"Freeze this frame." Trauma and the art of remembering and forgetting

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Die foto-uitstalling SITE photography and national trauma in South Africa vorm deel van Kaapstad se MOP6 en is deur Lou-Marié Kruger by GUS (Galery Universiteit Stellenbosch) geopen. Hieronder is haar openingstoespraak. Hentie van der Merwe – die kurator van die uistalling – het die beelde van sommige van die foto's op uitstalling verskaf.


"Freeze this frame." Trauma and the art of remembering and forgetting

Die plekname sê dit klaar alles.

Liesbeekrivier. Bloukrans. Klipkop. Robbeneiland. Welkom. Diepsloot. Frankfort. Distrik Ses. Valsbaai. Robbeneiland. Roodeplaat. Marikana.

“Freeze this frame,” writes Cormac McCarthy. “Now call down your dark and your cold and be damned” (2006:17–8).1

For South Africans the places represented at this powerful exhibition serve as immediate interpellations into traumatic discourses.2 The sites almost automatically remind us of a history suffused with suffering, dreadful drawn-out dramas and spectacular atrocities that punctuate the story of our beloved country. As such the places evoke adverse effects, such as pain and dread on the one hand and shame and guilt on the other hand. Such emotional responses are shaped by both our own particular personal histories and prevailing social discourses. Regardless of how and why such adverse emotional reactions are triggered, these are the kinds of emotions that have the potential to overwhelm us and render us speechless. Faced with what Bion called “the nameless dread”, we become unable to think. We become helpless and stuck and slip into states of disavowal and denial, even enactments and dissociation. Empathy for ourselves and others becomes impossible. The “death of the viewer”, as Hentie van der Merwe says in his curator’s notes.

“The conflict between the will to deny horrible events and the will to proclaim them aloud is the central dialectic of psychological trauma,” Judith Herman says in her seminal work, Trauma and recovery (1992:1).3 “The psychological distress symptoms of traumatized people simultaneously call attention to the existence of an unspeakable secret and deflect attention from it. This is most apparent in the way traumatized people alternate between feeling numb and reliving the events” (Herman 1992:1).

In this exhibition this dialectic is suggested in many different ways.

(i) It begins with this space (the gallery) with its serene exterior and interiors, the clean straight lines that seemed to have informed the hanging of the works, the many open white spaces on the walls, the restraint with regard to number of works and the simple sober framing – all serving to refute the disturbing contents of what is captured (and not captured) by these works. Both distance and immersion become inevitable.

Die dialektiek tussen onthou en vergeet, konfronteer en toemaak, word ook op verskillende maniere gesuggereer in die inhoud van die werk.

(ii) Daar is iets oor die gras. The landscapes that are mostly quite grim and static (even if hauntingly beautiful in many cases) all include grass: graspolle, grasvelde, grasperke en soms, soos met die oorlogsvelde van KwaZulu-Natal, net gras. Without belabouring the (unintended, I think) metaphor: Gras is soos vergeet. Gras groei en gras bedek. Gras is mooi en gras vervuil. “Cut grass lies frail,” sê Philip Larkin (1988:153).4

Dit is erg om te vergeet, maar partykeer erger om nie te kan vergeet nie. The dialectic of the will to remember and the longing to forget.

“I want to give thanks to the divine …/ For speech, which can be taken for wisdom,/ For forgetfulness, which annuls or modifies the past,” sê Borges (1972:117–9).5

Ek sien die gras groei nog nie by Marikana nie.

(iii) Another way in which the dialectic of trauma is suggested is the fact that in these works places of devastation are frequently juxtaposed with ordinary and mundane man-made objects (or man-planted objects):

Mure. ’n Pad. ’n Lamppaal. Voorletters op klippe. ’n Kaart. Twee plastiekstoele. ’n Rooi dak. ’n Hek. ’n Kinderswaai. ’n Braaivleisplek. Twee glasvoëltjies. ’n Blikbord. ’n Palmboom. ’n Longdrop. Baie dakke. ’n Tafel. ’n Yskas. Gasbottels. ’n Giftige selonsroos. ’n Bitteralwynheining.

Al is daar min lewende wesens in hierdie foto’s en installasies, suggereer hierdie objekte deurgaans die verskriklike en beheersugtige teenwoordigheid, maar ook ontredderende weerlose aanspraak, van mense.

On the one hand these seemingly innocuous objects become provocative, almost sinister, when captured against the backdrop of ominous places, potent reminders of the banality of evil. Says Alizia Levi about her encounter with Vlakplaas in 1997: “What I encountered there was more shocking than I expected. An isolated plot of land, a family living in its quarters without a trace of record or memory of the atrocities that had occurred.”6

Aan die ander kant kon ek nie verhelp om getref te wees deur die heel desperate (soms heel menslike, soms afstootlik onmenslike) pogings van mense om te oorleef, om voort te gaan, om hul merke koppig en meedoënloos op die landskap te los nie.

Sometimes these efforts to mark and master and control are deliberately cruel, other times perpetrators are oblivious of their collusion with a national project of denial and disavowal.

Maar daar is ook die ontsettend roerende pogings van hulle wat verliese gely het en hulle wat miskien indirek aandadig voel aan die verliese om hulle merke op die landskap te maak, sodat wat verloor en verlore is, nie vergeet sal word nie. Voorletters op klippe. Boekies met stories. Die name van voorvaders in rooi geweef oor die landskappe van konsentrasiekampe.

Dit bring ons weer terug by hierdie projek as ’n geheel. Wat doen hierdie uitstalling, hierdie kunstenaar, hierdie kurator. Watter merke maak hulle op ons landskap?

JM Coetzee says about his own writing: “Let me add that I, as a person, as a personality, am overwhelmed, that my thinking is thrown into confusion and helplessness by the fact of suffering in the world … These fictional constructions of mine are paltry, ludicrous defences against that being overwhelmed and, to me transparently so” (1992:248).7

Hy is reg. Ons skryf ons weerloosheid weg. Ons teken ons magteloosheid af. Ons tik swart op wit teen die chaos. Ons benoem ons rigtingloosheid. Ons situeer ons plekloosheid. Ons skryf toesprake om die onverstaanbare verstaanbaar te probeer maak. Ons maak musiek om aan die werklikheid te ontsnap. Ons skryf op mure en klippe om die skrif wat reeds op die muur is, toe te skryf. Ons neem foto’s om te onthou dat ons mense is wat soms onmenslik word. Ons skep om ons sterflikheid te bevestig en te besweer.

Enige kunswerk is altyd opeens ’n refleksie van die banaliteit van menswees en ’n soort weerstand teen die noodlot van menswees. Dit laat ons fluktueer tussen vergeet en onthou. Good art at once represents reality and resists it.

I stated at the beginning that the central dialectic of trauma is the will to denial and disavowal and the simultaneous insistence on remembering. While Coetzee may be right that art will always be a defence, we all know there is nothing paltry and ludicrous about his constructions.

Similarly this exhibition succeeds in creating a cool web of reflection while being emotionally captivating.

Vreemd genoeg, ten spyte van die feit dat hierdie versameling ons konfronteer met landskappe van ontsettende verwoesting en die pyn van ons eie aandadigheid en/of verlies, ervaar ek dit as roerend en steurend eerder as brutaal en oorweldigend. Daar is geen bloedige lyke hier nie. Geen kru aanvalle op die psige nie. Net genuanseerde voorstellings van die dialektiek van vergeet en onthou, subtiele suggesties van menslike mag en weerloosheid.

As such, disavowal and denial are not necessary; the viewer can connect without being overwhelmed, reflect without being distant. As the viewer is certainly forced to remember, she can both mentalise and be mindful, making it possible for her to safely mourn her own pain and her own shame. Connection with self and others is enabled.

Empathy with self and others can be restored, even if only temporarily.

In this sense this exhibition, provocative as it is, has the potential to be profoundly healing for viewers: remembrance, mourning, reconnection and meaning-making become possible. The viewer does not have to die for the memories to be kept alive. On the contrary.

Dankie, Hentie en kunstenaars, vir ’n aangrypende projek.

False Bay No 1
2011
Archival pigment ink print on cotton paper, mounted
80 x 235 cm

Marikana I & II
August 2012
Inkjet print on archival paper, mounted and framed
90 x 120 cm each

Remains of long-drop lavatories built for the "closer settlement camp" of Frankfort, Eastern Cape. The 5000 members of the black farming
community of Mgwali were to have been forcibly moved and resettled here after their land was declared a "black spot" by the apartheid
government in 1983. However the people of Mgwali resisted strongly and in 1986 the removal scheme was dropped. The lavatories were
gradually stripped of their usable building materials by people in the area and all that is left now are concrete bases over some 1500
anatomically shaped holes in the veld.

2006
Digital print in pigment inks, mounted and framed
98 x 125 cm

Diepsloot, 15 AUGUST 2009
2009
Digital print in pigment inks, mounted and framed
98 x 125 cm, mounted and framed

Battlefields of KwaZulu-Natal
2013
Archival injek prints with embossing in portfolio
35 panels, 63 x 46 cm each


1 McCarthy, C, 2006, The road, Alfred A Knopf, USA.

2 Dimen, M, 2010, With culture in mind: Psychoanalytic stories, Routledge, New York. “Interpellation is the process through which subjectivity is hailed into being” (Dimen 2011:5–6).

3 Herman, J, 1992, Trauma and recovery, Basic Books, New York.

4 Larkin, P, 1988, Collected poems, The Marvell Press and Faber and Faber, London.

5 Borges, JL, 1972, Selected poems, 1923–1967, Delta, New York.

6 Levi, A, no date, Vlakplaas 1997; viewed 10 October 2014, from http://www.alizalevi.net/list-of-works/vlakplaas-1997.

7 Coetzee, JM, 1992, Doubling the point: Essays and interviews, Harvard University Press, Cambridge.

Die uitstalling eindig op 1 November 2014. Kontak [email protected] vir nog inligting.

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