Shifting the Edges of the Night
No cabaret shows.
No smoky jazz, gangsters or slow dancing.
No relief to be taken from the possibilities of the street.
This night is a working night in an enclosed interior, a capsule of enforced solitariness.
The odd late-night trawler stumbles home. Half falls asleep while waiting for the lift. Shiftworkers come and go. Momentary distractions in this long, drawn-out stretch of bald, blank reality.
This night is devoid of romantic depictions of the nocturnal city as playground for hidden desires. It is a night unadorned with fancy, naked only in a forlorn kind of a way.
Cheap, red warmth from the thin wires of a plug-in heater and a hand-me-down tartan blanket. Awake and alive and still awake, while others slumber through this interminable dead-end night. Radio talk shows, a ticking clock, and police sirens in the distant darkness.
This is the long wait til dawn.
"That was a huge thing for me -- the fear," he says. "It was that childhood thing of growing up in the northern suburbs and having this idea of the city as forbidden -- a no-go zone. Every time I went into the city, other than for a few shopping trips with my parents on Saturday mornings, it was a transgression."
"It was always thrilling to come into the city -- to sneak out and hitchhike to the nightclubs. There was a wildness to it -- a thrill to those encounters you were not in control of. And I was smoking a lot of dagga too, getting off my face in respone to the disorientation. There was nothing to reference the experience. The danger, the otherness. I wasn't supposed to be there. I was to young to be going to nightclubs and drinking. I wasn't supposed to be in some flat downtown. Those were the early memories. The associations were of this other world ... "
The Metropolitan Lure
Hanif Kureishi writes in My Ear at His Heart
In the suburbs, conversation was not encouraged. There was a lot that shouldn't be said.
Suburban regularity was sustained by keeping disruptive people out, so the house became a refuge. The constant talk, in the suburbs, about "the standard of living" had made me think about who your friends were and what they talked about.
The 'standard of living' wasn't, in fact, just furniture, carpets, gardens. It was the atmosphere in which you lived. ... I came to dislike returning to the suburbs. It was occurring to me that I could leave; indeed, that I would have to leave home and the suburbs in order to have more of these city pleasures. But I was afraid. What was the relation between pleasure and safety?
Post the Postcard
There is this known and owned view of Johannesburg. A distant, iconic view of the city from the north, Hillbrow Tower jutting its unmissable form into the big, blank sky. We see this outline of the city on t-shirts, logos and postcards. There she is: Jozi, Joburg, City of Gold. That's our girl. Timeless, harmless, dazzling from a distance.
Meanwhile slowly, steadily, the distance and vantage point of this glorious, expansive view insists itself into our hearts and minds, quietly entrenching difference. Nothing but a carefree kiss goodbye to the views that are canceled out by its simple prominence. Strange to think that even something as innocent as a view can be the product of the spatial history of apartheid.
When Hermann Niebuhr first moved back to the city of his childhood after spending more than a decade away -- first in the Eastern Cape, then in the Karoo -- he chose to rent a shared studio on the western edge of the city amid the curry houses, discount chrome furniture salesmen and sweetmeat stores of Fordsburg.
His first Johannesburg show, a two-hander with Carl Becker, was based on views from the relentless urban passageway that is Main Reef Road. "I was trying to get my eye into the city, trying to find my way in," he says. Both painters seemed intent on coming at Joburg from an oblique angle that contradicted the classic gaze outwards over the metropolis from the north. But still there were lingering traces of the Romantic landscape tradition -- that distant abstraction of the painter dispassionately observing life at a safe remove...
Then came Night Ride Home. For this second Johannesburg show, Niebuhr decided to abanon that distant, safe take on the city, choosing to photographically document his night-time journeys to and from his Fordsburg studio, transforming these images into paintings. "I was living in Kensington and, when I worked nights, I would drive through the city -- moving in this little capsule of safety from one zone to another ... Then I twigged onto this thing of the streets -- this trip to and fro," he says.
In this series, the city lights took on a life of their own, at times resembling the groovy neon abstractions of electric be-bop album covers.
"The thing that got me about the nightscapes was that they were almost in total antithesis to traditional landscapes," says Niebuhr. "Everything you see is lit by artificial light, which seems to emphasise the man-madeness of the city's shapes and forms. It's a complete opposite to traditional landscape painting, which takes place during the day with the sun as a light source. Landscape is not lit by neon light or floodlights. That was part of the thinking with Night Ride Home."
And with this exhibition, he entered into the city at night. And in entering it, he began to soberly navigate his fear of it. Poring over the thing for hours on end, filling in its dark unknowable gaps with oily dabs of ebony pigment...
"Night Shift seemed like the next obvious step -- to enter the buildings and start going inside..."
'Go Look at Titian, Fuck Damien Hirst.'
Niebuhr studied painting at Rhodes University's fine art department in the early 1990s under the fiery tutelage of Robert Brookes, Noel Hodnett and George Coutouvidis.
At the time it was very much a school of traditional landscape painting, where you learned your craft before you started experimenting. "They had a link to the London school of painters at the time and were forever plugging [Lucien] Freud and [Frank] Auerbach, emphasising the importance of painterliness an going doggedly against current trends," says Niebuhr. 'It was a real little insular bush college in many ways. We were taught to look at the greats. "Go look at Titian. Fuck Damien Hirst. They're all charlatans."' There is a definite note of acidity in his voice as he recalls those days.
Yet Niebuhr confesses that, at the time, he bought into the defining myth of the school -- the heady myth of the Great Romantic Landscape Painters. He even admits to finding it deeply compelling -- nothing short of a raison d'etre in his early 20s. And, by his own admission, he left Rhodes University feeling like a bit of a bombastic cowboy.
"You came away with a sense that you could draw, you could paint, you were part of the proud lineage of Poussin and Turner ..."
So why the tone of unapologetic cynicism? "It was the total disregard and suspicion for the avant garde. Anything contemporary was viewed as tomfoolery and trickery. Sometimes even unconsciously, by implication, they kept drumming in the fact that these guys can't draw, and fuck, if you can't draw you certainly can't paint.
"That's what I reacted against. They were always discounting the avant garde. But my point is that painting is part of the contemporary avant garde. Paintings can be every bit as good, every bit as powerful, every bit as strong as anything being done in any other medium.'
It all hangs on the conceptual scaffolding of the work -- a certain
subversive intent on behalf of the artist. Thankfully, Niebuhr has
never lost his sheer joy in the beauty and power of paint. But now
that joy is coupled with other complex intentions, not least the aim
to toy with the very lineage into which he was born as a painter.
"I don't profess to be a photographer," he says. "But I work in a studio, so photographs are my reference material. But when I take my photographs, I take them as a painter. It's the painterliness of the image that attracts me when I'm looking through the lens. It's a painter's eye that I'm looking with."
When he returns to the studio with the images, Niebuhr downloads them onto his computer and tweaks them a bit. A second mediation occurs. The images are already twice removed from reality before he has even laid a brushstroke to canvas.
"I then start painting from the image. Initially I need the
information, but at some point, I'll put the photograph away an
resolve the work as a painting, which is a different process. It
takes on its own life."
The final painting, triply mediated, is a departure not only from the photograph, but from the original space and scene.
There is something in this departure, this loosening and walking away from the city's rapture that intrigue ... In the sense that Niebuhr is recording lived life in the city right now, he is a documentarist, but his practice as a painter militates against the objectivity and immediacy of social realist endeavours.
He isn't painting hawkers with their bowls of tomatoes and bright
orange naartjies or capturing the vibrancy of the taxi rank on Bree
Street at midday. These Night Shift paintings are removed from the
heat of the immediate. It's the nocturnal flipside to which he is
"The experiences I have in the city are very different to the
paintings I make. Hillbrow is not a quiet, restful, melancholy place.
It's not that zone. It's hectic."
Niebuhr's paintings are spaces designed for contemplation. And the
quietness of these works is not unrelated to the solitariness of his
practice. Obedient to the reflective, solipsistic impulse of the
painter, Niebuhr paints in the isolation of his studio. It is the
chaotic, noisy, highly populated energy of the city to which he turns,
but from all that motion and activity it is the nightscapes he
chooses. A time when the city is emptied out -- deserted.
There is an intriguing set of paradoxes at play here, which leads me back to Niebuhr's baptismal moment as a painter -- and perhaps even to an oblique fidelity to the Romance of painting.
In many ways the 20th century project in modernist and postmodernist art practice centred on the death of the author -- dethroning the bourgeois individual. Hence the rise in styles and modes of contemporary art that eschewed the centrality of the artist as originator.
In painting it's hard to get around that centrality. It's how the painter plays with his own presence in the work that becomes so central to contemporary painting. In Niebuhr's case, as a painter engaging with the noisy postmodernism of an African metropolis, he enters into it, claims something from it, in order to reimpose a kin of authority on his subject.
Once in the studio, the city becomes his to play with and reinvent.
He has retrieved a kind of control over it, but in absentia. A lost
sense of agency reclaimed. Not a bad tactic for a white boy from the
North. And he kind of sticks it to Roland Barthes, too. The author
-- dead? I don't think so.
Solitariness can be a Romantic Conceit
In their bleakly illuminated colours and flat surfaces, these images cannot but recall the work of Edward Hopper, painter of bankrupt New York night scenes, of lonely late night diners, train rides home and etiolated lives. Hopper's paintings focus on the subtle interaction of human beings with their emptied-out environment and with each other. Niebuhr's Night Shift paintings are similarly based on the exploitation of empty spaces, withholding the figurative so the images are apparently depopulated.
Yet the human presences are surprisingly there -- hovering somewhere outside the frame of the painting. "What happens when you introduce the figures is just too much for me," says Niebuhr. "The closest I've come to the figurative -- the portrait -- is the chairs."
These are haunted canvases evidencing phantom lives -- the long,
late-night lives of the security guards who occupy the lobbies of
Johannesburg's residential buildings, protecting them from nocturnal
threat. There are presences in these images, but only by proxy. We
feel the presence of these men in their worn blankets and overused
chairs. the bar heater, the transistor radio and the broken postbox
with all the letters waiting to be delivered...
In this sense, there is something akin to the poetry of objects at play in the work of fellow South African painter Andries Gouws and the late Adriaan van Zyl, who painted the hauntingly depopulated scenes in Memorandum (Human & Rousseau, 2006), a collaboration with Marlene van Niekerk, award-winning author of Triomf and Agaat. It's a unique book in which text and visual images offer parallel narratives that resonate poignantly with one another. Van Zyl's paintings quietly reflect the alienating experience of hospitalisation.
In Night Shift, the viewer enters the security guard's consciousness. Gone is the risk of the ethnographic gaze. You are not looking at these men. You're looking at the world through their eyes.
Collapsed Arcadian Visions
There is a danger of nostalgia in viewing these paintings. The ey
lingers over the classic solidity of a well-made elevator a polished
staircase railing or a handsome, wood-paneled wall, taking you back to a time when ambitions for the city were high ...
The names of the buildings in Niebuhr's paintings reflect a naive social optimism: Sunny Ridge, St John's View, Remlow Court, Wolbane Mansions, Mount Joy. 'Mansions' ... 'Courts'... Words that uncover the distinctly European notions of grandeur that once informed people's ideas of Johannesburg's future... Fantasies of elite sophistication founded on the replication of urban models that never ended up fitting.
Early- and mid-century ambitions for the city proved to be seriously flawed and hopelessly misguided. For several decades Johannesburg has been dogged by problems and dysfunctions. As early as the 1970s, the city lost the cohesion and tightnews that made it functionally strong.
Post 1976, its geography was fashioned anew as commercial activity flew northward over the Witwatersrand ridge not only in the aftermath of the Soweto uprising but particularly from the 1990s onwards. Up until the scrapping of the notorious Group Areas Act, Johannesburg was a place where the bulk of the working population returned 'home' to dormitory areas, devoid of the facilities that they worked in during the day.
Over the past two decades, there's been a blurring of the sharp racial divides of the segregationist and apartheid eras. But as new
populations poured into Johannesburg from the late 1980s onwards, crime and grime spread through the inner city areas.
There was a collapse of landlord-teant relations and a general decline in the maintenance level of buildings. The lobbies depicted in Niebuhr's paintings are makeshift, down-at-heel spaces betraying the lofty ideals of the architects who designed them. Buildings that were intended to be glamorous have ended up being spaes of economic necessity and shelter servicing the needs of the urban poor.
So nostalgia turns out to be a sentiment full of folly. It's not really the response the painter wanted from you anyway.
It Is What It Is What It Is
Ian McEwan, from an interview in The New Republic:
The kind of fiction I like and the kind of fiction I most often want to write does have its feet on the ground of realism, certainly psychological realism. I have no interest in magical realism and the supernatural -- that is really a extension, I guess, of my atheism. I think that the world, as it is, is so difficult to capture that some kind of enactment of the plausibly shared reality that we ihabit is a very difficult tas. But it is one that fascinates me.
Despite its poignancy, this series is not intended as a lament or eulogy to a lost world, but rather as a kind of forensic recording -- a reminder to keep our eyes wide open in the present -- to engage with 'what it's like, how it is now.' Not disenchanted, but not fooled by enchantment either, the Night Shift paintings are weighted with the painter's personal effort to see and absorb what is really happening in the world around him. Implicit in this is a plea to open up our own eyes an take in that very part of the world that is right in front of us.