Thursday, November 29, 2012

Rebel without a Cause: Christian Nerf

When you send Christian Nerf an e-mail these days you get an immediate response, informing you that he is “itinerant”. In other words; don’t expect a speedy response. Nerf makes a good nomad. To all intents and purposes he has been living “off the grid”, as the expression goes, for some time. That catchphrase is often used to describe militant eco-conscious folk who refuse to buy into any established systems they perceive as damaging, to live independently off conventional systems, but it seems appropriate for Nerf’s lifestyle and approach. Periodically, he is content to live without a home. Doesn’t sell his time to anyone. Well, almost – his cigarette addiction might be one of the few reasons he exchanges money. And he is a reluctant artist.
“I am pleased there is a category called art that allows for people like me to exist and function,” he observes coolly.

His “off the grid” – or could it be “between grids”? – approach makes him a bit of an anarchist and, also, ironically, an artist: the good ones are always fighting against the narrow confines of what the label designates. Almost in honour of this contradiction, he is wearing an apron covered in paint when I find him inside Room, a slip of a gallery at 70 Juta in Braamfontein run by Maria Fidel Regueros.

The apron isn’t his. I gather he hasn’t painted in some time. When he dropped out of Wits Technikon art school in the late Eighties – surely the beginning of his “off the grid” stance – to pursue painting, it took him two months to discover that, despite his proficiency, he had nothing to paint.
“I needed life experience.”

A career in advertising taught him about the life he didn’t want to lead. Art school taught him that what he deemed art might not be what everyone else did. This realisation might have initially turned him away from art, propelling him into the world of advertising, but it has similarly brought him back into the fold – he likes to rub up against expectations.

The paint-splattered artist’s apron is part of a scheme to appear as a conventional artist in the makeshift studio he has established inside Room. The gallery has become the studio, collapsing process and product and avoiding this sense he has that art is “emasculated” when it moves from the studio to the gallery. In a way his Room installation, called Et Al, Et Cetera, is also a performance piece, a bit of theatre, reality theatre.

Nerf is playing an artist who resists being an artist, though this is his genuine stance. The artist uniform might be contrived but the studio he has constructed is real; all the bits and pieces – the maquettes of some of his grand schemes for public sculptures – I have seen in his Cape Town studio are here. This is the thing about his practice; as contrived – and slightly absurd – as some of his acts appear, they are all derived from a genuine place.

Take his recent work, dubbed Nog ’n Piep, in which he “collaborated” with three of his deceased friends – Sebastian Charilaou, Crispian Plunkett and Ricardo de Carvalho – during a residency at the Sober & Lonely Institute for Contemporary Art in Joburg. The premise for the work was farcical, but it was grounded in a very real interest.
“We all have to start dealing with death. I don’t subscribe to the belief that there is life after death, so it was an opportunity for myself to explore their [my dead friends] continued existence, and how it is caused by our memories. I was trying to find out what were the key things that made them make me what I am.
“It wasn’t easy even to gather the thoughts around doing this, it is something I have been avoiding. I want to re-understand what it is like to work with others. It was interesting to open myself up to that and be in their presence for a whole week.”

There was an elegiac undertone to some of the acts, which were a repetition of ones he had performed with other people before – such as drawing with Jared Ginsburg – but was now forced to perform solo. In this way he reflected on what it was like to carry on “collaborating” with someone who was no longer present, as well as the nature of collaboration – does it demand a physical presence?

While the prospect of setting out to work with people who were dead seemed preposterous, flippant and humorous, it carried a certain gravitas. Nerf sums this up as “doing stupid things with a straight face”. What also particularly appealed to him about this project was the futility of it. “I like to pursue things that are pointless.”

This ties in with his “off-the-grid” ethos, though he would never declare it as such; he doesn’t follow a single guiding philosophy. Superficially, at least, his performance work evinces an interest in disrupting the spectator’s programmed responses. This aspect is most likely an inverted application of the skills he developed in advertising; a form of manipulation directed at deprogramming the audience, destabilising expectations and waking them up from a kind of stupor – he is frustrated by the sheep mentality that pervades society. In fact, he takes delight in pushing his audience to the point where they walk out of his performances, challenging the limits of civility.

Nerf’s Believe you Me (also titled If Only Art Was A Four Letter Word) will premiere at Gipca’s (Gordon Institute of Performing Arts) inaugural Live Art Festival, which seems the ideal setting for his work, his resistance to fitting neatly into any box. Conceived by Jay Pather, the festival is pioneering a platform for performance that resists classification; theatre that is not quite theatre, art that shares links with dance.

Nerf’s piece is geared to shift audience expectations. “I want to talk about issues of truth, disinformation and information and how prejudice leads us to believe what we are going to get. I really want to set up scenarios to trust the audience and then shake-up a few things that they thought about art.

“And if some of them have seen what I have being doing all these years and have faith in me, I want to break that down. And for people that think I am an absurdist just because I don’t use the logic of the day, I will use systems that exist. Once there has been some confusion and laughter things will start happening,” he says with a grin.

Nerf has premeditated the performance to a certain degree, but likes to leave it largely unplanned.
“I don’t want to take a pre-organised experiment and coldly deliver it to other people, what are you getting out of it? I want to be part of the people that learn something.”

For this reason Nerf is hoping that what he hasn’t planned,
doesn’t go according to plan.
“I like the idea of having to watch the footage afterwards to see what the fuck was going on.”

Gipca’s Live Art Festival runs from November 30 to December 4 in Cape Town. Nerf’s Believe You Me will be staged in the Cape Town City Hall on December 2. Athi Patra Ruga, Boris Nitikin, Michael McGarry, Richard Antrobus, Nelisiwe Xaba and Murray Kruger are some of the artists performing during this extensive festival. Image above is of Nerf with frequent collaborator Rubens de Carvalho. Picture: Lisa Mackay

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