One cannot look at Robertson’s photographs without also absorbing the toxicity of the urban environment we have created. To try and see beauty inside of this mess is understandable, but we must also acknowledge it as a beauty that has come at an enormous cost. Graffiti, or street art, or photographs which isolate and detail dysfunction and breakdown in our city streets, therefore, is not merely a surface narrative, but one which also plumbs the depths of our ethical depravity. For we are not merely dealing with an elemental distress – the impact of rain, sun, or, in the case of port cities, salty humidity – we are also dealing with a psycho-social and cultural distress.
Simply to focus on the beauty of Robertson’s photographs – a beauty aligned with abstraction – is to fail to see its darker context. And yet it is precisely this tendency to isolate the beautiful, free it from the greater mess that underwrites it, that we embark upon the slippery slope towards ethical ignominy. Brecht is correct, therefore, in declaring that art ‘must encourage the thrill of comprehension and train people in the pleasure of a changing reality’. The perception of an error, an accelerating damage, need not only result in despair. One can inhabit difficulty productively.
This, I think, explains Robertson’s suite of photographs – Urban Textures. While his photographs appear to deal with surfaces, it can also be argued that they are appealing to a deeper more searching consciousness. In his world-vision beauty and distress are not mutually exclusive. Rather, Robertson seeks to combine the beautiful and the ugly. More significantly, he shares Ernst Fischer’s insight that ‘Art is necessary in order that man should be able to recognize and change the world. But art is also necessary by virtue of the magic inherent in it’.
In Robertson’s case, this ‘magic’ resides in the devilish detail, in the poetics of photographic composition, the interplay of geometry and its erasure. If what we get are elegantly composed fragments, these fragments, no less, form part of a greater unseen yet intuited whole. For while many, lured by the abstract beauty of Robertson’s photographs, might restrict themselves – because their inherited taste is restricted – to the appeal of abstraction as an aesthetic, we can also argue that these isolated and subtracted fragments of beauty speak to a need to address the greater problem of a societal – cultural, psychic, economic – breakdown.
If, as Fischer attests, ‘Art is the indispensable means for this merging of the individual with the whole. It reflects … infinite capacity for association, for sharing experiences and ideas’, this is because, against an exclusionary and elitist cult, which seeks to set art apart from the rest of life, art, nevertheless, need never lose sight of its primary goal – to connect us. Which is why Robertson’s ‘canvas’ is both natural and unnatural, beautiful, ugly – and magical.
Ashraf Jamal is a writer, editor and teacher at CPUT and a research associate at U.J.