Figures and Fictions, the V&A's current exhibition of recent photography from South Africa, close to a gallery of Italian Renaissance sculpture (above). It's a striking juxtaposition, but not a jarring one. The exhibition is so - what can I call it? - so full. There's too much of everything in London, including culture and cultural artefacts. At the heart of almost every exhibition - often vast, encyclopedic, daunting and exhausting, costing millions to stage and needing a million visitors to give a profit - is a sudden emptiness. It all generates an expectation it can never meet. There is accumulation, weariness, switching off... and suddenly a hole in the experience, a place of emptiness, of placelessness, of thinglessness. Too much is the same as nothing.
The emptiness has become all-too familiar and this is why the word that comes to me to best describe this terrific exhibition is full. It's in no sense a complete view of that huge country today or of those who make it their project to represent it - such a thing could never be, and a lot of the problem with the 'blockbuster' exhibitions is probably that they try for completism. It is, though, a view that doesn't break up into emptiness, but continues throughout to compel attention, surprise and reaction.
Seventeen currently active photographers are represented - a lot for a comparatively small exhibition; some by only three or four works, but striking enough that they still have impact. They're a varied bunch, in age, in race, in background and in their projects and perspectives as photographers, none of which, I think it's safe to say, is purely journalistic or indeed glibly definable in any way. The 'Figures' of the title is unproblematic - these are all photos of people, What the curators seem to mean by 'Fictions' is any created representation. As well as a range of complex artistic and technical strategies from the photographers, there's a lot of conscious self-representation, self-performance by the subjects, as you'd surely expect in portraits of people in such a multitudinous, complex, sophisticated and above all fast-changing society. The 'Fictions' raises a question, I suppose: what conclusions can we draw from these images about South Africa today? Should we draw any?
We can't avoid assumptions and generalisations about somewhere so vast, so varied, so iconic in its past horrors and struggles and its present delirious, uneven pace of change - better to be aware that we're probably making them. These are such powerful and compelling works, though. Their 'reality' is overwhelming, even while the levels and complexities of that reality raise a lot of questions. There are so many memorable images, memorable faces; the confidence and courage, defiance and vulnerability of people redefining their lives and work and sexuality; the wild costumes both imposed by tradition and invented for the camera; the shock of the new, all mixed up with the legacy of past horrors and the continuing violence, indignity - alongside dignity - and polarisation.
Enough abstractions: the pictures speak best for themselves. The associated website is a rich resource, with an interesting write-up and example on each photographer and some videos which are quality works in themselves. Another good selection of the photographs is here. Looking at these pictures, I didn't feel the kind of sadness I feel when I visit the National Portrait Gallery's annual photo portrait exhibition and see a polished, self-ironising homogeneity that can't but speak of decadence. There was a kaleidoscope of often difficult emotions, but not hopelessness. And the ones that made me cry: by an old, white man, David Goldblatt - which is probably fitting.