Mikhael Subotzky and Patrick Waterhouse

Le Bal
6, Impasse de La Défense
January 23, 2014–April 20, 2014

View of "Ponte City,” 2014.

The current exhibition at Le Bal concentrates on one of Johannesburg’s most famous buildings: a unique skyscraper named Ponte City. It was erected in 1976 to provide luxurious apartments in the once segregated neighborhood Hillbrow. Given the building’s Brutalist style, as well as its concrete construction and cylindrical shape, some have suggested that it resembles a panopticon—it is no wonder that in 1998 the architect Paul Silver suggested that the building be used as a prison. For this show, South African photographer Mikhael Subotzky and British artist Patrick Waterhouse re-created the impressive appearance of the building by taking photographs floor-by-floor of its enormous exterior windows. The artists also expose the building’s present run-down state by documenting its public spaces—corridors, elevators, parking lot—and by taking intimate photos both of its inhabitants inside their homes and of the abandoned flats.

In addition to this comprehensive and troubling portrait of the building today, the artists have assembled archival materials—newspaper clippings, advertisements, and promotional items—that are arrayed along the walls of the gallery and expose the structural racism that underlay the entrepreneurial project of the building’s initial development—for example, the ongoing debate about where the servants’ quarters would be located. (During apartheid, Ponte City was a prime example of South Africa’s racial segregation. Only white families lived in the outward-facing units, while their black servants lived in the tube’s inner apartments. After the fall of apartheid, the building became a hotbed for criminal activity and suicides.) Most striking is the artists’ attempt to materially reconstruct the personal histories of the building’s residents, namely by taking found objects and old photos and superimposing them in their exact places on new photographs of the ruined and emptied apartments.

— Ellie Armon Azoulay