Public Intimacy: Art and Other Ordinary Acts in South Africa, Ponte City, for Art Practical

Mikhael Subotzky and Patrick Waterhouse, Lift Portrait, 24, Ponte City, Johannesburg, 2008; Collection, Pier 24 Photography. Courtesy of the Artists and Goodman Gallery, Johannesburg.

Mikhael Subotzky and Patrick Waterhouse, Lift Portrait, 24, Ponte City, Johannesburg, 2008; Collection, Pier 24 Photography. Courtesy of the Artists and Goodman Gallery, Johannesburg.

“It was a place where the wave crashed inwards upon itself, with the seething violence of delayed hope. It was Africa coming back, but with nowhere yet to go…. It was 54 floors of people in between other places.”—Denis Hirson, Perec/Ponte

In the late ’60s, designers Mannie Feldman, Manfred Hermer, and Rodney Grosskopf began work on what was to be the tallest residential building in the Southern Hemisphere. The massive Brutalist structure was intended for the white well-heeled to live closer to the center of Johannesburg, rather than their suburban retreats. But in 1976, as the building neared completion, the Soweto uprisings brought violence and opprobrium to the region and its recalcitrant apartheid-era laws and mores. The property market tanked and the developers’ dream of affluent white South Africans living in a tower of luxury flats and duplexes vanished. Throughout the late ’70s and ’80s, Ponte City’s population went from low-income and racially mixed, to predominantly black foreigners (Nigerians, Zimbabweans, and the Congolese), while the already troubled building fell further into disrepair.1 In 2007 a new pair of developers envisioned a rebirth of the iconic building as, again, housing for the affluent. Many tenants found themselves evicted, and apartments were redesigned with décor themes like “Old Money” and “Glam Rock.” When the 2008 economic crisis hit, the banks pulled their money and the remaining tenants continued to live among the empty apartments and crumbling concrete.2
Many “voices” speak for the structure. As a provocative part of Yerba Buena Center for the Arts’ vast Public Intimacy, a survey of work coming out of and centered on South Africa, photographers Mikhael Subotzky and Patrick Waterhouse have devised an impressionistic epic about the beleaguered monolith. This includes large-scale portraits, video projections, zines, and a book dummy (forthcoming from Steidl) alongside new and found photographs, essays, and newspaper articles from various stages in Ponte’s history. Articles written in tones ranging from sangfroid to near gleeful describe the more salacious or vicious events from Ponte City’s history.3 There are photographs, found in the vacated apartments: gangly boys sitting on twin beds, living-room dance parties, abandoned ID documents. Out of context, they are typical amateur snapshots, but plucked from the rubbish and set against writings that detail the unwantedness of the subjects, the pictures are haunting. Anticipatory advertising sketches of white men in smart suits lounging in the envisioned swanky lobby appear opposite of photographs of actual tenants, large black families playing in cramped rooms as the TV blares. These and Subotzky’s elevator portraits are some of the few elements of the project wherein the black populace of Ponte’s past and present is given a “voice.” Printed large, the elevator portraits add something more than human to the subjects. They appear more solid, monumental even, than the building they occupy, which this project has in turn humanized by explicating its vulnerabilities. (continue reading)

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