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Absence Was Already Present

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John Hodgkiss's darkly luminous photographs suggest portentous chance encounters, writes Gerhard Schoeman

I first met John Hodgkiss as a first-year art student at Rhodes University in 1987. I was eighteen and hopelessly arrogant. Hodgkiss was twenty, going on twenty-one. He had been to the army and had worked as a professional photographer. He was already serious about being an artist.

During a class crit in which I had to discuss my drawings, I said that if art didn't pan out for me I could always become a professional pool player (as a first-year student, I went to the studio in between playing pool). With a sceptical frown on his face, Hodgkiss quipped: "That will also not be as easy as you think." The class and our mercurial lecturer, painter George Coutouvidis, waited for a response but I could only muster a faint smile. What can one say in the face of such devastating accuracy?


Years later, whilst doing research for an MA in art history, I came across this line by RB Kitaj: "Nothing in art is both good and easy."

Indeed, as I read it now, Kitaj's comment highlights the crux of just about every conversation I had with Hodgkiss since I met him when I was a misguided, pool-playing first-year art student. Hodgkiss passed away on 16 March 2012, at the age of forty-five. Between this haunting date and our first encounter in 1987, "this integrity to devote yourself wholly to Art," to cite Julián Ríos, became the sine qua non of a friendship characterised by creative frenzy and melancholia, words upon words, silence, faith, frustration with the art world, loss and, in the end, emptiness. "It is not him I see, but emptiness," writes Edmund Jabès about his dead friend, the poet Paul Celan.

But this emptiness is also full because I see it in the art that was produced, by him who is now wholly absent. Absence was already present – from the beginning. I think of it as an image: image as absence made present.

One of Hodgkiss's early images, a small black-and-white diptych, comes to mind. It made an immediate impression on me when I saw it at an art school crit in first year. A framed copy hangs in my sister's kitchen, a gift from Hodgkiss. I ponder it every time I visit. It is called The Man/The Train, dated 1987. On the left, a man looking downwards, his hands in his pockets, is in front of a railroad track. Next to him is a dog. Behind them are the ocean and the cloudy sky. The image is slightly grainy, moody. Yet, white predominates. The railroad track and the electricity poles create a precisely measured grid. The image evokes a rainy day in Simonstown in the Western Cape, where John was stationed as an army conscript.The man and the dog are in motion. They are about to cross the railroad track. We know this because in the image on the right, taken at exactly the same spot, they are absent. There is only the blurry back of a train passing on the right. The clouds have moved slightly. The moment has passed and it has been captured, all at once. Fleeting eternity. Walter Benjamin describes it as the defining trait of allegory. In allegory, he writes, "[a]ny person, any object, any relationship can mean absolutely anything else."6 In allegory, meaning is arbitrary and fleeting. Hodgkiss's diptych indexes and augurs the split second it takes for something to appear and to pass away. And, in the process, it turns around and allegorises the "camera recording its own condition".7 We are looking at a photographic image of the real as a shadow. Reflection of a reflection, trace of a trace; the double image illuminates the instrument, inseparable from the flux of time that brought it into being. The Man/The Train evokes the shadow, or better, the ghost of the man with dog, and of everything else in the image, including the passing train, a ghost of a ghost. As harbingers of the future and of progress, then and now, trains also index the speed at which things become outdated, die and decay. They embody the speeding up of time and the cutting up/off of space. They speed past and come to a standstill. In Hodgkiss's image, the train is already a ghost from the future past. Its blurry passing, the speed of its trace, which indicates and erases the man and the dog, has been frozen as eternal fleetingness.Moreover, as travelling machine, the train is similar to the camera, which freezes, constructs and fragments the passing moment. Travellers passing through a landscape in a train resemble travellers looking through cameras at a fragmented world they are divorced from. Looking through a frame fragments a scene, creates a scene where there isn't necessarily one. To travel means to take pictures. Pictures are proof of our travels, and yet they are also painful reminders that we have passed through, without touching sides. Every photograph traces loss.Trains and cameras were invented in the early nineteenth century. As Wolfgang Schivelbusch suggests, the invention of the train and, by extension, the camera inaugurated our industrialised and technologised way of seeing the world – in pieces.8 "All that is solid melts into air," wrote Karl Marx in the Communist Manifesto,9 published mid-nineteenth century. Marx's analysis of the accelerating exchange of capital is indirectly an analysis of the impact trains and cameras had on the nineteenth century. In Hodgkiss's The Man/The Train, the blurry train, in passing, indexes the recording device that traced it as always already passing. It brings to mind the smeared figures in Francis Bacon's paintings which, both pinned down and fluid, denote the fleeting nature of the photographic images they derive from.