Letting the Everyday into the Earthly Paradise 

This review was published in the Mail & Guardian Volume 27 no 30, July 29, 2011 

It is rare to find art that is both beautiful and thoughtful, but Guy Tillim’s Second Nature on show at Stevenson in Cape Town seems to achieve both. It is a series of photographs of the landscape of Tahiti, which may seem to weight it on the aesthetic side. Lush greenery, soaring mountains, island seas are all available in spades.  But Tillim has a sensitive way with his medium that demands further thought.

Landscape is a difficult genre of art. It is over-determined and hypersymbolic. Our reactions can range from a sickly sense of benign pleasure to vigorous nationalism. Land can either seem to be uninhabited, a site for imperial desires or neo-colonial fantasies, or wracked with Gordian knots of history, ownership and politics. When represented in art, landscape brings its own baggage of the past, a long chain of associations that slip unbidden into the most innocent of gazes. Tahiti has a special place in European history as a paradise, a counterpoint to “civilization”, full of Enlightenment myths and Victorian desires. The famous painter Paul Gauguin fell under this spell, his paintings of Tahiti becoming subservient to his sexual fantasies and the romanticism of the exotic.

It’s not difficult to imagine Tillim as a modern day Captain Cook, the rugged explorer, discovering rare lands for scientific cataloguing and domination. The camera is an instrument that captures images, reliant on its lenses and sensors. Tillims images have a sharpness and stillness that only a care for the technology of the camera can produce. Nor is it hard to picture him as mutineer off the HMS Bounty, in love with the beauty of the land and nubile locals, running from the pressures of civilization. In Second Nature the landscape is idyllic and bucolic. The people, where they appear don’t seem to wear shirts or work.

While there may be grains of truth in these impressions, Tillim’s photographs can’t be reduced to such simple formulations. He is sensitive to the relationship between the print, the frame and the viewer. All the prints are large scale, floated in neutral grey frames, and significantly without glass. There is no medium, no filter, between the viewer and the print. The surfaces are an intense matte, no hint of gloss hides the detail. I am very aware of the pigment on the paper, that this is picture-making rather than some alchemical relationship between reality and the camera.

In works such as Hanaiapa, Hiva Oa, there is an excess of detail. Every element is crisp, from the light falling on the leaves to the mountains in the background. Others, such as Mount Mouaroa have an eye-sucking monumentality bordering on the sublime. This play between the vast and the minute, between form and figure, is a classic trick of making things beautiful, used throughout the history of landscape.


This aesthetic game, however, is tempered by the presence of a grey tonality behind all the images. It is not the politically-charged grey of colonial decay that Tillim displayed in his Avenue Patrice Lumumba series, although there are similarities.  Underneath the verdant plants lurks gloom, that is part because of Tahiti’s famous black volcanic sand, part the watery light, but mostly the inclusion of the everyday in the images. In some images a gravelly road cuts through the frame, in another a contemporary car sits quietly in the frame. A father and son muck about in some patchy grass. This isn’t the poetic ruin of the picturesque, nor the wretched decay of the documentary. It reminds me of a remarkable painting by Poussin in the 17th Century, where there was a trend for picturing Arcadian pastoral scenes. In The Arcadian Shepherds, Poussin depicts four shepherds encountering a grave stone. Etched into the stone, the words, “Et in Arcadia Ego.” Death personified says, “ And I too am in Arcadia.” Poussin reminds us of the folly of Utopian thinking. While Tillim’s works make no obvious reference to this sly vanitas painting, there is a similar sense that the ordinary exists even in our myths of earthly Paradise. At the heart of the most beautiful landscape, lies the emptiness of the viewer, the fixed terms of our own mortality.






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