March 21, 2019

Pieter Hugo, ‘Permanent Error’ – at the MAXXI, Rome

The collection of photographs entitled ‘Permanent Error’, by Pieter Hugo, is part of a wider exhibition at Rome’s MAXXI museum that seeks to redefine the way the viewer sees the concept of recycling.

‘Re-cycle – strategies for architecture, city and planet’ is split into three subsections, each focusing on the role of this public service in the modern era. The curators see it as important that we view the exhibition as something that could only be put together as a result of the increased environmental awareness that arose in the twentieth century:

‘…when the environmental crisis revealed itself to be a symptom of the more complex crisis of a model of development. A crisis that involves the very idea of modernity – and thus the idea of the new – that animated and guided the development of architecture and urban planning for an entire century.’

The often incongruous and disorientating nature of modernity is brought into a stark light in Pieter Hugo’s photographs, which take in the recent problem of ‘eco-waste’ – computer screens, keyboards, bundles of wires –masses of which have been abandoned in landfill sites across the developing world.

Recent decades have seen a rise in the amount of eco-waste that the western world produces, as our society has become more and more reliant on technology – and having the most advanced versions of it. Computers that are out of date are shipped to Africa, under the pretence of bridging the digital divide. Western powers, however, are closing their eyes to the fact that the majority of these ‘donations’ end up as huge mountains of waste. An explosion in the number of high-tech dumps has ensued.

The shantytown of Agbogbloshie, near Accra in Ghana, is home to one of the biggest high-tech dumps in the world. Here, residents melt down the computers and televisions that are dumped at the site, because the materials they contain – copper, for example – are more valuable than the appliances themselves.

The fumes created by the constant burning of plastic and metal are causing damage to the air and the surrounding landscape – as well as to the people living in and around the shantytown. In the photographs, men and teenage boys poke fires with sticks, or look directly into the camera as the acrid smoke wafts over them.

One of the first photographs shows a line of old televisions, seemingly relics from the 1990s, abandoned in the middle of a stream. The image seems out of place, but the background is one we are used to – a vacant space, an abandoned building, with litter and dirt everywhere.

In another photograph, goats graze amongst the piles of garbage, as if wondering where the grass has gone. In the background, as is the same in the majority of the works, thick smoke from a pile of burning waste is rising into the sky.

Like the televisions in the stream, other objects too are startlingly out of place. An Italian computer keyboard is half buried in filth, but enough of it emerges so that the ‘uscita campo’ (‘exit field’) key is just visible.

The most haunting photographs, though, are portraits of Agbogbloshie’s residents. In most of them, innocence despite the surrounding chaos is evident – a little girl, named as Naasra Yeti, is resplendent in a white dress that she has by some stroke managed to keep clean. On her head she holds a bowl. It is in part a domestic scene that we are used to seeing in images from the third world.

A lot of the subjects are young boys, often teenagers. Most of them hold sticks, having just arrived at the camera after stoking a fire. Every one of them stares out at the viewer, defiantly; every one of them is being encroached upon by drifting fumes.

In another, younger children scour through the dirt, possibly looking for useful material to burn, possibly in the vain hope of stumbling across a computer or television that actually works.

Bundles of wires are everywhere, in almost every photograph – discarded in the back of a truck, in piles on the floor, burning. In one photograph a man named as Yakubu Al Hasan carries a bundle of wires on his head as if they are a basket of flowers –when we first enter the room that holds the exhibition, the colours at a distance suggest that they could be exactly this.

There is further incongruity from the children, who ride their bikes over piles of dirt as if they were ramps in a suburban playground.

Stereotypes of the third world, the information accompanying the exhibition reads, are numerous. But the fact that we are shown pictures of suffering on such a regular basis doesn’t make the situations for people such as these any less real.

Pieter Hugo is a South African photographer, and is dedicated to investigating the human conditions faced by people in surroundings such as these. He uses the themes of identity and belonging to shape his work, most of which is portraiture.

It is hoped that the ‘Re-cycle’ exhibition, in its entirety, will work to offer an ‘expanding awareness through aesthetics and design … contributing to the definition of a new tentative theory of contemporary architecture based on reinvention and non-regressive capacity to observe and re-elaborate the world around us.’

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