I’M NOT going to forget this scene. It’s raining and Donna Kukama is on the ground digging a hole with a pair of scissors. The hole or quasi-grave will be the final resting place for a vial of Kukama’s blood that I have titled Escape – it’s a personal monument of sorts that represents a landmark journey I made to London in 2011 and the outcome of Kukama’s work The Museum of Non-Permanence, which she debuted at this year’s National Arts Festival as part of her Standard Bank Young Artist Award.
For egotistical and artistic reasons I like the fact that her “big moment” on this annual arts platform will forever be tied to this invisible monument to my own history. This audience-centred work of hers is in such stark contrast to the majority of work at the festival, which seems to entail sitting in the dark and appreciating the artistic personas who step into the light, so to speak. But there is still the expectation for her to “perform” her role, I discover.
I have chosen for my mini-monument to be placed under a tree near the entrance to Settlers Monument, a monument to colonial and apartheid eras and now to severe ’70s architecture and the locus for cultural expression, given its centrality to this festival.
In response to a town populated by monuments Kukama set out to establish invisible ones that escape notice, she explains to me, while her efforts at digging seem to have not got anywhere. A spade would have helped. She isn’t quite prepared in more ways than one. In her handbag she has all the paraphernalia for this burial – there is an array of fabrics and candles from which I can choose, which suggests she has thought through these rituals. Yet she appears unprepared for the psychic weight it might have for her participants. Like a funeral director, this personalised service of hers feels strangely impersonal.
I am her first appointment for the day, yet she seems to be going through the motions. As a result I don’t believe that she believes in what she is doing, that is beyond its function as an appropriate performance artwork. Can she?
If it is to have some kind of “significance” as an “artwork” and experience, doesn’t there have to be some authenticity to this process? At what point does memorialising become too contrived to be real?
Authenticity is a slippery and perhaps unachievable element that haunts performance art. It is something Kukama attempts at every turn to establish, as if to shore-up her motives and perhaps even convince herself that what she is doing has “real” significance. Whatever that might mean in an art or life context, the two become blurred in this work.
This effort at establishing authenticity is prominently communicated via the architectural persona of her “office”, a makeshift structure inside Settlers where I had met her the previous day.
The wait to see Kukama was not too dissimilar to being trapped in a queue at a government institution. The parallel was further confirmed once you were inside, and you faced Kukama through a glass window. This all worked at setting her up as part of an authority that not only could determine the terms of our relationship but could sanction this act of memorialising our histories. Despite its artifice, it also contributed to this notion that what we were doing would be authentic. She did, after all, fill out papers and you left with certificates that confirmed the status of the bodily objects that became activated as monuments through these bureaucratic and ritualistic processes. Perhaps it is not about her buying into it, but us, her subjects-cum-participants. Maybe, of the twenty-something people who passed through her “office”, there were some who wouldn’t play.
On the day I waited, most of the people in the queue were connected to the art world – artists, curators, writers (the long wait meant you got to know everyone) – and out of curiosity and interest we played along to discover the full extent of this game.
Kukama was ever the government official in her cubicle. Her tone was matter-of-fact and she seemed slightly bored by the process (probably from repeating it over and over), though she had set it up. Having already heard that Kukama would draw her blood, I was waiting for that moment, so I was surprised to find I had to part with something corporeal – I opt for toenail clippings. The clippings, which would commemorate my first memory, would become part of a travelling museum and her blood would honour a more recent one. We hadn’t quite exchanged bodily fluid, but it felt close enough. The process, the forms, the rituals, all worked at transforming our bodies into objects that would be vessels for our history – and her art.
In regulating this exchange, rendering it impersonal, this quasi bureaucratic encounter was in contradiction to this corporeal relationship. It was perhaps only the absence of light – Kukama conducted this process in darkness, relying on torchlight – that lent itself towards this kind of bodily exchange and fostering a strange kind of intimacy and mystery.
Ironically, to be part of this work I can’t really buy into it – it is only by suspending disbelief that I could remain a participant – ordinarily I wouldn’t give my toenail clippings to a stranger. I don’t tell her about my first real memory or even the most recent landmark memory, which I have named Escape. It comes from not believing and not being able to really give anything of myself other than toenails in this context. I don’t feel as if I have ‘cheated’ as the bureaucratic aspect to the process implies that my heart (and Kukama’s) needn’t be in it. So the process of making the gesture real is maybe what undermines it.
Despite this disconnect, I know that on my next trip to Grahamstown to attend the National Arts Festival I will visit that spot under the tree. I may even have to dig up the blood, just to be sure it all really happened. That’s the thing about invisible monuments, they are a peculiar oxymoron. - published in The Sunday Independent, July 20, 2014.