There are rote stories about Table Mountain that emphasise its daunting and picturesque qualities, but between these stories falls the shadow of another story

Words by Ashraf Jamal | 21 Jun, 2015

Could it be that Table Mountain, South Africa’s stony autograph, and one of the country’s most sought after tourist destination, may have been imagined by Dante, the visionary Italian poet, 150 years before it was discovered by the Portuguese mariner Bartolomeu Dias? Absurd as this may seem, there remains the canny (or is it uncanny?) possibility that Dante’s vision holds a truth that Africa, and in this particular case, its southernmost tip, began for the European seafarer, or landlubber, as a matter of dream. That this dream also possessed its darker variant—that of nightmare—says much about how, even today, any conception of the Cape is inevitably Janus-faced, a matter of fascination and loathing. For Table Mountain, a haunting promontory that seems to emerge from the storm-tossed loins of the sea, was also persistently and darkly perceived as the embodiment of a world outcast, thrust beyond the pale of the known (European) world. This vision of Table Mountain, most forcefully and hauntingly conveyed in Luis de Camões’ epic poem, Os Lusiadas, anthropomorphises Table Mountain into a banished and damned god; a god utterly malevolent in nature, whose name is Adamastor.

If, then, for Dante the earthly realm of Paradise was situated at the summit of Table Mountain—a mountain he precisely and artfully pictures as a gargantuan plateau, girdled by a forest through which two streams flowed—then this mountain was also to be the cipher and repository for the European imagination’s worst fears of damnation, isolation, wreckage and death. These conflicting sensations of calm and awe are conveyed in the Cape’s contrasting names: the Cape of Good Hope and the Cape of Storms. How could the same place be so contrarily perceived? The answer surely lies in the stark variance in the weather patterns that affect this tip. And yet, it is not the weather alone that shaped the response, but the emotions that resulted from the experience of the Cape; emotions, notably, of seafarers whose rounding of the Cape was wholly reliant on a kindly wind and a gentle sea, for this particular promontory was notorious for its unforgiving power to shipwreck and destroy a seafarer’s hopes.

From a European perspective, the Cape was a treacherous obstacle which—come hell or high water—had to be circumnavigated. It is not remarkable that it would take yet another 100 years, after its initial discovery, before the Cape would be perceived as a place worth inhabiting. This decision lay not with the Portuguese, but with the Dutch. They would create the Company’s Gardens that would nurture their first seedlings; they would dig the foundations on which a fortified castle would be built.

This decision, made by the Dutch East India Company (a decision that can be seen as an early corporate takeover), was made with a view to the East. As a European place of settlement, the Cape continued to foster a vicarious existence.

The first habitations, notably, nestled at the relatively verdant foot of Table Mountain. The prospect that these habitations tended to face was seaward, that is, northward towards Europe, thus silently, and gnawingly, invoking an instinctive and fearful withdrawal from the African hinterland beyond. For what is most striking about Table Mountain is its north-facing aspect; that perfected horizontal plain of rock flanked by Devil’s Peak and Lion’s Head. Its very shape, with its austere flush façade, its stately cornices, and its human stage below, suggests an amphitheatre; a place one beholds from afar, as though through a spyglass from the prow of a ship, or, through opera glasses from the lofty distance of a gallery.

This latter prospect is certainly implicit in the remarkably strange 1899 painting by James Ford, strikingly entitled Holiday Time in Cape Town in the Twentieth Century. This painting, held in the permanent collection of the Iziko South African National Gallery, casts an aura of European festivity and civilisation upon life lived at the mountain’s glossily perceived foot. Futuristic, or prophetic in both a utopian and dystopian sense, Ford’s painting positions itself as though seen from the north through the parted curtains of a proscenium arch. A rainbow bestrides a bustling urban scene which, while it harks back to the Gothic revivalism of English architecture, also anticipates the resurgence of such architectural nostalgia in the absurdly grandiose postmodern shopping malls that line the coastline, notably the Victoria & Alfred Waterfront and Century City.

As a prospect of pleasure, Ford’s painting, and the consumerist world it anticipates, replete with Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s rainbow no less, says as much about British imperial fantasy as it eerily invokes the pleasure domes of the “new” South African fantasy. Nowhere in Ford’s painting are traces of Dante’s divine paradise or Camoes’ unsettling vision of a corrosive force. Rather, Ford envisions a highly secular commercial paradise with its unquestioned announcement of distinctly European wealth and power. As a setting, then, Table Mountain appears as nothing more than a backdrop to colonial, apartheid and post-apartheid settlement.

What interests me, however, and what I consider to be the implicit—if not the glaring—objective of this collection of photographs by David Lurie, is how they tell the other story of Table Mountain. Between that which is daunting and that which is picturesque falls the shadow of another story; a story of geography and the peoples who occupy it that cannot so neatly be resolved. For the life lived in relation to Table Mountain remains a matter of myth and fantasy, as it does that of grim reality.

Thus far I have not stated the obvious: prior to the first European landing at the southernmost tip of Africa, that belt of earth was by no means uninhabited. If I have chosen to begin with Dante’s first imagining of Table Mountain and Dias’s discovery of it, this is because I wish to emphasise that just as the Cape bears two utterly contrasting names so too is it the battleground of two utterly contrasting civilisations: the Khoisan—nomadic herders, hunters and pastoralists—and the Portuguese, Dutch and eventually the English. Although these latter cultures were distinct, they each believed that life had to be mastered and rendered subject to routine and domination; hence the construction of a delimited and controllable garden, the building of a fort and the fencing of cattle and other food sources.

That these projects were conducted without an ethical consideration for the rights of the Khoisan, who had long preceded them, is a terrible truth that will toll throughout the history of the Cape. Today, and for some time now, the life of the Khoisan has largely become extinct, the lives of the dwindling few belatedly regarded as an urgent matter of conservation and ‘heritage’.

Of course nothing is as simple as I have intimated. The Cape has, over the centuries, played host to migrant slaves from the East, to Xhosa peoples from the northern mainland, and to a conflagration of desires—bidden and unbidden—that have produced the creolised peoples which, like the fantastic strains in all evolving species, possess their own traces of long-forgotten pedigrees. In short, like all colonised places with their asymmetrical relations of desire and power, the Cape is host to a motley crew. However, despite the talk of free and equal citizenry—which remains the absurdist plea of a phantom democracy—life below the mountain remains strikingly Balkanised and split along grid lines defined by colonialism and apartheid. That these grid lines remain as violent as they are superstitious says much about the persistent neuroses forged at the outset by the first foreign colonisers.

The carnivalesque harmony evoked by Ford’s Holiday Time in Cape Town in the Twentieth Century remains such only in an illusory sense. In other words, those who don a set of opera glasses and indulge such a fantasy, do so at their peril.

Clearly, life lived on the verdant and opulent slopes of the mountain, in the quarters of sometime slaves, or on the wastelands that stretch beyond, where the huddled masses lie largely abandoned and disregarded, are—if unequally—both compromised. No one can be said to live a happy life; a life unstained by that previously mentioned shadow. If guilt is one name for this shadow, so too is fear and denial—a fear and denial to embrace the sprawling geographical body of land and the peoples who occupy it.

This shadow of guilt, of fear and denial is revealed in a strategic yet strikingly unmotivated way in David Lurie’s photographs from his essay Images of Table Mountain (2006). By unmotivated, I mean that Lurie does not intend to reveal to us the monstrosity of life lived at the foot of a mountain, which was conceived by Camoes as the very embodiment of monstrousness itself. Rather, Lurie’s photographs implicate the viewer in the casual staging of a series of unsightly apparitions. He gives those who dare to face his images the unsettling sense that, in the instant of viewing those images, or apparitions, one is, necessarily, unnerved. It is therefore a photographic project which does not appeal to the viewer’s conscience, but to a certain ethical nerve that is not wholly a matter of mind. And yet, those photographs are not merely the affect of viscera—simply documents in passing—but, more potently, they capture—without indulgence, and without a framing consciousness—the sense of worlds encountered that are not quite human and not quite inhuman either. Lurie’s photographs are shadow works, or, works caught in the physical and darkly mythic shadow of Table Mountain.

By way of contrast, consider a photograph by David Goldblatt, Suburban Garden and Table Mountain, Bloubergstrand, Cape Town, Cape, 9 January 1986. What is most striking about this work is that it is unpeopled, although, in the far distance one sees the pinprick of a figure walking two dogs along the beach. The human factor, then, is thoroughly incidental. What is striking is the vacuity of the lawn, the nullity of a sliver of face-brick patio, the blank white corner of a tiled A-frame house, the foregrounded mock Greco-Roman birdbath and pillar. In the encroaching distance lies the rolling sea, and further beyond the beatific and smokily picturesque view of Table Mountain with its eloquent abutments, Devil’s Peak and Lion’s Head. By erasing the vacant lawn and the crass traces of human habitation the photograph becomes an unthreatening picture-postcard. However, what makes Goldblatt’s photograph unsettling is precisely these unsightly traces; traces that assert a failed petit-bourgeois grandiosity.

Goldblatt’s photograph harbours a deliberateness, a pointedness, that the German thinker, Walter Benjamin, when confronted by the similarly eerily vacant photographs of Atget, described as the scene of a crime. Such is the scene that one encounters anywhere in relation to Table Mountain. But what is it that invokes this unsettling sense of a wrongdoing? Is it the mountain? Or is it what the mountain, historically, invokes? Of course, one arrives at this uneasy trace of violence when one encounters other photographs by Goldblatt. Therefore, in regard to the work of that photographer, the sensation is not bounded by the daunting and threatening plateau that is the subject of this essay. To return to Goldblatt’s abiding signature, then, it is perhaps best described by poet Stephen Watson, in an essay tellingly entitled ‘A Version of Melancholy’: “So steady is [Goldblatt’s] gaze that … objects … surfaces, are revealed not only in the poverty of their design, but an entire culture starts dissolving, is reduced to a basic, seemingly primordial nakedness, to the vacancy inherent in such things.”

Now it is precisely such a reading, or apprehension, which is impermissible when addressing Lurie’s photographs. This is not merely because Lurie’s images are invariably peopled, or because they are animated and eschew the petrified gaze, but because there is nothing primordial about them. Lurie resists the modernist notion of an essence—primordial or otherwise—to the precise degree that he resists the overly politicised plague of the document. Neither alluding to a past nor anticipating a future, Lurie chooses to locate the viewer in the intensity of the broken present moment. This break, which gives his photographs their aliveness, compels one to reach beyond the frame. However, in so doing, in seeing the moment that is photographed within a relay of broken lived moments, one realises at that instant that the recorded moments cannot be explained within a continuum.

Lurie shifts from place to place: from the shanties of Khayelitsha to a peri-urban edge of Langa; the graveyard of the NY5 in Gugulethu to the petty vacationing haven of Milnerton; from the industrial wastelands of Paarden Island with its invocation of white poverty to the crumbling barrios of Manenberg; from the sudden scenic shifts along De Waal Drive to District Six with its traces of a gone world amidst encroaching bush and up-market domestic settlements; from the informal sector that flanks the central railway station to the casual consumption and commerce that defines the V&A Waterfront. His drift encompasses the barricaded and opulent parade of wealthy homesteads in Camps Bay before edging closer, at a steep diagonal, towards the un-housed slopes of an implacable mountain, then down, down, in the encroaching darkness, with a car, its headlights on, flashing past the viewer, and away…

None of his photographs are posed or stately. Rather, as if seen through a rear-view mirror, at once backwards and forwards, they quicken the nerve, combust a settlement, allowing the viewer a state of seeing that is neither that of the flâneur or the voyeur, but rather that of Iggy Pop’s passenger (“I am the passenger / and I ride and I ride”) The traces of a lived world flood past, and, in that moment, deposit their shards into the eye and psychic body of the viewer. In a country defined by pathological obsession—evinced in fascination and loathing, a loathing that segues into self-loathing—Lurie’s photographs emerge as a healthy anomaly.

One cannot underestimate the importance of Lurie’s healthy inroad, for it shadows and complicates the tedious reversion to a golden age of photography, as well as the deadening ease that marks the emptiness of so many photographic records. It is all too easy to fix the visual record of South Africa in a formulated phrase, to visually conceive the country as a diorama or reliquary for history’s ills, or as a many-coloured prism through which one refracts the “new”. As a result, the photographer must develop what I would call an ethical turn—a way of seeing that is both immanent and full. Because it is as easy to define likes as dislikes, because we rarely question our taste, we must invite the unease that allows a suspension of judgement, thus enabling an openness and fullness of vision. It is this prerequisite that is crucial to the construction and the perception of Lurie’s photographs. To not grasp this proviso is to fail to grasp the significance of Lurie’s work.

Note, for instance, the incidental manner in which Lurie records Table Mountain. Sometimes the mountain appears as a mere sliver in the distant horizon, then again it appears in fragments in the urban thicket. Never is the mountain memorialised. When the mountain dominates the frame it also engulfs it. As a long shot or a close up, the mountain invariably disturbs the frame. Never is the mountain steadied in a medium shot, and, as a consequence, never is the mountain naturalised or perceived as a normative framing register. This decision is not merely a perverse one. Rather, what this decision suggests is the complexity and the uncertainty of human habitation in relation to the mountain. Parsed quite literally according to a racial and economic designation, Lurie’s sequence of images forces one to recognise that the closer one gets to the mountain, the more well-off or normatively middle-class the context. It is not however Lurie’s wish, à la Karl Marx, to thrust the theory of alienated labour and conspicuous consumption down our throats.

In other words, it is not the content per se, that matters. Irrespective of whether Lurie captures a well-heeled white European family lunching at the V&A Waterfront, or a black African woman passing a cash store in Langa, what matters is the photographer’s ability to level these worlds, establish a psychic kinship in the midst of a glaring disparity. This levelling is not the sum of a cloak-and-dagger “universalism”—the sleight of hand of the liberal—but the choice of someone who places mortality before class and truth before art. That this mortality, this truth, is captured in the engorged instant—an instant neither sacred and elevated, nor profane and ordinary—defines Lurie’s visual and ethical signature.

In Slow Man (2005), novelist JM Coetzee echoes Stephen Watson’s “primordial” reading of Goldblatt’s photography. The central character of Coetzee’s novel, Paul Rayment, reflects:

“The camera, with its power of taking in light and turning it into substance, has always seemed to him more a metaphysical than a mechanical device … As the ghostly image emerged beneath the surface of the liquid, as veins of darkness on the paper began to knit together and grow visible, he would sometimes experience a little shiver of ecstasy, as though he were present at the day of creation. That was why, later on, he began to lose interest in photography: first when colour took over, then when it became plain that the old image of light-sensitive emulsions was waning, that to the rising generation the enchantment lay in a techne of images without substance, images that could flash through the ether without residing anywhere, that could be sucked into a machine and emerge from it doctored, untrue.”

What is striking about this passage is its remove from Lurie’s position. Nostalgically, Coetzee’s protagonist hankers after a metaphysical ideal where the ecstatic moment of apprehension becomes akin to the “day of creation”. This primordial day is perceived by the protagonist of Slow Man to be tragically usurped by the “enchantment” of the simulacral, that is the banal enchantment of the postmodern in which the copy becomes the thing-in-itself without reference to an original work. Hence Coetzee’s disenchanted gibe against “a techne of images without substance”, against art. What Coetzee’s protagonist fails to reflect upon, however, is the existence of another order of photography which manages to grasp mortality without fixing it or rendering it disposable and inauthentic.

It is this in-between order—an order that owes its allegiance neither to the essential nor to the glibly faked and disposable—which Lurie grasps, and which, in the grasping, neither fetishistically cherishes nor casually and voyeuristically passes by. Rather, Lurie’s photography captures the shadow between the metaphysical and the simulacral. It is this shadow that makes Lurie’s photography a visual membrane that links and parses the human and the inhuman. Such an ethical strategy allows Lurie to quicken thought and engender feeling without, in any given instant, letting these effects settle and fix or dispel a given moment.

In a contemporary culture of sleepwalkers, Lurie’s photography is deftly alert. In a culture defined by a nostalgic remembrance of things past, his photography reminds us that the personal experience of the ecstatic is grossly insufficient. Always, there is the shadow of another story. No vision is ever finite. No vision the pure summation of a given moment. Rather, it is the moment in itself, a moment which cannot be chaperoned and contained, which erupts and breaks the narcissistic experience of it, signalling its newness, its thorough disinterest in the moral consequences of its effect. It is Lurie’s broken moments that break the sorry desire for control, as well as the equally sorry desire for the imagined bliss of no control, that—in eschewing the hallowed domain of art as well as the postmodern techne of artlessness—restores photography to the disregarded living moment of non-art.

In a country in which so much is manufactured at the expense of a lived truth on the ground (and here the manufacture of Table Mountain as a tourist trap is a case in point), Lurie gives us a way of looking, a way of feeling, that is neither spectacular nor merely ordinary or artlessly banal. His Table Mountain is not a metaphysical idée fixe nor a trumped-up stage set, but an incidental and invasive monstrosity whose magnetic field shapes all who choose, or who, against choice, are compelled to survive in its morbid shadow. *

This essay originally appeared in David Lurie’s book Images of Table Mountain (Bell-Roberts, 2006)

Ashraf Jamal is a writer, essayist and lecturer in the film and video technology department at the Cape Peninsula University of Technology