway always carries with it the possibilities that, over the horizon, may lie something else with other possibilities… that the process of journeying is ongoing and endless.
As an extension of this idea, Meistre not only presents the landscape as an empty site, but at a more provocative level - as site for theatre and personal performances. He introduces himself (the artist) into the landscape in both humorous and interrogative ways. For those of you who have seen his stop-frame video installations, the process might be more obvious – the NMMAM has his award winning work in its permanent collection - where, using his own body, he documents a “journey” through landscape using stop-frame animation to track his progress and disappearance from the scene. The use of blurred movement in the video series is seminal to the climate of the works.
Meistre is acutely aware of the anomalies of history and the nuances of the word “journey” in the context of these images. In this project he focuses on socio-political and environmental issues - such as the daily struggle of isolated and rural communities, the development and ownership of land in Southern Africa and the impact of climate and the environment. Brent says, for him – “In subtle ways, - these images gave me a platform to investigate and manipulate --- to perhaps suggest other meanings and narratives.” While this may not be obvious to the viewer immediately, there is something ineffable about these images which convey his intentions. By and large, the sub text of his works evokes melancholia, displacement, longing and loss and transition.
We are lucky to have this international exhibition hanging here tonight. It has been exhibited internationally in China and in Greece. He was the only South African video artist on the Photo Biennale in Mali in 2011 and also had his works featured at the 25th Anniversary of the ABSA Atelier Awards and the Moving Film Festival in 2011. His stop-frame animation work has also been featured on festivals in Canada, Australia and Holland. The PE show is the first leg of the South African 'tour'. He will also be launching the book app. for ipad which he and Stephen Walker (Walker Digital) have been working on for the past few years.
----- Jeanne Wright