SHE WATCHES OVER
By Vincent Bezuidenhout and Chad Rossouw
First exhibited at Michaelis Galleries, University of Cape Town, 2016.
In 1976 South Africa sunk a 385-metre shaft in the Kalahari Desert. A US Lockheed SR-71 spy plane detected the activity and concluded that it was in preparation for an underground nuclear test. Under pressure from the French government, who had the contract to build Koeberg Power Station, the
government relented and sealed the shaft with a cap of concrete.
On 22 September 1979, at 00:53 Universal Time, US satellite Vela 6911 recorded a distinctive double flash in an area where the South Atlantic meets the Indian Ocean off the coast of South Africa. Designed to look for clandestine atmospheric nuclear tests, and already operational for more than 10 years, Vela’s gamma-ray and x-ray detectors, along with its two Bhangmeters, indicated a nuclear explosion of approximately 3 kilotons.
Subsequent investigations by various agencies into the incident came to contradictory conclusions ranging from a meteorite hitting the satellite to other natural phenomena, but the prime suspect has always been a joint South African-Israeli nuclear test.
Documents from these investigations are either classified or heavily redacted.
The inaccessibility of information sets a limitation to what we can know about this incident. Any historical narrative is faced with these lacuna, and can only proceed through speculation and feats of imagination. The delineations of knowing and not knowing, embodied here in the literal lines of redaction, also point outside of the narrative, to frameworks of power. The borders of secrecy reveal how government exerts a disciplinary force through the flows and stoppages of information.
Using sculpture and print, Bezuidenhout and Rossouw make reference to both the so-called Vela Incident and the documentation regarding the 1979 event. Through simplicity of form, absence and the geometry of aerospace engineering, this work examines the complex interaction between secrecy, government and fear which intersected with South Africa’s own history of aggressive Nationalism and modernist aspirations.
In the two works on this show, two forms of information are revealed. On the one side is a replica of the Vela satellite. There are enough easily accessible diagrams, photographs and commentary on its construction, that an accurate replica is possible. The visibility of data serves its role as a surveillance satellite. On the other side is an enlarged copy of an actual redacted document. Here the act of erasure shows how control is enacted through withholding information.
Both these works though offer no further commentary. Their very muteness suggests a limit to what representation can reveal.
In what is their first act of collaboration together, Bezuidenhout and Rossouw take a cue from their parallel research into an incident that reflects on their ongoing concerns with notions of South African history and power. Bezuidenhout’s past concerns with the psychology of power and the validity of memory relative to history have manifested in works on the constructed landscape as an expression of the psychology of those who implemented it. His current project focuses on South Africa’s clandestine nuclear weapons program during apartheid and incorporates photojournalism, image appropriation, landscape photography and archival documentation, while critically reflecting on the limitations of all these strategies in terms of their use in visual practices.
Rossouw’s previous work has been concerned with how historical narratives intersect with myth, fantasy and imaginary structures. His current work investigates how art objects, particularly objects that replicate an evidentiary mode, can offer critical ways to access historical narratives.