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?