Guy Tillim

Second Nature
February 2 to March 17, 2012

James Harris Gallery is pleased to present the first solo exhibition in the United States of South African photographer Guy Tillim’s new series taken in French Polynesia. This new body of work was inspired by the artist’s interest in a landscape with profound art historical reference. Tillim’s photographs capture the paradise discovered by Captain Cook in the late 18th century and painted by Gauguin. A book of these photographs titled Second Nature will be published by Prestel in April 2012.

Tillim’s career began in the latter years of apartheid documenting its effect on South Africa. He has moved away from documentary photography of child soldiers in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the famine victims in Malawi, or the decaying architecture that represent the loss of an African dream. Like other artists before him, Tillim states “In reading the accounts of the artists who accompanied Cook, I was interested to note that their debates on-board ship around the subject of the representation of landscape are very similar to those we have today: how much do you ‘give’ a scene and how much do you let it speak for itself?” His interest in the visual capacity of place, led Tillim to French Polynesia in 2010.

The six large scale photographs in this exhibition range from the panoramic to the everyday. In the piece titled “Hanaiapa, Hiva Oa,” a chain link fence in the foreground echo the curtain of rain in the distance. In another work, a gravel road cuts along the edge of a tropical blue shoreline. The artist is certainly aware of the human presence in this paradise and deliberately includes contemporary elements to imbue an otherwise romantic landscape with contradiction. Seen together, Tillim’s depictions of the of the supposed South Pacific idyll are anything but idyllic.

When Gauguin went to Polynesia, he told a journalist on the eve of his departure, “to immerse myself in nature, see no one but savages, live their life”. But the reality he found was a far cry from his primitivist fantasy. Tillim went to Polynesia to “convey the components of the scene: either through detail or monumentality. But what of that which lies in-between, the indeterminate space that conveys the texture of the place, its feeling, its sensation, its quotidian elements alongside the spectacular? ”

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