All Hope Abandon Ye Who Enter Here

This review was published in the Mail & Guardian Volume 26 no 32, August 27, 2010  

Walking into Pieter Hugo’s Permanent Error currently on show at Michael Stevenson is an ocular experience. Not only is it visual, and with enormous photographs stretching to a metre or more it is highly visual, but also makes you physically aware of your eyes. Every image billows with thick acrid smoke; the ground is covered in fine ash. You want to rub your eyes. You can imagine the sting of burning plastic.

In the photo titled Abdulai Yahaya, Agbogbloshie Market, Accra, Ghana a boy crouches in the dust. The landscape is ashen and apocalyptic. The boy stares directly out of the picture, but it seems that no human should be there. Sweat is beaded on his forehead and runs through the dirt on his cheeks. His eyes are red-rimmed and so glassy that you can see the reflections of the people in front of him. It is emotional. You are hit by the stark reality, the bleak and circular existence of this person. His impassive gaze and crouched pose reflect an inexpressible violent hopelessness. In other photos, you begin to notice fragments of keyboards and coils of electrical wire. An old computer monitor is on fire. If computers are a site of contemporary identity, here they become eviscerated and useless. The people too are silent, abject and exhausted. In the backgrounds low fires burn, the only real colour in the images. They are the active participants.

This setting, easily imagined by a Hollywood director for a disaster movie, is real, as are the people. Sitting on the outskirts of the slum Agbogbloshie in Accra, Ghana, the area is a dump where locals ‘mine’ obsolete technology for the copper and other metals by burning out the plastics. At night, fresh containers are emptied of technological junk. These piles of old computers are shipped from Western nations, ostensibly as donations to bridge the ‘digital divide’ and provide education. Far from a positive notion of recycling, it is an easy excuse for unscrupulous waste disposal. In reality, the broken computers have little value. The irony is that this delivering of the apparatus of knowledge is literally apocalyptic in implication. The utopian ideals of digital technology, freedom, communication and ease, find the marred side of the coin in places like Agbogbloshie. The impulse to progress is haunted by its own destruction. The soil and air is poisoned and the people are destitute. Indeed, the photographs are an indictment of a culture of waste. It is a vision of the true failure of capitalism.

The title of the show Permanent Error puns on this failure. In computer speak, a permanent error is a bad sector that can only be rectified by clearing the whole disc and rewriting. Here, there is the permanent error inflicted on the landscape, the permanent error of benevolence masking abuse, and the permanent error of the health and poverty of the people living in Agbogbloshie. Also seemingly irreversible is the relationship between the West and Africa, a quagmire of history and politics. It is a relationship that is reflected in the gallery space, in which the privilege of looking (and of ownership) is awarded to the wealthy.

While the subject matter is spot-on contemporary, feeding into current fears of eco-destruction, they are not news pictures. They fall somewhere between documentary and portraiture. After the decline of the photomagazines, like Life, in the 70’s the latter is a realm of photography that is increasingly finding its space within the white cube gallery. This has been a way for concerned photographers to maintain their integrity and their income. In order for this transaction to remain viable, however, the images need a hook to attract value. In Pieter Hugo’s case, they are beautiful images. The figures are central, composed and monumental. The colours are carefully modulated, desaturated but contrasty. It accentuates the details of dirt, rich areas for our eyes to settle upon. The smoke is both threatening and appealing, an end-of-the-world sublime. In this regard they fall into a long tradition of Western art, the fascination with ruin and decay. It is a line from Hieronymous Bosch’s pictures of perdition to Dutch Masters’ vanitas paintings to the movie 2012.

In the 19th Century this fascination was condensed into an aesthetic theory, especially in industrializing England. The picturesque, slightly differently understood today, was the idea that what was beautiful in reality didn’t make great pictures.  Interesting pictures had texture, at odds with the ideals of beauty of the time, smoothness, roundness and evenness. Painters, and practitioners of the burgeoning art of photography, went to great pains to seek out the windswept tree, the craggy cliff, the anti-classical and the ruin. They found pleasing images in the broken, the torn-down and even in the poetic raggedness of the poor. The picturesque was a romantic impulse and a reaction against the rapidly technologising world. It was also a particularly classed aesthetic, in which the leisured would tour the countryside in search of the picturesque. Contemporary writing often equated the picturesque artist with the big-game hunter, capturing a rarity and fixing it to the wall. The artist’s role was to realize an ideal with impunity. In this regard it masked the class relations implicit in the landscape of the era. The land wasn’t shown as a place of labour or ownership, but as a space of aesthetic contemplation.

In a certain light Pieter Hugo’s Permanent Error is the heir to this aesthetic. It finds visual pleasure in ruin. The photographer as both tourist and hunter of the exotic is not a hard analogy to make. While it wears its political bent on its sleeve, implicitly showing suffering and labour, this too can be a form of masking capitalist privilege. It can act as a kind of palliative. Susan Sontag in her book Regarding the Pain of Others, says that sympathy, a normal reaction to visual representations of suffering, allows us to “feel we are not accomplices to what caused the suffering. Our sympathy proclaims our innocence as well as our impotence.” To set aside our sympathy is to consider our own culpability. The more visceral the photograph, the greater is our feeling of sympathy. Rather than a call to political or social action they become a cathartic spectacle. It creates a fantasy of transgression, while hiding complicity with the system.

While this reading of Hugo’s work certainly has its merits, it doesn’t entirely sit comfortably. In the work entitled Aissah Salifu, the figure stands straight, a bent piece of metal in his hand. The smoke atmospherically obscures his legs while emphasizing his handsome face. With glossy ebony skin his forehead is topped with a plaster running so vertically that it reads as decorative. He looks like a character from a Mad Max post-apocalyptic fantasy to such an extreme that the spectacle of it becomes obvious. It makes it clear that this is a posed image, taken by a photographer who has watched movies, who brings his own baggage to the photograph. The image reveals its artifice. This point is made clearer in an adjoining room, where a curve of TV screens shows looped video clips. Each shows one of the photographs, identical except for the moving background and the swaying and fidgeting. If you listen closely you can hear the shutter of Hugo’s camera. By showing the mechanisms of the poses, their forced immobility, and foregrounding the act of photographing, it becomes clear that the photographs aren’t a site of easy redemption. It admits that even the condemnation of capitalism can be recuperated into a commodity. By revealing their spectacular nature, the images challenge the spectacle, while still remaining a commodified object. The political dimension is no longer subsumed, but becomes a part of a complex relationship of meanings. It allows the images honesty. But it is even more hopeless: the circle of consumption is unbreakable, not only for those who are ground down by it but even in the images that are critical of it. There truly is the permanent error.