Monday, June 30, 2014

Alien Landing: Performance & Machona

Uri Afronaut (2012)

Art and performance are apparently locked into an abusive relationship. Or so observed Malik Gaines: "art stays for the sex, the good times, the feeling of being alive- but it won't let it stay over and doesn't believe what performance does is valuable". Feeding this twisted dynamic, he proposes that "performance" revels in its marginalised position and the freedom it affords.  In this way performance artists seemingly appear to choose when and on what terms they become part of the art world, which means the gallery/art fair system, while claiming they have no agency with in it. And as with all abusive relationships, performers rely on art institutions, particularly those that do not accommodate it, for constant validation.

In South Africa performance art is undoubtedly the art world's "bitch". There is no dedicated platform; unless you count the Live Art Festival, which has only taken place once. The one at the National Arts Festival is too insignificant in size - and scope - and  the "performance art" label at a festival of live performances renders it as somewhat of a superfluous appendage at this event.

Our public institutions can't even deliver for the art world itself, so they are excluded. The much-awaited Zeitz Mocaa, which will open in Cape Town in a few years' time, will include galleries dedicated to showcasing live performance, but for now performance artists can only really conduct a practice in the public realm, where they are locked into very tired discourses around post-apartheid urbanity or make small incursions into local galleries or at art fairs, where they undoubtedly are relied upon to impart an "aliveness" that counters the dry commercial ambiance. In other words, their role is in supporting something else and compensation for what art at fairs is - and isn't (ephemeral).

At the Cape Town Art Fair in February, Gerald Machona was tasked with breathing some air into the event via a live performance. Ironically, in so doing, he ran short of oxygen, in a literal and metaphorical sense. Trapped inside an old-fashioned astronaut's suit fashioned from a print of decommissioned Zimbabwean and other African currencies, he had to get through his work fast before he ran out of air and collapsed. This resulted in a slightly frenzied performance that appeared to be linked to his frustration with the audience's inability to understand him, though he communicated to them with post-its that he attached to different objects at the fair.

The sense of urgency under which he worked lent the performance its momentum, purpose even. Metaphorically, his performance was stifled by the fact that it took place at the fair in the first place, motivating a fairly straight-forward work about exchange and art values - and alienation - though in popular culture the astronaut isn't a figure immediately thought of as an alien (more of that later).
These themes are a good fit for Machona as a Zimbabwean based in South Africa and a performance artist or maybe artist, making objects for galleries. The latter products are quite self-consciously centred on notions of value vis-a-vis art which neatly ties up with the devalued Zimbabwean currency.
People from faraway places

Machona's work is "neat" in that it all makes sense, though you can't help feeling that to truly undermine circuits of monetary exchange, he wouldn't be showing in a gallery in the first place. Perhaps this is connected to a kind of weird arrogance attached to performance art; with the artists believing they can have their cake and eat it - making a show of rebellion while playing the art game.

Much of the performance work at art fairs exposes its crass commercialism or link to business - I am thinking here of Trade Re-routed (2011) performed by Anthea Moys and Donna Kukama and Murray Kruger's Business Day Part 2 (2012). As performance artists are wont to do, they respond to the context rather than imposing work on it, and because they trade in the immediate, they may be the only players at these events to do so critically. The gallery setting, like the fair prompts a set of predictable responses, though the space appears like a blank canvas. This limit can either be the fuel for work or present a conundrum for performance artists; how do you make work for a gallery without eroding the value of your work? What is your 'work' in a gallery?

Machona's first solo exhibition at the Goodman, Vabvakure (People from far away places) locates his astronaut character as a foreign visitor to the gallery and an alien in South Africa, which he is seen visiting in a videowork. The suit should guarantee the destinations as 'foreign' rather than the astronaut. This doesn't occur because he is visiting places we know and our attention is directed towards him as an anachronistic anomaly rather than him as an individual. Two suits, Ndiri Afronaut (I am an Afronaut), 2012, Uri Afronaut, 2012, are on exhibition, allowing viewers to study this impenetrable external shell, which gives the alien visitor-cum astronaut the upper-hand: he can see us, study us, but we can't see him. Nor do we need to; the astronaut in outer space is a symbol of the human race (or possibly the American race?) so his identity is irrelevant, his nationality is perhaps all that counts. Except here, with a suit made from decommissioned African currencies, he embodies not only an African, but a dated notion of what that might be.

This anachronistic figure announces the death of Pan Africanism. He cuts a sad figure as he replays the efforts to claim his African identity, which has escaped him - the decomissioned notes imply an implosion. Being an astronaut carries no importance in an everyday setting. For example the videowork, People from far away, documents the astronaut figure roaming the streets of South Africa and engaging in pedestrian activities; such as shopping for groceries. The suit makes him feel powerful, it is a symbol of power, though the African currencies it is made of are now worthless.  The suit only ensures that he remains separated from the reality he inhabits. He has become inseparable from his suit because he probably doesn't want to be defined by others. It also marks Machona the artist off in a public space as a performer.

He is performing being the performer, not self-consciously; it is his mode of performance and perhaps an inescapable one, but it is accentuated in the suit. It allows him to resolve his position in this work. It is not about what he does at all, but what he is wearing. His astronaut suit is the loaded item, hence it is displayed as the art object-cum-sculpture.All the objects at this show read as props from a Seventies-style futuristic film - the national flowers in test-tubes and the "portal" that transports Machona to another universe is a red painted door.

It is impossible for  Machona's intergalactic trip can be rendered real via objects - this failure is part of his work's charm, alluding to this faux tableaux that overstates an internal or invisible condition. Visualising anything internal is always going to come off looking slightly cheap and clichéd - a bit like a live poetry reading. What is missing from this show is the "live" element. Perhaps choosing not to perform is an acknowledgement that the white cube can't "accommodate" performance. Maybe the lingering sense of absence the show evokes is linked to the fact that it takes more than some props and a videowork to "fill" a space or work as a substitute for something else.

What is interesting about Machona's work is his rendering of otherness via this old-fashioned astronaut's suit, which nullifies or neutralises the status of the individual inside. It also places him as an explorer rather than the marginalised immigrant or performance artist, whose body is usually the target of the audience's gaze. Perhaps he has found a way to navigate the visitor status to that of occupier, coloniser, though this can't be fully attained - and the terrain, like the supermarket, can't be claimed. Perhaps what is missing is the sense of risk that is usually attached to performance. Machona probably doesn't opt to go there because, unlike his astronaut character, he is trying to acclimatise to the setting rather than exploit it. - first published in The Sunday Independent, June 22, 2014. 

Machona's Vabvakure (People from far away) is showing at The Goodman gallery in Joburg until July 6

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