Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Retrieving the Past

If you miss seeing a performance art piece it is incredibly difficult to retrieve the full experience, its visceral character. Such was the lesson I learnt last week when I attended Rites of Fealty/Rites of Passage at the Bag Factory, where photographs from that one-night performance art event that was staged at the venue last year went on exhibit. Having missed what has become in art circles a bit of a legendary affair, I was eager to somehow recover or reclaim the experience through the photographs and video footage on display.

Rites of Fealty/Rites of Passage was a one-night event spearheaded by Johan Thom, a recognised performance artist, which presented some of the rising talents in this fairly marginalised branch of the visual arts, such as Bronwyn Lace, Mlu Zondi, who has since gone on to scoop the Standard Bank Young Artist Award for Dance, Anthea Moys, who won the Everard Read Brait Award this year, Ismail Farouk and Murray Turpin, Rat Western and Dinkies Sithole. Unfortunately the only traces left from this renowned performance art extravaganza are a series of 10 photographs taken by John Hodgkiss and video footage, which was screened on a PC monitor. Hodgkiss has become a vital witness to performance art and the performative work of artists such as Mary Sibande and Moys, who were both reliant on his photographic eye for the execution of their solo exhibitions this year.

His role in the production of their work and other artists' products and the promotion of their work is often overlooked; he has very much become the silent witness and, at times, collaborator. Naturally he turns in the best results with a more stagnant form of performance, where the dress worn by the artist and or the setting become the active forms of the performance, such as when Sibande posed in costume in a studio setting. His documentation of Rites of Fealty/Rites of Passage feels partial, incomplete. It is clear that the evening comprised dynamic performances; Lace is seen hitting a ping pong ball with a bat that appears to be attached to an intricate web of fishing gut in her piece entitled Deuce. And Moys moves between cycling on a bicycle and running among the audience, drumming up participants.

The photographs and video footage allow one to get a sense of what the performance pieces entailed, but between these two mediums something has been lost: the details and visceral character of the performances are absent. The fact that we have cameras attached to our cellphones and websites such as YouTube providing public platforms of expression have contributed to this heightened desire to document, but what this exhibition makes clear is that nothing can substitute actual experience. It is rewarding to be reminded of this fact: it keeps one aware that blogs, video clips and twitter messages are simply small fragments of the truth and most importantly that some art is so ephemeral that it cannot be owned, (re)packaged and (re)interpreted.