The American poet Ezra Pound once wrote, with pardonable exaggeration, that artists were the antennae of the race. At their best, he was arguing, they can cut to the quick of a situation – not only define a historical moment, but also see far – with a kind of fearful and fearless clarity.
It is now 14 years since the end of apartheid in South Africa, and in spite of the fact that South African artists have been well represented in group shows throughout Britain over the past decade and a half, there has been no single exhibition that has taken the temperature of South Africa as it is today, soberly, carefully, accurately – until now.
This is an exhibition that neither shouts nor gesticulates. It feels like the slow movement of a scalpel across the body of a wounded man, exposing what it needs to expose without rush, noise or fanfare.
Home Lands – Land Marks consists of works by seven key artists, ranging in ages from 33 to 78. Four of the seven are black, two of the seven are women. And of those seven, it is the three photographers who seem to give us the sour tang of the reality of South Africa as it is today, for so many.
We still remember those moments of euphoria from 1990 to 1994, almost as if they were yesterday: the release of Nelson Mandela from prison; the elections that voted in a black majority government for the first time in the country's painful history. It was all about the expunging of a terrible wrong. The joy at that moment of its birth seemed to promise a future of unsullied optimism.
Would that life – and human beings – were that simple. After euphoria came the post-euphoria of disappointment, poverty, frustrated ambition, corruption, political ineptitude and the lingering on of ancient prejudices. This is the story of the show at Haunch of Venison – how it is never possible to make something shining and new without being aware that each shining, new thing casts a long shadow. There is no present which has not been heavily inscribed by the many versions of the past that preceded it.
The oldest artist exhibiting in the show, the veteran photographer David Goldblatt, who was born in Randfontein in 1930, is perhaps the least wilfully demonstrative, the least propagandistic, the least noisy, of all the artists on show here. Goldblatt is a slow, careful documenter of the meaning of built structures. He shows us how the buildings we make, and the way they sit on the land, always represent some kind of profound embodiment of political will.
Goldblatt pioneered the making of such laboriously truthful photographic surveys long before 1994, and his very deliberate method of working – he takes a very long time to choose his subject, and he personally supervises every print that he makes – has remained exactly the same. What we see, dispersed throughout this exhibition, are various recent examples of Goldblatt's almost coldly dispassionate moments of photographic witnessing. (And that, generally speaking, is one of the presentational strengths of this show; that different artists' works are often mingled together in the same room, so that we become party to a general mood rather than to instances of discrete and isolated presentation.) Each photograph is accompanied by a caption, and these are often long, descriptive, even didactic. It's his work we see as we enter the gallery, and this sets the tone.
Here is a scene, for example, of small, unfinished, single-storey houses, roofless, dispersed across a large, scrubby, pitiless, sun-baked plot of land in the Eastern Cape. The strangely flattened surface makes this photograph – called, with the meticulousness that is a defining characteristic of Goldblatt's work, Stalled Municipal Housing Scheme, Kwezinaledi, Lady Grey, Eastern Cape, 5 August 2006 – feel as if it is midway between a photograph and a hyper-realistic painted rendering of a photograph, curiously factitious.
The houses are unfinished; the project to create them in this desolate spot was begun, and then abandoned. The very fact of their having been abandoned and left, half-built, beneath this raw, bleaching sunlight is terribly poignant, as are the profound, almost blacker-than-black shadows that seem to engulf the interiors and the side walls. It looks and feels like a combination of the failure of political will, political ineptitude, and the sudden stifling of all the near-hysterical optimism that the overthrow of the National Party had seemed to promise, endlessly, and forever. Here is the very symbol of some spoiled, atrophied paradise in the unfinished making.
Go upstairs, and you will come across a very different species of photographic documentation, one that catches the life of South Africa as it is today, on the hoof. Here is the South Africa of giant billboards beside major roads, and everything that they represent to the photographer Santo Mofokeng, who's from Johannesburg. Here are advertising slogans in juxtaposition with the people of the street. It is the billboards, huge panels of light hanging above the often dark roads, that scream out the story; the people are tiniest shadows by comparison, the merest toiling ciphers beside these loud messages of consumerism.
And what messages! They are instances of the perversion of language by the advertising man. A huge diamond flashes from one. Below we read these words: "Democracy is Forever". Such is the depths to which the meaning of that word, once so sacred in the struggle towards black majority rule, has fallen – it has been appropriated by the vendor of diamonds. Now, if you own a diamond, you will become a member of that exclusive democracy of the super-rich. The slogan of another billboard offers the onlooker the true key to freedom: ownership of a mobile telephone. Meanwhile, anonymous pedestrians slog by on foot, beneath huge burdens, never looking up.
Guy Tillim presents two giant sets of photographic images, organised in grid formation. His subject is downtown Johannesburg, that sector of the city from which the whites fled in such numbers after the election of the ANC. This is the brutal story of the aftermath of prosperity. Once handsomely appointed apartment blocks have been allowed to decay. We feel that we are staring, unauthorised, into the privacy of private places. We see ruined stairwells awash with rubbish, shattered windows, walls papered with newspaper billboards that themselves testify to urban violence: "SUSPECT SAVED FROM NECKLACE".
Of the artists here, it is William Kentridge whose work seems the most subtly persuasive, and the most disturbing. Kentridge has made a series of what he calls "anamorphic landscapes" of Johannesburg. It is a way of re-imagining some of the sights so familiar to him from his own childhood – Lutyens's grandiose memorial to the Boer War, for example. A polished cylinder stands upright at the centre of a circular table. The cylinder reflects the image of a circular drawing in charcoal that lies flat on the table top around it. The exercise seems to circle remorselessly around the meaning of distortion. When we stare at the cylinder – we need to walk around it to see the image in its entirety, so we only ever see it partially – we see what we at first take to be a reflected image of the drawing. But it's not so simple; when we compare drawing with reflected image, we see that the drawing itself is grotesquely distorted. Yet when we examine it in the perfect mirror of the cylinder, it is perfectly readable. Those weird shapes on the table top have now narrowed into shapeliness. What is the meaning of all this?
It is perhaps about the nature of truthful seeing, of how we hold reality, fantasy and memory in troubled tension. Memories of childhood can be curiously sharp, and curiously innocent of blame. If we try to re-create them now, we indulge in strange travesties of the truth, which always need correction. Perhaps the present is too wilfully shapeless to exist without the simple, corrective mirror of the past.
Maps, too, always need correction. South Africa has been mapped and remapped time and again. Names have been changed to take account of new realities. Vivienne Koorland's maps of South Africa have little seeming consistency. They do not show us how one place relates to another. They do not give us the physical features of the country. Instead, they are a strange amalgam of people and places significant in South Africa's recent history. On the "Rivonia Map", for example, a coarse brown burlap surface is inscribed with the names of those members of the armed wing of the ANC who were arrested near Johannesburg in July 1963, and charged with conspiring to overthrow the apartheid state. Every one of them served at least 20 years in jail.
Now their names are place names on a map at whose edge a finger post has been painted that reads, simply, "To Freedom".
Home Lands – Land Marks, Haunch of Venison, London W1 (020-7495 5050), to 5 JulyReuse content