Tuesday, September 23, 2014

It's A-Live thing!

Raphael Christian Etongo's Quartier Sud at the Live Art Fest
pic by Ashley Walters

I’VE BEEN disparaging about Marina Abramovic for years but can’t resist a face-to-face encounter with the Serbian performance artist. I stand in a queue outside the Serpentine gallery in London’s quasi-bucolic Hyde Park for the same reason that days previously I was in a line to peruse a Henri Matisse exhibition, The Cut-outs, at the Tate Modern. All art needs to be seen first-hand, even if in advance you have decided against liking it. That’s the thing about art that continues to give it currency despite our increasing immersion in the virtual worlds; the live, the experiential has more value, if only as content for Instagrams and Facebook updates. This may be why performance art is enjoying a bit of a revival. In South Africa it is only coming into existence as a field of its own with Gipca’s second Live Art festival having recently taken place in Cape Town and Performance Art as a new category at our National Arts Festival.

To be fair, if there is one compulsion that keeps me hanging around in the slow-moving queue outside the Serpentine it is to Instagram something of my encounter with Abramovic. I am queueing to see Abramovic so that I can, with some authority, reject what she does. She has become too famous, too pretentious – and vacuous. Her persona has overwritten her work, as is the case in these sorts of situations.
It brings to mind the video work I saw recently at the Johannesburg Art Gallery of a restaging of Yoko Ono’s famous Cut Piece; it is a different work now because (among other things like her age) of Ono’s status – she isn’t just a woman having her clothes cut off her, she is a celebrity.

My persistence in seeing Abramovic (I have to return a second time to get into the gallery) is proof of this – I want to see her more than I want to see what the work, dubbed 512 Hours, entails – fortunately, or unfortunately, South African performance artists, except perhaps for Steven Cohen, aren’t well-known enough to have to deal with this limit.

Conversely, has the anonymity of these local artists compelled this culture within South African performance where the performer has to look or act outrageously (like Cohen) in order to be acknowledged, overstate their presence for their work to seem important? In many ways it seems as if the significance vis-à-vis performance art in our country is too superficially accrued and relies far too much on antics and playing dress-up than the dynamics of performance itself.

A good example of this at the Live Art Festival would be Raphael Christian Etongo’s Quartier Sud, where he eats a fish’s eye, covers his body in flour and rolls around on the floor. So much of this kind of performance is a result of an overlap between ritualistic practice and art. However, it sometimes feels like a mode casually conceived to enact performance rather than grapple with it, and it is always about the artist’s immersion and not the spectators – it’s as if we are just there to substantiate a performance.

Typically, the experience of Abramovic’s work begins in the queue and prior to actually entering the parts of the gallery where “it”  takes place. On a board outside is a list of do’s and don’ts. You can’t take any bags in with you, or even a coat. Phones and watches are also not allowed. You are allowed to stay as long as you like but once you leave, your re-entry cannot be guaranteed. The anticipation about what I have signed up for, consequently builds.

Not that I am your ordinary visitor. I’m not afraid of crossing the line between observer/participant. In fact, I relish the opportunity to jettison my writer/observer position and have a devilish streak, which compels me to be an unruly spectator. During a recent performance I attended at the Edinburgh Fringe, the Iranian playwright Nassim Soleimanpour set up a situation in White Rabbit, Red Rabbit in which he was insinuating someone in the audience should act. Anticipating that he aimed to burden us with the guilt of failing to do so, knowing that most people in the audience would be too shy to rise to the occasion, I stood up and demanded that they stop the performance. Not surprisingly they didn’t pay heed to my outburst but I was satisfied I called their bluff.
The only proof that I attended Abramovic's 512 Hours

There was no chance of breaking any of the rules, or should we say, terms of engagement that Abramovic had set; once inside the gallery I was ushered into a locker room manned by guards ensuring that all belongings were locked away and that I clamp a set of black headphones on my head. They are more like earmuffs; blocking out sound, so that we can zone out. 512 Hours is centred on a paradoxical state of zoning out to zone in. People sit on the floor of an empty gallery staring aimlessly ahead. Others are standing on a slightly elevated stage in the middle as if they are channelling some kind of spiritual encounter. Will this happen to me; would I allow it to?

It is easy to locate Abramovic; like bees to honey, spectators gravitate towards the room where she is situated. She is in an all black outfit and seated in a chair in front of a window. Her eyes are firmly shut. Surrounding her are people in varying states of zoned-outness; some are lying under blankets on stretchers, others are sitting in chairs facing walls. There is nothing to look at, except other people attempting to zone out. It is like a waiting room inside a psychiatric hospital.

At first it seems absurd that Abramovic’s new work entails, well, nothing. However, this quickly becomes incredibly appealing, particularly after a week spent in Edinburgh at the festivals and days of museum and gallery hopping in London. The idea of entering a gallery to not look at anything is somewhat of a relief. It’s as if I have been unburdened and released from an activity that is not only object-centred but dominates our daily lives and the visual culture that our technologically tuned lives demand. However, I don’t need Abramovic to lead me to this place; I rely on weekly yoga classes to get into this state with the added benefit of working off a few calories. But, in the context of a gallery, this state upturns the patterns visitors are bound to – and artists.

Interestingly, in disrupting this pattern, Abramovic replaces it with another one, which she sets by example, exposing how malleable we are in this space. In each room visitors follow each other and act according to the behaviour of the group. This willingness is bound to the space and the desire to “experience” the work, though such a thing is clearly absent. In other words, spectators will cling on to anything they are offered, no matter how nominal. People queue to wear blindfolds and walk in a room blindfolded. Why?

This context cleverly redirects our attention away from Abramovic; she may be performing in the sense that she appears to have reached the apotheosis of this zoned-out space, but as she does nothing and visitors are encouraged or choose to follow suit, our interest is shifted towards introspection and confronting not only our expectations but how we operate in the world. The gallery is perhaps a microcosm; all spaces are governed by patterns that we buy into and are lost without. This form of heightened introspection also works at erasing her presence from the “work”. This is in contrast to her most famous work, The Artist is Present, another duration work (736 hours), which saw her stare at spectators one at a time. This one seems to be engineered to erase her presence, though she is obviously locked in a state of heightened presence – or so one presumes would be the case after days of sitting in a room with your eyes shut. This work becomes about you, the spectator and your free will. You have the choice to determine what kind of experience you want; you can stay all day and try to get into a deep zoned-out state, or if you have a pressing gallery hopping schedule you can opt to leave once you have “figured out” what it is about. I leave feeling refreshed; it is novel to attend a performance work that is about me. I decide when it begins, if it begins (I’m not sure it ever started) and when I want to end it.

At the second iteration of the Gipca Live Art festival, which I attend in Cape Town weeks later, the programme is set to conform to the conventions of theatre; we are herded like sheep to each work; works have clear starting and ending times and other theatrical conventions are in place. The line between the audience and the performers is palatable even when there are no chairs for us to sit in – such as in Eyes Closed with Piñata by Thalia Laric & Steven van Wyk, where we are free to roam around blindfolded performers on platforms who eventually come to life and destroy the Piñatas dangling in front of them – a predictable outcome.

Apple Girl by Jill Joubert is pure theatre, offering a play within a play with a mythological tale enacted via puppets as a corollary to a narrative about the puppeteer. The costumes, objects and the creepy ambience make it feel like a product from another era, like something you would encounter in a
small town that has been untouched by the world.

It is not as if the conventions of theatre shouldn’t pervade the Live Art Festival, but there should be some reinvention of them, or self-reflexive use of them – in Maria Hassabi’s Premiere at Performa 13 she prolongs the moment when the performers will face the audience on stage.

I’m only able to attend two programmes at the Live Art Festival, however, I sit  through more than six hours of mediocre theatre and dance. It brings the Dance Umbrella’s Stepping Stones programme to mind – a platform where anyone can get on stage and perform and you see one work after the next. It is demanding on audiences. Works such as Category Syndrome by Richard September and even Doors of Gold by Tebogo Munyai feel like they belong at Dance Umbrella, though the former would probably not be accepted on that annual platform that took place at the same time as the Live Art festival. Munyai has an exquisite body and his piece was emotive, but it relies on theatrical tricks; we are seduced into liking it.
As the title of Pather’s Live Art festival implies, it is about presenting live work rather than products that we might label as performance art. However, in that case why not present the best products from all of these disciplines, as few of the participants appear to be working at the intersections?
Sello Pesa in Limelight of Rights at the Live Art Fest
pic by Ashley Walters

Sello Pesa may be part of a small handful of artists doing so, his Limelight of Rights is a slippery product that begins with him and Humphrey Maleka dancing around a coffin at what appears to be a funeral. Members of the audience eventually join in this macabre party, which gradually evolves into what seems to be a sales drive for funeral policies.

We are never sure what context we are in, and this drives our interest and curiosity, but they struggle to maintain it because the work is far too much like a performance; we are waiting for the next thing to happen. The venue, the conventions of this festival, all contribute towards this expectation.

Donna Kukama’s Museum of Non Permanence was expected to disrupt this because while she does rely on some theatrical conventions - a set and lighting - it is to artificially authenticate an experience; audience members enter an office one by one, reveal some of their memories, which are then memorialised through the exchange of bodily things – blood, nails, hair. Each work is only completed when she meets with each participant at a place of their choosing and the memorial is buried. However, Kukama’s work is cancelled at the last minute.

There may well have been other artists that participated at the Live Art Festival who disrupted boundaries and dealt with the dynamics of performance rather than simply creating issue-based work in the manner of theatre and dance, which pivoted on them rather than the line between us and them. Pather struggled to fill the festival programme last year, so it was cancelled. It is easy to see why this was the case, but does it need to be so large? Staging a festival of this nature may be premature, or will it eventually galvanise more interesting work that truly digs into “the live”?

This festival prompts other questions too; such as why South African performers are holding on to theatrical conventions so tightly and such a cliched notion of performance itself. Are our artists still so hung up on their identities and clichéd role in society that they have been unable to look beyond themselves? And importantly, why aren’t our performance artists dealing with performance – it’s like painters never painting about painting?

Like a wild night at a club all I have left to substantiate my experience of Abramovic’s 512 Hours is a stamp on my wrist bearing the date, which I promptly Instagram and Facebook. I want to hold on to something of it, particularly because she offered nothing. However, there are times when a whole lot of nothing can be more rewarding that than a whole lot of something that you have seen before. - published in The Sunday Independent, September 21, 2014.