Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Enjoy the Ride: Making Way

Athi-Patra Ruga heading towards Grahamstown in Performa Obscura
When we arrive at the Drill Hall, they’re already in their fishnet stockings and costumes, bending and stretching, as if readying themselves for something more taxing than a walk in heels through the city’s streets.
They have yet to wrap a string of balloons around their upper bodies and appear relaxed and at ease as onlookers, mostly children, observe their warm-up. Athi-Patra Ruga intended the preparations for his public procession to be transparent; his Facebook invitation encouraged an audience to observe this stage.
The journey will conclude at The Standard Bank art gallery on Frederick Street as part of the Making Way: Contemporary Art from SA and China exhibition. It’s tantamount to being privy to a rehearsal before watching a play, so it feels as if we are witnessing something we shouldn’t. This pre-performance ritual draws attention to the contrived nature of the performance and changes my relationship to it.
 The balloon character that Ruga and his performers will become is now referred to as the “White Woman of Azania”. Its origin can be traced back to a nameless balloon character that Ruga initially conceived for an exhibition in The Netherlands in 2010, before showing it at X-Homes in Joburg that year.
The White Woman of Azania has grown in physical and conceptual dimensions. This Joburg performance boasts five “Azanians” and generates quite a different impact than the previous White Women of Azania installation/performance in Cape Town during Gipca’s Live Art Festival.

Like Ruga, I’ve become transfixed with this mutable character; each performance inspires new readings. It’s like chasing air in a way, which seems fitting given the costume consists of balloons. At the X-Homes performance, in a dark basement in Hillbrow, the character appeared to embody otherness. The Live Art performance/installation evoked a scene from Amsterdam’s red light district; as Ruga and Jade Paton tottered on heels in front of the window inside Ruga’s Cape Town studio. They were like guarded women whose identities had become over-determined by their contrived, temporary appearances. The performance was a drawn-out striptease that offered no pay-off: there was nothing to see behind the balloon façade when it was “popped”.

So perhaps it makes sense to start the next instalment seeing the performers unmasked, thus removing any expectation. Yet I can’t help feeling that something’s been lost; the mystery that props up the masquerade.
The multiple readings that this slippery White Woman of Azania character presents are dependent on the setting. In the context of Making Way: Contemporary Art from South Africa and China, curated by Ruth Simbao, the “journey” aspect to it is a predominant feature. The exhibition doesn’t simply present art from South Africa and China but, in an effort to create a link between the two, Simbao highlights a discourse around migration.

Some of the local works articulating that theme are expected; Dan Halter’s Space Invaders (2009), a video work showing china bags configured then reconfigured into the motif associated with that video game is  transplanted at a busy taxi rank and James Webb’s There’s no place like Home (Johannesburg) (2006), photographs of Joubert Park during an installation where the calls of non-migratory Nigerian birds were broadcast from concealed speakers.

This motif is expanded via a Zimbabwe-African xenophobia sub-theme that is teased out through Gerald Machona’s Chewa Nyau (2005) and Dotun Makun’s portraits of Nigerian professionals working in South Africa. They are pictured  against backgrounds of cheap china bags – this ubiquitous motif of African migration forms the most obvious link to China – this is the problem with setting out to show art from two different countries; you’re forced to identify links. Not that they are artificially conceived here; artists in South Africa have been delving into China’s influence in Africa.

Maelonn’s Amber series
Michael MacGarry, for example, has been exploring a form of complicit neocolonialism for some time. The works by Chinese artists in this show don’t “respond” to this narrative thread; rather, Simbao has selected works that mirror themes of migration and identity, notions around leadership, African and Chinese as articulated via Kudzanai Chiurai’s Black President (2009) and The Minister of Enterprise (2009) and Maelonn’s Amber series featuring young men mimicking/mocking the Chairman Mao posters displayed in a studio.
The addition of the latter art works into the mix overcomplicate this exhibition, which seems torn in too many directions. Simbao simply took too many detours in the journey of curating this show. The exhibition itself has been on a journey of sorts and has evolved since it opened at last year’s National Arts Festival in Grahamstown and now includes documents pertaining to the live performances attached to that iteration.

Ruga also embarked on a journey during that version, travelling from a nearby township in a precarious pair of heels before hugging a colonial monument in the centre of town, leaving a coloured residue from the burst balloons. The phrase “Purge your elders”, which was scrawled in neon paint inside the installation in Cape Town and appears frequently in Ruga’s Facebook posts associated with the work, could have been a fitting line to describe that act.

Doung Angwar Jahangeer's performance
entitled The Other Side with the Matabese Family
Doung Angwar Jahangeer’s performance, The Other Side with the Matabese Family, echoes Ruga’s finale, though it’s a less theatrical endeavour. Jahangeer’s site-specific work sees him covering the uncovered body parts of another colonial-era sculpture in Grahamstown with coloured paint – or earth in this instance, as per a Zulu initiation ritual. It’s dry documentary footage with Jahangeer explaining what he is doing. Footage of performances by Randolph Hartzenberg are also included in this Joburg show. Hartzenberg works with obvious symbols and symbolic acts; nailing a pair of trainers to a table, dragging a chair along a street and relocating this “office” to the middle of nowhere.

In this way, much of the performance work attached to this exhibition is absent and the viewers’ only access to it is via videos and photographs, engendering a distance from the live act. Texts around the gallery display quotes from Amelia Jones, which suggest that no live act can be fully experienced and thus the past cannot be fully known. These are supposed to justify this divide. It brings to mind Peggy Phelan’s assertion that performance defines itself through its disappearance. Nevertheless, as Phelan stated, the residue of performance (the documentation) is not a performance per se but a product of a different kind.

This idea is pertinent to this show, which among its many objectives also tries to address the nature of performance art, though inevitably, because of the limitations of a gallery exhibition, it can only ever display the remnants of it. In this way this objective can only fail. Simbao is cognisant of this, hence the Jones quotes on the walls, but perhaps she is too eager to embrace this inbuilt flaw. On the opening night, no official arrangements were in place to facilitate an art-going audience to witness Ruga’s procession – as one of my companions rightly pointed out there should have been a live feed to the gallery relaying his progression through the city. There is a sense that Simbao believes performance art achieves its objective only as an intangible practice without a designated audience, treating them as a superfluous entity.

Of course, at sunset Joburg’s inner city wasn’t short of viewers. As the troupe left the Drill Hall and gingerly stepped along the uneven pavements, they attracted heaps of excited onlookers, capturing the spectacle with their cellphone cameras. At first the mood is jubilant, with the schoolchildren from the Drill Hall in tow, and people smiling and laughing at the parade. There is a sort of carnival feel in the air, which seemed to conceal the darker motives underpinning this futuristic collective.

The name evokes a future generation rising from our current socio-political context; the marginalised and persecuted rising to claim their rightful place, putting their otherness on display in an effort to celebrate it, though, of course, this artificial balloon shell embodies superficial difference – it can be burst in an instant.
The ballooned troupe make for a striking scene, striding through the throng of commuters along Nugget Street. There is a touch of glamour and beauty to the picture, which proves seductive and intriguing. Passers-by are curious about the identity of the performers. In stilettos and fishnets they appear female – only one of them is.

Some men try to see what is underneath the balloons. The gender of the performers soon becomes the focus, particularly when one of the performers, unaccustomed to walking in high heels, straggles behind, “appearing like a defenceless impala caught by a lion”, observes a friend. His inability to walk in heels makes it clear he isn’t a woman and the more he struggles, the more attention is directed towards the fact that he is a man in drag. No one displays obvious intolerance, but there are mocking undertones to laughter and smiles.

Ruga and Co may be in bright costumes that make them stand out but the performance is non-confrontational. This is partly achieved by concealing their upper bodies, their identity. Because they cannot see their audience and vice versa, passers-by feel free to gaze endlessly, as if the subjects are not there. And in a way they aren’t.

As constant (and white) spectators, we unwittingly become part of the spectacle too, and questions about the nature of the performance are suitably directed to Murray Kruger, a performance artist. All these undertones, like the physical struggle of the journey itself, are lost on the audience waiting for Ruga inside the Standard Bank Gallery. Conversely,  the finale will not be witnessed by the audience on the street, some have joined the procession, though they drop out blocks before the gallery.

It’s been a long journey across the city, a painful one for those unaccustomed to wearing heels. The gallery feels like a foreign context; the audience here have set expectations and Ruga and Co shift the register of the performance. Someone announces that “the entertainment has arrived” before Ruga and his ballooned performers invade the gallery, charging around it like trapped animals. It’s a frenzied performance that bears little relation to the mood during the walk. Here they are expected to “perform” and deliver “the entertainment” factor. It’s a cringe-inducing understanding of performance art. It feels like a farce as they burst their balloons in quick succession, streaking the floor with coloured powder. Some viewers are thrilled by the anarchic thrust, others are confused. Someone thinks the man who looks like a “wounded impala” is disabled and congratulate Ruga for embracing someone with disabilities.

This gallery conclusion doesn’t seem like a fitting end, particularly knowing Ruga’s disinterest in performing in a gallery space. The journey to the gallery is a performance of a journey. The trip doesn’t enhance the final performance.

It is the filmic works of performances that satisfy at this exhibition. That is, performance artists who take advantage of film – the main recording tool for this discipline – to make work such as Brent Meistre and Cha Qiuln, one of the Chinese artists.

A still from Chen Qiulin’s The Garden
Qiuln really exploits film; harnessing its function as a tool of documentation and the time loop that is specific to video work that goes on display. In Garden (2007) she appears to document the journey of two men travelling through a city with bouquets of flowers in vases. These colourful artificial flowers bring to mind Ruga’s colourful balloons, which also stood out against the grey inner city landscape.

Their destination appears to be a suite in a high-rise building where the men, holding the flowers, function as accessories in a ritual – it may be a scene from a famous opera – engineered for the pleasure of an affluent couple. But as the film doesn’t have a definitive conclusion, and it loops back to the beginning, they seem caught in this endless journey to arrive at this venue and fulfill a function. You begin to believe their purpose is simply to appear in public clutching the large vases – that this is the performance rather than the artificial one in the apartment. This brings into focus the futility of the physical journey – it has no end, and no substance in and of itself, though it can leave a trace, such as the worn paths through a grassy landscape captured in Jahangeer’s Indela (Path). Moving from one destination and another doesn’t necessarily mean progress has occurred.  The journey between Drill Hall and the Standard Bank Gallery draws attention to the chasm between the population on the streets and in the gallery.  This isn’t unexpected. Nevertheless, this isn’t the journey I’m interested in; I’m into longer adventures; tracking the subtle and not so subtle shifts in Ruga’s White Women of Azania. - published in The Sunday Independent, February 17, 2013.

Making Way shows at The Standard Bank Gallery in Joburg until March 28

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