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  • Johannes Scott


:the station panels of Pierneef.

Johannes Scott, May 2023.

Under the auspices of the Union of South Africa, J H Pierneef’s Station Panels installation was commissioned in 1929 for the 1932 inauguration of Johannesburg Park Station. In 1935, Pierneef received The Medal for Visual Arts for acclaimed public reception – the artwork hung in the public railway concourse for decades. The 32 landscape paintings depict scenes of unimaginable beauty, intended to introduce the station as gateway of desire to distant and exotic spaces mediated by the far-reaching conduits of the Southern African railway network.

There is something mysterious and enduring about this artwork that, for nearly a century now, has lured seizure by several ideologies. After the apartheid regime took power in 1948, the station concourse was segregated and the Afrikaner Bond (National Party) appropriated Station Panels as emblem for “Ons Land” (connoting, white Afrikaners seized the land of desire). By the time Station Panels were dismantled, and after democratisation in 1994, the artwork became a political point of reference for decolonisation. In 2010, Ulrika Flink commented that the artwork has been “described as a dehistoricised, dehumanized outsider’s view of territory, offering an untouched land available to explore, conquer and control.”

In 2012, two South African artists, Monique Pelser and Carl Becker, staged an exhibition to ‘rescue’ the memory of Pierneef’s Station Panels. Independently, they set out to find the original, geographical vantage points from where Pierneef sourced the scenery, and to show how time has changed these views. Dr Gerhard Schoeman, in the introduction to their exhibition catalogue titled Our Land | Ons Land, alludes to the artists as searching for the ghost of Pierneef that haunts them.

In the artist statement, Becker says he was unsuccessful in finding these source locations of domesticated nature bathed in the same light as 17th century Dutch paintings. Pierneef was a liar because he distorted and shifted mountains, Becker claims, concluding, pertinently, that we have reason to be suspicious of Pierneef’s billowing clouds.

Pelser, on the other hand, recognises Pierneef’s work not as representation of natural earth, but instead, as constructed landscape – which she insists is an intellectual activity. She concludes that Pierneef’s uninhabited landscapes slip into the realm of phantasmagoria, similar to a Japanese genre of cartoons typically having fantasy themes. Pelser exhibited her photographs of Pierneef’s source locations as digital slideshow – shifting every five seconds, the play of light and shadow animates the scenery as pulsating earth.

On public view at its current setting at the Rupert Museum in Stellenbosch, it is time to re-imagine our aesthetic perspective on Pierneef’s Station Panels. For this endeavour, nothing can be more appropriate than theoretical psychoanalysis. To be more specific, we do not need a psychobiography on the artist, instead, we must analyse the artwork in relation to symbolic order. For contemporary ecocritical context, one can follow the lead of the curatorial direction for the 2024 Manifesto Barcelona, where natural resources such as mountains, sea, and rivers will set the scene for ecological transformation.

Looking at Station Panels in its current setting, what is most pertinent is that the panels no longer hang high above eye level, as it did at the station concourse; the work now hang at eye level. In other words, where the work used to be viewed awry, from far below, it is now viewed straight on. For its original setting, Pierneef inverted conventional linear perspective, creating a distortion corrected by the viewer’s awry angle from far below. He selected vertical-square instead of conventional horizontal-rectangular shaped canvasses and, in relation to the scenic compositions of land in the foreground, elevated the atmospheric background. Now, in its current eye-level setting, without anamorphic distortion, Becker’s warning that something is amiss with the “billowing clouds” holds true. Pierneef’s elevated atmospheric background, previously tamed by distortion, now billows forth like a tsunami. A triviality befitting the mundanity of symbolic fantasy now sticks out, bestowing the picturesque scene with an aura of immanence and anxiety.

With anamorphism erased, two competing realms now come into view, namely, an atmospheric, nebulous backdrop and an encamped scene of stylised, domesticated nature. The latter is reminiscent of Cezanne’s cubist landscapes with a stylistic edge of the futurist art movement Pierneef observed during his 1925 European travels. This encamped, cartoon-like tranquillity is facing the immanence of being intruded and swallowed by the menacing, nebulous brute descending from behind and above, like a haunting ghost. Recalling Pelser’s slideshow, this scenario can be rendered visible by projecting Pierneef’s series of paintings in cinematic format. If one were to place his canvasses on a cinematic reel and turn them fast to show the landscape in continuous motion, we would see a back-and-forth play of an uncanny, embryonic volatility (the primal real) pulsating ominously against the fragile, tentative order of symbolic fantasy (social reality) below.

In psychoanalytic terms, the constructed normalcy of social reality can be sustained only by exclusion of the contingent real – for, at the moment of intrusion, order gives way to the instability of trauma and crises. This discord between the symbolic and the real is constitutive to our human condition. As Zizek puts it, “The fact that man is a speaking being means precisely that he is, so to speak, constitutively ‘derailed,’ marked by an irreducible fissure that the symbolic edifice attempts in vain to repair. From time to time, this fissure erupts in some spectacular form, reminding us of the frailty of the symbolic edifice. The very appearance of man necessarily entails a loss of natural balance, of the homeostasis proper to the processes of life.” In the 2008 remake of the science fiction film The Day the Earth Stood Still, the humanoid character Klaatu, an alien sent to save the earth by destroying humanity due its derailed culture, warns us of imminent calamity – if we live, the earth dies; if we die, the earth lives. Hegel, a founding figure in the formation of modern philosophy, warns that the endeavour to bridge the primal impasse between nature and Homo sapiens “makes us sick to death.”

In Station Panels, the primal impasse between the ominous, billowing real and provisional domestication defers symbolic order, opening a void for desire. In aesthetic terms, the paintings enter the world of magic realism, stylised trees become chimeric, and domestication turns mystic. The lack at the core of our symbolic order is laid bare because it cannot fully net the real; some or other contingent real always escapes symbolisation. As with the fallout of any contingent real such as war, social crises, or ecological disaster, something is always amiss, and everything seems suspicious. As Zizek puts it succinctly, the contingency triggers endless interpretations that desperately tries to connect the symbolic order with social reality and, suddenly, “’all things mean something’ and if the meaning is not clear, it’s because some remains hidden, waiting to be deciphered.” Interpretation by analogy, Lacan famously explains, is nothing else but desires itself. If the ghost of Pierneef’s work haunts us because it suffers symbolic lack – like Hamlet’s murdered father who returns as ghost because his death never received proper symbolic closure – the survival of Station Panels begins with symbolic desire.

On the one hand, consolidation of the symbolic void brought on by spatial distortion and evolution of time seems unattainable. On the other hand, Station Panels never was intended to conquer an objective, neutral symbolic of rail destinations. The original art installation at the railway concourse functioned as imaginary coordinate for mediation between the impossible real and symbolic fantasy. The installation endeavour must therefore be seen within an imaginary scenario – physically unattainable. Moreover, unattainability is precisely the paradoxical topology of any object of desire. The object of desire always eludes our grip – it is a destination where one never arrives. Nevertheless, the imaginary object of desire has direct effect and cause on how we experience and behave in life.

This paradoxical concept of using imaginary scenarios – literally, nonexistent chimera such as ghosts – for explaining symbolic reality is used even by theories of quantum and subatomic physics. For example, in an interview on the show Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, Steven Hawking explains the importance of his, “regrettably least understood,” concept of “imaginary time.” The purpose of his invention of imaginary numbers is to counter for the enigmatic real of the big bang. The problem we face with the ‘impossible’ big bang is that it is an event of singularity – singularity has no calculable difference to anything we know. In other words, we cannot calculate time and space before the singular event at the beginning of our universe because singularity erases our universal laws of physics, which are governed by symbolic difference. By introducing “imaginary time,” the difference between space and time lapses, allowing us to calculate the infinite spatial event without the finite priority of ontological time. “Imaginary time” provides the scientific arena with a fantasy scenario where, at a safe distance, the ‘ghost’ of the big bang may be dichotomised and framed by symbolic value.

The current ‘unintended’ setting of Station Panels provides us with a new fantasy scenario where what may previously have been unnoticed becomes visible. The new scenario opens the possibility to reinvent our wrought social reality, reimagine our desire for unity with nature, and reinterpret ecological transformation.


Becker, Carl. Pelser, Monique. Ons Land | Our Land: The Johannesburg Station Panels Revisited. Bloemfontein: Oliewenhuis Art Museum, 2013. Exhibition catalogue.

Miller, Jacques-Alain (ed). 1973. The Seminar of Jacques Lacan, Book XI. The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis (1964). New York: W. W. Norton & Company.

Rupert Museum, Stellentia Rd, Stellenbosch. South Africa. The Johannesburg Station Panels: Pierneef’s Journey. 8 February 2020 - 31 May 2023.

Zizek, Slavoj. 1991. Looking Awry: an introduction to Jacques Lacan through popular culture. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press.

Johannes Scott, an independent artist and writer, received the BA degree for theory of literature at the University of South Africa (2011); postgraduate studies in theory of drama (2013), narratology (2014), and critical theory (2015); specialising in the metafiction of J. M. Coetzee; Jacques Derrida’s deconstruction; Michel Foucault’s technologies of the self; and Jacques Lacan’s psychoanalytic theory of aesthetics.



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