| On the Face of It: A Conversation with Roger Palmer by Pavel Büchler
Precious Metals, 1986
The Khoikhoi gave the name Asan to various hunting and gathering peoples they encountered in the Cape.
The San Khoisan, 'Bosjesmans', or 'Bishemen' were nomadic. They moved with game as it searched for water and grazing.
Territorial codes were strictly respected by neighbouring groups. Natural landmarks such as a clump of trees, an old spring, or a dry river bed, demarcated the boundaries of adjacent territories.
During the dry season the Ghanna bush is dormant. To the casual observer it may appear to be dead.
Dust settles on the bush. The small, round, leaves turn grey and they fall when disturbed.
After winter rains the leaves swell and acquire a succulent green colouring.
The Griqua village of Beeswater was abandoned in 1981 when the land changed hands. Nearby gypsum mines were closed and the area was occupied by diamond prospectors.
The community dispersed, some to a new 'coloured' location near the town of Vredendal. Others have moved several hundred miles away from the original home of the Griqua Khoikhoi.
In 1985 Beeswater is occupied by Elias the shepherd.
The hunter gatherers and the pastoralists of the Cape spoke with implosive consonants, giving distinctive click sounds.
The different languages of the San hunters were purely local. They varied considerably from group to group, with spoken communication only possible between immediate neighbours.
The language of the itinerant Khoikhoi society was widely diffused with variations of dialect between different tribes.MEN OF MEN
The Dorper is a cross between the Dorset Horn and the Black Headed Persian.
It is bred in the Western Cape as a hardy , drought resistant sheep able to raise its lambs on natural grazing in arid conditions.
For the Black Headed Dorper, the ideal is a white sheep with black confined to the neck and head. Some black spots are permissible on the body and legs.In the case of the White Dorper, pigmentation is acceptable around the eyes, under the tail, and on the udder and teats.
Irrigation canals on both sides of the Olifants River Valley enclose a rich wine making area.Die Bulte Location provides municipal housing for Cape Coloureds on a ridge overlooking the broad valley. It is a mile from the valley town of Vredendal, on the edge of the dry veld.
The yellow or brown Cape Cobra grows to an average length of five feet. It is an aggressive snake which spreads a conspicuous hood and strikes out when confronted.
The Koperkapel feeds mainly on small rodents but is also cannibalistic. It lays its eggs to incubate in the warmth of holes, manure heaps, or roof thatch.COBRA DE CAPELLO
Houses in the oldest sector of Die Bulte have no individual electricity supply.
After dark the area is illuminated by tall floodlight pylons.
The lights go off at dawn.
At the end of the sixteenth century the pastoral Khoikhoi tribes of the Western Cape began regular trading with passing European voyagers.
In exchange for livestock, the Khoikhoi received small pieces of iron and copper such as nails, barrel hoops, and fragments of pots and pans.
By 1720 the economic and cultural traditions of the Khoikhoi had almost disappeared. A smallpox epidemic of European origin had reduced the various tribes to a fraction of their former population.
THE BERG WIND
Berg winds blow seaward from the interior bringing extremely hot and dry weather.
The turbulent currents of hot air frequently precede a trough of low pressure.
Abrupt changes in conditions occur both at the onset of the wind and immediately upon its demise.
Roger Palmer lives and works in Nottingham.
In 1982 he visited Berlin. Shortly after his return he made East Midlands Airport. It is a sparse picture with very little information about the place and its function. A makeshift security fence divides the space of the photograph. The space in front of the fence is probably public; the gravel and the two parallel traces of wheels indicate a road. The space behind is probably the airport itself; the thin white gently curved line on the ground marks the edge of the runway. It is an ordinary place. There are two pylons of the kind that can be found almost anywhere and a couple of trees on the horison, but no aeroplanes, no evidence of traffic, nothing that would confirm the word 'Airport' in the line of text below the picture. There are no landmarks that would point to the part of the country that the airport serves either; nothing specific to the East Midlands.
In a contrasting juxtaposition, the text leaves no space for doubt. It places the scene clearly in Britain in the age of aviation; this is the East Midlands Airport.
In 1985 Roger Palmer spent a month in South Africa . A year later he completed a piece of work based on photographs and experiences from that country and culture. On the face of it, the ten triptychs simply describe two different locations: an old village, now abandoned, and a new 'location' municipal housing estate 15 miles away . . .
The decision to go to South Africa and, once there, to engage in preliminary activities towards making a work (by that I mean taking photographs), required a rigorous self examination as to whether it would be feasible to make any sort of work from that place . If I were to make a work, what issues would need to be dealt with, relative both to the well known political unrest that exists there right now, and also to the implications of me as a visitor arriving there and simply collecting images and information for consumption elsewhere.
The first two tryptichs allow some sort of slow access to the work without making any explicit references to political ideas. My own needs in making the work were to experience the place through personal contact relative to my pre-conceptions and later to further research. The gradual unfolding of the work is an expression of my tentativeness in dealing with the wider political problems of cultural appropriation that I feel the work must confront.
I am as conscious in this piece of work, as I am in any other, of different notions of time; how time can be proposed in an individual photograph; how it can be extended by relating two photographs to each other; how the time within these two photographs or an individual picture is represented by objects of decay; objects which are static; suggestions of change either through my own movement or through the change of atmospheric conditions or whatever.
In the first piece there is comparison of a space which I have evidently moved through and which is littered with objects which bear their own references to a community which is no longer there. This is compared with textual description of time in which a different community occupied the same space. The space is thus described by another set of landmarks; it's a space which is defined by absent people, the people who abandoned their houses and cars, and the people who hunted and gathered their living in that place some three or four hundred years ago. In the second place, time is proposed in another way, through another set of temporal phenomena: the temporary quality of buildings which are new; the evidence of my movement up the track; the temporary change in the atmosphere as the dust falls after a truck has gone by. All this is seen in relation to something which is cyclical: the growth and the apparent death of a bush as it gets coated by dust and then reappears with succulent new leaves.
RP: That comes from my need to allow the work to grow out of an initial uncertainty; the first two pieces are deliberately uncertain. Where is this? Who are the Khoikhoi pastoralists? Why did they give the name San? Which Cape? The San, Khoisan, Bosjesmans or Bushmen ... all these names mean very little. All the seeds are being sown for what appears later. You are never going to be able to pinpoint the meaning of the work; but there is a deliberate attempt to allow an audience to find their way, as you say, in a film, or, as I thought, in a book. One is always prepared for forty pages of uncertainty if you are reading fiction, or fifty perhaps; if you are really good you'd go further than that; you must be prepared for setting the scene. But also there are internal relationships within the work that are more important than the knowledge of where and when this is.
So, in this third work recent events are described. This could be a conventional way of preceding a set of documentary photographs: this place is called Beeswater, it is in the Western Cape Province; South Africa in 1985. Then you look at the photographs and they confirm what the text has said. Whilst I don't want the whole work to do that, I suspect that this documentary type information is necessary but only in terms of its relationship to the other information which is far more circumspect and is collected from a variety of sources. The text is received through word of mouth, somebody told me that the village was abandoned in 1981. It is now occupied by Elias the shepherd. I witnessed it. I met him. This is my contact with the place. The information in the first place is gathered from a different sort of source. It is textbook information, and in a sense it questions our consumption of historical works.
PB: In touching on or moving towards a more documentary mode, whereby the text supports or contextualises the image in a very direct way, there is also a shift in the inner relationships of the work from the text towards the image. The text now gives you a perspective in which to re-view the previous images, as if it became an extended caption.
In these two pictures I see faint traces and surface marks which could be reminiscent of a language that has been lost and a culture that no longer exists, in fact, the disappearance of an entire race.
References are made through English to Dutch, Afrikaans, and even Portuguese. In this text I have compared the Khoikhoi language to English in an attempt to acknowledge the ubiquity of the English language and the ways in which European languages have been imposed upon colonised societies. In the first line there is a suggestion of a completely different form of oral communication to which I would have no access. By describing things through the English language I am making a reference to a colonial imposition in both a historical and a contemporary sense. I think the work has to deal with this, and I have to acknowledge my own presence as an English speaker in colonised Africa.
PB: For somebody like myself who comes from one inadequate political system into another, the first obvious way of reading this piece is as a political joke. Political jokes function as metaphors through which to tackle political realities too absurd to be ignored and too complex to have any easily available solutions. The material or the language of political jokes is usually quite coarse, the references are direct, 'black and white', and they nearly always deal with the manifestations of politics rather than with political issues as such. In this type of work the element of political humour is available if you don't want to end up with a propaganda exercise, you would be turning it into a literally 'black and white' piece. It seems to be of quite some 'political' significance that you decided to do it this way.
RP: This really was a key piece. It opened up possibilities for exploring both metonymic and metaphoric associations in individual tryptichs and also across the whole work. I very much like the notion of recognition in this piece: this is a Cortina, that is a Peugeot; this is a Dorper, that is a Persian.
PB: It comes in a bit of an unexpected way; the sudden appearance of this strange object, as if from nowhere, and the sudden change in tone . . .
RP: I don't know why, but I felt that the work was in danger of becoming very one paced. I think you read it in the way you should; there is some sort of amusing relationship between car and sheep.
PB: I think that the relevant word in the relationship between this text and the image is the 'ideal'; that word implies something which doesn't actually exist, something that can hardly be reached. Anything and everything in the world is just a shade short of the ideal, otherwise the word wouldn't have any meaning. By using the word 'ideal' you are talking about the existence of some qualitative difference. In relation to the car - that piece of western technology, object of worship which represents dreams, power, freedom - the word has a different meaning. Yet in the photograph, the very properties that make the car what it is are denied it. It cannot go anywhere. The black or white, or the right size or place of surface marks, so relevant in the case of the sheep, don't make any difference here. And there is also another thing, which makes it stand out of all the photographs that we have seen so far, and that is that it could almost have been taken anywhere and this universal feel is probably a condition of the thing being humorous. It is so neat and clean as if nothing else needed to be said or shown - and symbolically, as if the issue of colour didn't leave room for anything else.
RP: In terms of the place I want the work to be both specific and unspecific. If it is simply a documentation of a place then it is not satisfactory. If it doesn't deal with the place then it is also not satisfactory. The only reference to racial segregation exists in the line 'municipal housing for Cape Coloureds' in the previous piece. Now we have another reference to colour obsession with the 'chameleon 'Cortina' and the 'ideal Dorper'.
RP: Can this then take you back to the bush piece?
PB: Very much so. I feel that the placing of this piece in the middle of the sequence is quite important. It provides a number of new clues and it makes you feel that you should go back and check on the previous ones, and see whether you haven't misread anything. And if you do it, the second reading of the previous pieces is inevitably influenced by the fact that your strategy (although you don't like the word) is really uncovered in this piece. You are admitting to the manipulation that is required in order to make a work of art. The car is black or white depending on which image you choose. In this case, you have put, so to speak, your cards on the table. You are showing both possibilities, and that of course would make the viewer rethink what had been shown previously: how far are the images manipulated?
There is something very restless, in an awful sense of the word, in the continuous illumination. It is like in a prison where you are deprived of darkness. There is the sense of a loss of privacy. And with the loss of privacy, a loss of individual responsibility is implied. This is something to be expected in a society where the ruling political powers claim the right to control the 'natural' order of things. The light is seemingly there for the benefit of people living in houses with no electricity, yet the people have to accept what is being 'given': the control is not theirs. The apartness of the society is reflected in this denial of something as natural as darkness at night.
PB: Some of these images seem to have some sort of calligraphic quality. They look like inscriptions. Rather than being black and white, they seem to be black on white, they are full of marks and traces of human hand. Maybe because of this, you feel there is something to be deciphered, some sort of a dead or confused language. They are juxtaposed with written texts, another sort of calligraphy, perfectly legible. When you suddenly see at this point an image similar to another seen previously, but being ascribed a different meaning by the text, you may start to see the texts as 'translations' from one language into another. You may feel that you might have made a mistake before and that you should let the artist translate the meaning for you. This is a rather dangerously comfortable position to be in. You listen to an interpreter, you may suddenly feel that you understand at last and you become dependent. But how far can you rely on the artist's knowledge of that dead language, on his interpretation?
RP: By the time you reach this point in the series you already have a certain amount of information that you bring to this piece. Whilst it is true that several of the photographs were made very close to one another, small changes in angle or camera position offer very different formal structures appropriate to the text. In this sense the uncertain relationships between texts and pictures with their continuous shifting and overlapping meanings preclude any possibility of a definitive meaning. Rather than offering a single interpretation, I am tentatively exploring associations through the formal and textual content of each tryptich.
PB: This piece seems to confirm what was indicated at the beginning of the sequence, that there is a sort of narrative through the work. Again the comparison with a film comes to mind. At the beginning the camera is moving towards, here at the end, it is passing by. The text seems to confirm such a narrative. It mentions 'changes in conditions' which take place at the beginning and at the end. It implies a passage of time, there is a possibility of something happening afterwards . . .
RP: In a way I like that because it suggests the continuity of time as one physically moves around the work, whether you turn over pages of a book or whether you move around the space in which the work is hung. The time involved in doing that, and the awareness of other things that take your attention, also have to play their part in the way that the work is received. So I quite like the reference to the documentary movie which actually demands a certain amount of time, no more no less.
In terms of the word 'changes' I think that the word before it is also extremely important: 'Abrupt changes'. It is important that things can actually happen at a drop of a coin.
RP: I suspect that if the work simply offered a political viewpoint, then it would lead to the very word that you used in talking about the previous piece, 'comfort'. You would be comfortable in the knowledge that you agree or disagree. I don't think that that is the function of art. It would be condescending if the work simply confirmed the already widely publicised evil of apartheid. Through the knowledge that the viewer would bring to the work, provocative relationships are constructed in which my political viewpoint can be determined. By comparing for instance Precious Metals text to the desolation of the two pictures that flank it; in the ironic relationship between the work about the sheep and the car; and perhaps even in the Cape Light piece. I hope that a sense of concern comes across in t he work, a sense of informed concern.
This is a very ordinary place. It's not a place that has ever hit the headlines or is ever likely to. It's a community that I have a very strong personal contact with and it is the only place in South Africa which I can experience in a genuinely personal way. Therefore this is a work which deals with reality. It is not the selective reality of the violence that occurs on the streets of Cape Town or Soweto. It is a reality which is the result of a genuine experience on the part of the maker, but which is always to be seen relative to the knowledge of a politically unstable and unsatisfactory state of affairs. It would be all too easy to simply stand to one side and separate myself from the very European tradition of which I am a part and of which this colonised society is a direct product.
I am not a reporter. I didn't go there to collect material to supply to the British people. I went there as an artist who through a family connection found himself living in this community. My connection with this place is through the people that I am referring to, not people that I am looking at from a white hotel in the valley town. So I don't see myself as a reporter, I see myself as an explorer, not in the colonial sense of hacking through the jungle to find new territories, but an explorer of the history which is now part of my own experience as a result of first living with a South African and then finding myself in the middle of bloody Africa. This work also attempts to deal with my own presence as a white person in what has been designated as a place for black people. How do I respond to this place as an honorary Coloured, which is what I was? My duty to myself is to find out about that, and to do it in the way which is the most potent for me, through making art. Now that the work is made public it mustn't be mistaken for a reportage or for any sort of journalism.
PB: I am not implying that the work could or should be read as a reportage. But the certain documentary quality of witnessing that we have been talking about makes it possible for the viewer to ask all sorts of questions about the accuracy of your testimony, the reliability of the information, or the genuineness of your source material. I feel that with this last piece you are leaving it up to me as a viewer to answer these questions. But I cannot do that. I have the feeling that I cannot get close enough. Through insisting on your own distance, you force the viewer to also maintain the same distance. You don't allow me to get any closer to the reality 'behind' the work. I cannot 'enter' that reality through the work, and if I tried to do that I would only bump my nose against the glass.
There are two ways of viewing Roger Palmer's works. Looking into the carefully controlled photographs doesn't reveal much. Behind the beautifully calm and smooth photographic surface there seems to be an empty space. Yet this emptiness is disclaimed by the texts. The relationship implies that there is something else to be seen. This 'something' is not in the photograph; it is the work itself, the photographs and the text, the space it occupies, its place in this world. It is the world as language and image that we are looking at.
Roger Palmer works in this country in which there is the East Midlands Airport. But Palmer's East Midlands Airport is not just a 'place somewhere'. It is the world itself, this victim of political topography, divided by and trapped in metaphorical and real fencing, of which the photograph shows but a part. This photograph was taken in the East Midlands but it could have been taken in Berlin just as well.