Nothing out there

18 February 2022

“To leaf through other people’s family photos, to see moments that were of intense emotional significance for them but which mean nothing to you, is, necessarily, to reflect on the times of high drama in your own life, and to achieve a kind of distance that is at once dispassionate and powerfully affecting.”
— Mark Fisher, discussing John Foxx’s Tiny Colour Movies

To live somewhere for a long time is to be haunted by it. Memories and lived experiences of places embed themselves in the mind and the heart. These memories act as ghosts, choosing the time and the place to reveal themselves to you; not the other way around.

Growing up in Cape Town, I often felt a strange kind of emotional significance for places like empty parking lots, deserted train stations, and dark, cavernous supermarkets that were located on the edges of suburbs and industrial areas. I could tell that there was a connection between these sensations and my childhood in Durbanville and Bellville. But more interesting for me was that if I couldn’t directly attribute the feeling to a memory that was hiding somewhere in the periphery, then I felt it was a kind of nostalgia for something that never was: a mourning for a lost future.

Lighthouse church on Voortrekker Road, Bellville

The word nostalgia is related to the German word Heimweh, which often means homesickness. By this definition we can understand how the longing for a time in the past is connected with the feeling of being separated from home. But you can also long for something that has never happened, even if it felt inevitable at some point — a wistful or regretful longing for decisions that were never made or moments that never happened. These lost possible futures can cause anguish and pain: obsessive, endless revisiting of familiar territory in the hope of reclaiming or resurrecting the future, as though it were some kind of revenant. The spectre of these possible futures can reside in spaces as well.

‘Non-places’, Marc Augé’s term for spaces of anonymity and transition, can feel haunting and yet attract from us a powerful curiosity, partly because they are usually devoid of any local specificity and have no real sense of time. Driven by the search of an elusive quality — perhaps an intuition or a feeling, or an answer to a riddle — our curiosity for such places that are defined by transience and emptiness may even border on the obsessive.

This reminds me of the 1988 film Spoorloos, in which a young Dutch couple drive to France for a holiday. They stop at a petrol station off the motorway en route to Bois Vieux. Rex waits by the car while his girlfriend Saskia goes inside the station to buy drinks, and she is never seen again. Rex becomes obsessed with her disappearance, thinking back constantly on the day she vanished at the petrol station and about the clues he may have overlooked. Saskia’s disappearance haunts the petrol station and it is imbued with the significance of the events from that fateful day, becoming a sort of pilgrimage site for Rex, who is compelled by the emotional significance of an otherwise mundane place. The petrol station’s dark, haunted quality becomes inextricably linked with Saskia’s fate, posing endless questions for Rex that are impossible to answer in his search for closure. In the end he is both compelled and destroyed by his obsession.

Rex at the petrol station in 'Spoorloos' (1988, dir. George Sluizer)

Like Rex, I developed an obsession with these haunting, evocative non-places in Cape Town, either searching for lost memories or seeking closure on some non-existent future I’d dreamt up. I’d drive for hours in my car, observing and photographing from a distance that brushed at the edges of real memories or experiences: never quite getting the full picture, only ever partly seeing, partly feeling; however imperfect, however abstract or non-representational.

In 1757 Edmund Burke first described the notion of the sublime as the relationship between the feeling of terror associated with the savage landscape, and the passion that it aroused in our imagination: “Whatever is fitted in any sort to excite the ideas of pain, and danger, that is to say, whatever is in any sort terrible, or is conversant about terrible objects, or operates in a manner analogous to terror, is a source of the sublime; that is, it is productive of the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling.” Burke’s ideas were later adopted by romanticism, and with it came the more familiar idea that stark, barren, unforgiving landscapes weren’t brutal or ugly, but worthy of terror, passion, and awe: the most compelling emotions in our psyche. Modernity later fused the notion of the sublime natural landscape with the beauty of the artificial, man-made landscape — that as humans we could create our own utopias whose beauty could either compel or destroy us.

South Africa’s modernist ambitions, particularly with respect to town planning and architecture, were either utopian failures or manifestations of racist totalitarianism. What was strange for me, growing up during the transition from apartheid to democracy, was how the places I had come to associate with fond childhood memories were only available to me because of racism. Like every other white middle class child growing up when I did, I had to learn how to see that spaces of my home town were built on trauma. I began to view these places with two kinds of lenses: one of nostalgia and one of critical distance. This added to my ambivalence about the idea of home — that the memories we trust most are often strange and deceptive.

Phil Allen once remarked to me in a crit that the word ‘empty’ carries at least two meanings. The first is the concept of nothingness, a total absence of something, a space that has never been occupied: non-existence. The second is absence from presence: a space that was previously occupied, and bears the trace of previous occupation, but is now vacant. In this sense, the former occupants leave a haunting trace of their absence, or the function a derelict or abandoned space once filled can leave a haunted trace. In their emptiness, I could sense in these emotionally-charged spaces the haunting nostalgia, the lingering spectre of apartheid, their lost futures, clearest of all.

Music I’ve been listening to lately:

  • Floating Points, Pharoah Sanders & The London Symphony Orchestra, Promises
  • Lana Del Rey, Norman Fucking Rockwell
  • John Foxx, Tiny Colour Movies
  • Junior Boys, Last Exit

Books I’ve been reading:

In other news, my friends at Art School are selling editions of my first screenprint, ‘Summit Club # 2’. Laine and Chris started Art School last year to help art enthusiasts learn more about the printmaking process, and to offer a range of original, limited edition prints made only for their shop. My print is now available to buy from their website.

'Summit Club # 2' (2022). Limited edition screenprint on Fabriano 5 300gsm.

I’ll also be exhibiting new work in the group show ‘Badlands’ at no format Gallery which opens on Wednesday 2 March and will run until Sunday 6 March (12-6pm). We’ll be hosting a private view on Thursday 3 March (6-9pm). The exhibition also features work by Emily Mary Barnett, Ollie Guyon, Henry Tyrrell.

'Badlands' exhibition poster