Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Something with a Pulse: Live Art Fest

‘Is he just going to stand there all night?” asks the little girl standing on a wooden bench in front of Athi-Patra Ruga’s Hope Street studio windows. A large crowd gathered in front of the building before the blinds were raised, revealing not one, but two performers. Which one was Ruga?

 Ruga and Jade Paton’s upper bodies are hidden behind a plethora of balloons holding luminous liquid. Legs concealed in fishnet stockings and ending in pairs of matching red satin high-heels support these bulbous entities, which don’t look too dissimilar from a bunch of grapes. A neon light at the base of the window brings all the neon shades in their costumes, and in the images pinned to the walls in the room, into sharp relief.

It is like a scene from Amsterdam’s red light district, but for the fact that not a single inch of their bodies is on display and they are not stereotypical female personas, but The Future White Women of Azania – an unknown population still in the making. They appear like mannequins, too, though they totter from side to side, like inebriated whores, struggling to remain inert as their heels slide on the neon liquid released from the balloons as they pop.It is a gradual “striptease”, each burst balloon promising to bring us closer to the identities concealed behind the wall of bright plastic.

“This is boring,” declares the opinionated little girl. The balloons aren’t popping fast enough to hold her fickle attention. We’ve learnt to be patient. Performance art isn’t only a test of physical endurance for the performers but for the audience too. We expect to be bored at times. We need to feel trapped in the present in order to grasp its presentness, the weight of it. After all, some define performance art as “life itself, it doesn’t represent or portray”, or so reads a blurb touted by the organisers of the inaugural Venice International Performance Art Week that takes place in December.
Performance art is also finding new platforms in South Africa – mostly due to the efforts of one individual, Jay Pather, who has used his clout to help establish a division for this discipline at the National Arts Festival, a Standard Bank Award for a young artist achieving in this area – Anthea Moys was its inaugural recipient – and is responsible for initiating the Live Art festival in Cape Town.

Unlike many performance art projects in Joburg, this one isn’t about the city itself, or engaging with spaces in it, though performances are staged in a variety of locations, from a university campus to a hippie farm near Tamboerskloof. The Live Art Festival is about exploring, presenting the diversity of performance-based art.
“Live Art” is a term that Pather and his colleagues from UCT’s Gordon Institute of Performing Arts (Gipca) have borrowed from the University of Bristol, where they apparently have a live art development unit, which makes it sound like some kind of scientific experiment. Their definition of “live art” could easily apply to performance art: according to them it is “art work that broadly embraces ephemeral, time-based, visual and performing arts events that include a human presence and broaden, challenge or question traditional views of the arts”.

So why not just call it a performance art festival? Live Art implies an openness to other fields of performance hailing from the worlds of theatre, dance and perhaps even sport, that performance art perhaps doesn’t, or so the thinking must be. The term is also meant to designate a strategy rather than a form, it states in the publicity material, though it is hard to identify among the diverse works at this festival any common strategy informing them other than the delivery of live action.
Umbrella terms attract a different set of problems; a festival curated under such a wide-ranging banner risks incoherency and this fashionable effort to resist staking or claiming any territory stifles a perceivable discourse, or body to map. However, given the infancy of a flourishing performance art scene here and its fragmentation - some artists are aligned to the theatre world, others dance - perhaps there is no cohesive body yet to claim. The broad framing presents a snapshot of the breadth of performance work being generated.The subtitle of this festival – “make up your own mind” – also has a fashionable ring to it; it’s all about the audience’s experience these days. In reality artists are constantly training us to receive their brand of work, generating our expectations then perhaps working at dismantling them.

The residents of the building above Ruga’s studio largely have yet to be inducted into the world of performance art, though one of the country’s rising stars in this field has been toiling on the ground floor. In fact, daily, you could say he is on display, though he doesn’t normally work in a pair of fishnets. On the night of the performance, there is friction outside; a man drags his child away from the window and someone drops a water bomb over a balcony, soaking some in the crowd. Some wonder if the act of sabotage isn’t orchestrated by Ruga; it mirrors his own actions – and performance art offers these surprises, doesn’t it? Eventually, even Ruga loses patience with his own act,  and he starts bursting the balloons at a fast rate, bringing the performance to its anti-climax: there is no reveal, there is no hidden identity behind the balloon façade.

The balloon screen is an extreme embodiment of an artificial mask; full of air, it has no substance, it’s pretty and transparent, though plastic and temporary. Ruga dismantles the mask violently, each pop announcing its inevitable demise. There isn’t anyone behind the mask;   even   Ruga   the   performer checks out when the balloons have all been popped. The strip is what counts, not the identity it threatens to reveal.

Hlengiwe Lushaba Madlala also begins her performance, Highway to Heaven/Paradise Road, concealed behind a thick façade; a wall of tyres, from which she emerges, howling with pain. Sdu Majola soothes her cries, placates her agonised yells with comforting words as he rolls a tyre around the makeshift stage in Hiddingh Hall. She isn’t hiding behind this rubber façade, but instead is trapped within it. Towards the end she frees herself from the circular bind, but not completely; Majola, too, concludes with a tyre around his neck.

A number of performers luxuriate in the liberty of not being confined by dress or some other restrictive construction limiting the body, identity, by performing in the buff. We find Tebogo Munyai doing a headstand with a lit candle in his rear when we enter the theatre to watch Qina ke Qawe. His penis is concealed in white bandages that are in stark contrast to the black paint that covers his body, which appears perfect in every way. He satiates our hungry gaze, revealing every part of himself. Text projected on a screen behind him alludes to coming to terms with corporeal realities, being in touch with how the body responds to encounters as he crumps his lithe frame.

Nudity, revelling in it, is the topic of Mozambican dancing duo, Benjamin Manhica and Mtanyane Abilio’s piece A Nudez. But as with Thabiso Pule and Hector Thami Manekehla’s Penis Politics, they move between being dressed and disrobing.The latter piece is more successful; it’s amusing and cheeky, parodying, deflating male bravado. It concludes with the duo swaying their penises back and forth, in not only a proud display of their manhood but in a satirical send-up of it. The audience laughs.

In contrast, Themba Mbuli’s Dark Cell, performed during a gale-force wind in a courtyard at the Michaelis campus, evokes indignities performed on the black male body during the apartheid era, associating  nudity  with a loss of dignity and control, summoning the counter-argument during The Spear of the Nation imbroglio. By recalling these historical acts through his naked body, however, he reclaims power.

We come to expect nudity; ultimately this is a festival about the body. After British-born Jamie Lewis Hadley’s rationalised act of ordering white tiles on the floor into a neat square before cutting himself with a blade and systematically breaking each tile with his bloodied hand, it perhaps wasn’t surprising that someone asked why he hadn’t performed the act nude. Of course, this performance was engineered to minimise vulnerability and maintain distance by establishing systems (however warped) to channel emotion. Fittingly, he is dressed in an outfit befitting a racing car driver, though his is a quiet act of calculated risk.

Boris Nikitin, the Swiss-born theatre director-cum-curator (hybrid careerists are ideal for this festival), initially steers us towards a comfortable place in the Imitation of Life. The Little Theatre at UCT is a conventional one but it appears as if the process of theatre has been laid bare; the stage looks more like the backstage; ladders, boxes and chairs are stacked and Malte Scholtz and Beatrice Fleischlin, the two performers, are trying to convince us they are not performing at all. They share some of their acting techniques – how to cry on demand – but in sharing intimate details of their lives (such as when they first masturbated) we believe we know their actual identities. It’s a lecture mode of delivery but amusing; the laughter aids us in dropping our guard before Nikitin gradually navigates us into a different sort of performance. It is Scholtz who appears to be most surprised by the transition, when he realises that, in the retelling and acting out of a drunken tale, he has slipped into another reality.

The lights in the theatre start flickering as the house lights go down, signalling our entry into a more conventional and contrived/artificial performance. Fleischlin and Scholtz are in different outfits and wear different expressions; we can perceive how their identities (fictional or real) have been emptied in service of these vacant vessels that sway to the music and perform stylised gestures. There is something menacing about them; they’re like zombies, capable of anything – and nothing.

Traces of the actors’ identities slip through; when Fleischlin cries we know how she has summoned those tears. After a series of false endings, one of which sees these “zombies” collapse face forward on to the ground as if they are puppets, we leave Nikitin’s performance with a sense that we have journeyed back and forth through the complex corridors of performance, where acting, non-acting, fiction and non-fiction run parallel to each other and intersect.

By the time we are sitting in a confined room on the same campus to watch Nikitin’s second work, Woyzeck, we are more prepared for his tricks – his modus operandi. Or so we think. We are tricked into another false ending, which sees Nikitin in discussion with the audience, before our questions and comments are repeated back to us through Scholtz. Our feedback has become the text for the performance.
Nikitin makes clever work that not only prompts some interesting questions around the “live” theme, attaching it to more existential ideas rather than just the semantics around performance terms or non-terms, but also sets a bar for performance. His work is more complex and rounded than any of the others at the festival. It may have something to do with his training in theatre and his relationship to text.  Nevertheless, it sets up expectations that few of the other works are able to match.

Largely, the festival comprises fragments of work, beginnings of performances or ideas that have yet to evolve, may never become complete, resolved works. Some works are crude in delivery and form; Chuma Sopotela rolls on the ground on the Grand Parade opposite the Cape Town City Hall yelling “labour, economy”.
Cumulatively, these performance fragments coalesce into an interesting body and presumably that was the idea behind the tight programme that sees us move excitedly from room to room, site to site, to see the next instalment.

There is no time to process or even discuss performances; they blur into each other eventually and it’s hard to retain all the details. This, ultimately, is the spirit of the “live” act; its full force can be felt only in the present. - published in The Sunday Independent, December 9, 2012. 

Pic above: Athi-Patra Ruga's Future White Women of Azania and below: Malte scholtz in Boris Nikitin's Woyzeck. Pics by Ashley Walters

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