Melanin deliberations and navel-gazing


EDUCATIONALIST, erased: ‘Steiner II (3116), a work in oil, ink and Micropore tape on canvas, by Mikhael Subotzky. Photograph courtesy Goodman Gallery.

HE’S EARNED HIS reputation – and several awards – as a fine art photographer, but Mikhael Subotzky has been smashing definitions throughout the trajectory of his career. This very large solo exhibition, entitled Massive Nerve Corpus at the Goodman Gallery in Johannesburg sees his thinking pointed in several directions at once.

On every level, it’s an exhibition from the left field, for Subotzky. Not every piece on this show is a gem, but they all contribute to his thinking about being white and male in a world where these values are being held up as dodgy. And here, as you walk through the gallery’s various spaces (don’t forget the Print Room), you feel assailed by the concatenation of over 60 works, speaking in different tongues.

And here you have the dust covers of old books reworked, as you have photographs pushing at the edges of definitions as such, portraits with their faces sinisterly blurred out with Micropore tape. You have a gorgeous, yet quietly stated painting called Sartre without milk (2019), and a couple of holograms which may quite take you by surprise.

Educationalist Rudolf Steiner is reflected here, as is the poet John Keats and the German philosopher Immanuel Kant and Subotzky allows himself to go wild with sticky tape in various permutations, some of which feels decidedly in a gallery space, others which serve to silence and blind his subjects. It’s a phantasmagorical approach to very wide ideas, but the exhibition cries out for a stronger curatorial hand.

Subotzky states in an interview with Hansolo Umberto Oberist – which is part of the gallery’s handout, when you visit – that his main aim in his current work is to “pull apart the normalization of whiteness, to make it look strange, to re-racialize it and to represent it as the ridiculous construction that it is.” Does he succeed here? Yes and no: many of the characters and scholars, the icon figures and the gestures are about a lot more than melanin.

What Subotzky is doing and thinking about has great relevance and introspective values, but you go away with thoughts of violent disparity and messy focus. You feel you want more, and less: More clarity, less works and ideas in progress.

  • Massive Nerve Corpus by Mikhael Subotzky is at the Goodman Gallery Johannesburg, until July 6. Call 011 788 1113 or visit

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