BLOU STEEN/BLUE STONE (2018): REFLECTIONS

It’s just over a week since I dismantled my performance installation in Pretoria , and 4 weeks on from the actual performance of the work informed by my Master’s dissertation. Both were immense tasks of endurance, physically and mentally. The rising of the frosty new stubble on my head marks the passing of this time, these 4 weeks. The entire process, commencing with my insular waxing performance on January 1st, , and including a 10 month, 286 day fast, and culminating in the huge physical task of dismantling my installation on November 2nd, laid waste to me. In part this explains why I have not written about my experiences as yet. I find myself still trying to get to know the creation I have become. The best example, or metaphor?, I can offer to give you an insight into my lived experience is this: in 2012 I performed a shaving ritual (Gaze) removing the hair from my head and body, since then I have grown my hair, rarely even trimming it so that it became this thick, heavy, protective and insulating mass on my head. During the Blou Steen/Blue Stone performance I again shaved my head, planning it, much like the military barbers did, as if it were a piece of wood. In an early evening thunder storm (the High Veld in South Africa is known for these) that followed my performance, the shock of feeling rain on my bare, nude, sensitive head was both truly unsettling and otherworldly. The sensitivity, vulnerability and dislocation I was feeling internally after the performance was exemplified by this physical moment of experiencing the weather in direct contact with the flesh of my newly-exposed scalp.

In performance art the blood is real. My scalp bleeds minutes after the performance.

On the 7 hour drive back to Durban the next morning, I had plenty of time to reflect on the performance experience, and the past months leading up to it. And yet I have still not put it into actual words what it was all actually like. The fact is life and people do not give a damn (about art and sacrifies) and remain demanding. And bills have to be paid, so that Monday I was back in the factory working. As the King (Elvis) said, I was TCB-ing, taking care of business. And before I knew it, 3 weeks had passed and I had to return to Pretoria and the gallery to dismantle my performance installation. This was an endurance performance all on its own. I began at 9 in the morning and only finished at 3:30 in the afternoon. It involved shovelling up 1.3 tons of sea salt, putting it in bags, carrying them some 50 metres and then loading them into a van. After that I still had to load my metal structure and all my relics. When I climbed into that behemoth of a van which I had hired to carry my work back down to Durban my right knee and my back were aching like rotten teeth. A further 7 hours later, after driving through the night, (and being pulled over in a massive police roadblock, a story for another time) I arrived back in Durban, and 4 hours later I was back in the factory working. TCB!

TCB indeed, because as I write this on this Sunday morning I am in the factory, working. TCfreakingB! It’s a little less hectic today being a Sunday so I am taking the opportunity to reflect while it’s still relatively fresh in my memory. I remember that the actual installation process went quite smoothly and within 3 days (Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday) my performance space was ready. By Friday, the day before the opening of the exhibition, even the dying of my hair to the correct colour I wanted (electric blue; after many attempts and using a number of different products) had successfully been concluded. But of course, then along came gallery politics and academic constraints/dictates. Firstly, I was informed that my performance (at an estimated 40 minutes) was way too long. This was a valid point though, people having miniscule attention spans these days as a result of social media and the internet. I was told that I would need to keep it under 20 minutes. This is all very fine and well, but this is like 2 days before a performance I have been planning and working up to for over 3 years. But!  I didn’t panic because I allowed for these worst-case-scenario events, and so I spent the entire Friday coming up with a new soundtrack for my performance and was still ready by Saturday. Or so I believed!

What do they say about the best-laid plans? Or about learning that God has a sense of humour by proclaiming your plans out loud?  For a performance I do my best to control everything I can, and for me, key is being in my space long before the performance so that I can mentally prepare. Some 600+ kilometres from home and being locked out of the gallery until minutes before my performance is not ideal, to say the least! Nor is having to rush in, check the sound, lights and video, and then don my uniform, only to find out that the order of events of the programme have been changed. Spending 30 minutes behind a screen and having to urinate into a box is definitely not conducive to getting one’s mind centred and prepared. But performance art is kind of like jumping from a plane, once you are out there, there is no turning back, and what will happen, will happen; you have very little control or choice. This is the adrenaline-pumping rush and beauty of performance art. The combination of chance and the interaction of artist and audience/viewer result in a totally unique, temporal, ephemeral artwork.

My performance, I felt was almost-frantic, with me, at one stage, hacking at my bleeding head with the razor. As always, I felt exposed and vulnerable, and yet barely aware of the audience (some 40 people).  I was aware of really only my soundtrack and its cadence, dictating when my various rituals should take place and their rhythm. I was also acutely aware of the sea salt crunching firstly beneath my army boots and then later under my bare feet. Its aroma permeated the entire gallery space, enveloping my senses, rising from the luminescent white mounds on the floor. Afterwards, although there was a sense of cathartic resolution, I was, as always, shy, withdrawn and reflective, perhaps even shameful. But, as always, I am forced out, because people want to speak to me, whether it is for me to acknowledge their presence or for them to acknowledge mine I’m never certain. This is a good thing. Men wanted to talk to me about their military experience, one even burst into emotional tears. This is very good and something I strove for! Activism: art as a tool for change!

Blou Steen performance: I’m wearing my Mask of Masculinities headpiece.

So what happened then? Well, after arriving home and TCB-ing I sorted out the documentation of my performance. I am pleased to say that despite all the problems on the day I got some really amazing video and photographs. These I sent to the postgraduate examinations department thereby meeting all my requirements for my Master’s degree. Now it’s all about the work and dissertation being assessed by the university, and me waiting to hear my grade. In the meantime I will be working on editing the video for an exhibition at the Durban Art Gallery. This will include my installation and a new performance informed by the old. The work does not stay static or final, it grows, transforms, spreads… This is good. This is very good!

TSUNDOKU

Tsundoku: the act of leaving a book unread after buying it; typically piling it up together with other such unread books.

This singularly perfect Japanese word wonderfully describes my present condition. This is not to say that I am not reading. No, on the contrary, I am reading (and writing) in vast amounts. But it has been very selective reading, focused in the world of academia, and on the thinking about the idea of art.

I am certain by now that you, dear reader, must know that I am presently busy with my Masters. I know this is because I go on and on about it! You will have to forgive me for that but please understand that this is what my world revolves around at the moment. I am either working in the factory or on my Masters. That’s what I do aside from the odd run. So it is quite literally on my mind all the time, and has been for virtually 3 years now. I am not trying to boast or say that I am so wonderful. My Masters is all I really have to speak about. I am obsessed! It is a tough proposition and takes serious focus, determination and stamina. You need to be seriously obsessed! But then all good artists do obsession well, so I feel that I am in fine company.

In addition, I have, over the past 3 months, been further occupied with something really exciting. I was asked to be a co-curator of a feminist exhibition at the Durban Art Gallery. I was included to operate as the masculine counterpoint within the collaborative; a beast amongst the beauties. This is a huge honour as DAG is the metro gallery for the region I live in and has a history going back as far as 1892 when it was founded. I have exhibited in this hallowed space before but it was quite another thing to curate an entire exhibition in those spaces. It was an amazing experience to be involved with curating on a scale such as this.

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The title of the exhibition was Beauty & Its Beasts and it revolved around the theme of the changing face of female stereotypes in visual arts. It highlighted issues of gender, race and representation through the stereotype. Considering my Masters deals with these exact issues you can understand why I simply could not turn down the opportunity despite my workload. It is safe to say that opportunity knocked and I French-kissed the hell out of it!

Lliane Loots, a lecturer at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, founder of Flatfoot Dance Company and feminist activist, opened the exhibition with a wonderful speech. I managed to get her to forward a copy of it to me and I share a few excerpts with you here:

Her overall impression – I am indeed extremely grateful for the invite as I feel like I have been woken again to something significant. Partly it is the exquisite politics of art making and artists who are unafraid to travel to the heart of darkness, and partly it is the very dedicated collaborative curatorship of an exhibition that left me feeling very emotional as I walked around.

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We are asked to enter the exhibition through a bedroom-like curtain of shiny beads … it is a playful disruption that allows you to catch your breath as the eye moves first to Sibanda and her hounds/bitches, and then to the ghostly  disembodied figures of women’s bodies in portraits and sculpture.

 

 

 

 

Queen Victoria’s portrait (ever present) sits and watches the fury and majesty of Sibanda’s alter ego Sophie as she literally spills her guts, with her hounds (or bitches) at her feet … it is  a brave curatorial pairing but one that makes sense when we begin the dialogue around post-coloniality and the violence of embodied race and gender stereotyping.

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Jane Alexander’s raped “Oh Yes” girl hangs crucified in a dialogue with Fran Saunder’s densely crocheted unravelling cloak hanging from a butcher’s hook – all in recognition of the almost never mentioned plight of the women of Marikana.

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The curators have taken a building and a series of spaces that cannot not reflect its historical coloniality and found ways to ask the viewer to re-position themselves as they engage with, what for me, is an exhibition that resounds with broken bones, broken skin and broken spirits of women. The triumph of course is that some of these women look back and look past you …

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So yes, tsundoku: piles of unread books! All waiting for me to get to them. I love it! So much to look forward to!

The Artist and the Academic and Everything In-between

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I went to a showing of Vincent van Gogh’s work on Saturday as part of the Exhibition on Screen series. As I have mentioned in a previous post, to see these great artworks displayed on an immense movie screen is quite sensational and something I certainly recommend! The showing was quite biopic in nature, highlighting the fact that Vincent was not some lunatic that painted in insane bursts of divine inspiration but was an educated man who grappled with the demands of being and artist, both on a technical and conceptual level. If anything they stressed the fact that painting is an arduous task hence the word artwork! The timing of the showing was quite serendipitous as only the day before I had completed 5 days of lecturing for the university I attend (my Masters) and by whom I am also employed.

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Above: Cynthia, our model for figure studies

Below: a student’s work

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This is a copy of the email I forwarded to my students this morning:

Hi students

To those who attended the past workshop. well done, and thank you for your enthusiastic participation! I am sure you will agree that it was well worth your time. To those who did not I am saddened that you could not. I realize that our lives are very demanding but if art is truly your calling then sacrifices are required. However, unlike very few other things your rewards will be a hundred-fold if you do make those sacrifices, and I know of what I speak, having gone through the same process myself as a past student.

The venue itself was very inspirational (a heritage site in its own right – the old beer hall). We had a live model for three days as study for drawing and painting exercises. We attended the opening of an exhibition at the City Hall in the Durban Art Gallery. We had amazing lectures from Lawrence, Yvette and Cate as well as the amazing Doung Anwar Jahangee, on his personal philosophy of an “architecture without walls” (http://www.dala.org.za/dala_people.html) and practising artist, Themba Shibase (http://www.hy-se-sy-se.com/paint-masculinity-power-and-violence-the-present-exhibition-by-themba-shibase). A truly stimulating, inspirational and intense week of art in every form.

OK, moving on: So your first assignments have been completed and assessed and you are now faced with a whole lot of new challenges due in August. To feel exhausted, overwhelmed and a little emotional at the moment is quite natural, I promise. Take a break, a short one. Catch up on all the things you have neglected while frantically making art: watch back-to-back episodes of Game of Thrones, spend time with family and friends, clean up your home/room/studio. Then get back on the horse! Start your processes again.

Finally, one can feel disheartened after a workshop and see only failure in the feedback received from the marking lecturers. Remember, however, that there are only more successful and less successful artworks not failures. The marking lecturers will have provided a lot of positive criticism and advice, learn from them. The critting process is not only a marking tool but also a teaching tool.

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Above: the Beer Hall Gallery space

Below: my demonstration table

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These workshops are seriously intense experiences and simultaneously seem to last an eternity and yet are over in the blink of an eye! They are almost-overwhelmingly stimulating, stressful and joyful, again all simultaneously!  To add to all of this, xenophobic attacks were taking place not a kilometre from us in the city centre, these arguably sparked by the Zulu king’s comments on foreigners in South Africa. At the height of these attacks in the city of Durban, when 4 people were killed, we were evacuated from the premises and sent home. The attacks were not unexpected and reveal a long-simmering tension between impoverished South Africans and entrepreneurial immigrants trying to make a living at a time when the unemployment rate is 25.5 percent. When I hear this reasoning I want to retch! What pathetic excuses we make for our behaviour; religion, politics, self-defence…any excuse will do. The fact is we are selfish, self-serving, self-involved parasites who consume and are of little value to this planet and this existence.

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Above: satirical commentary by the artist, Zapiro

Humanity, what foul things we are! It is only art that reminds me that we as a species may have some sort of saving grace. I straddle these worlds of the artist (swany), the academic in the form of both lecturer and the student (Andrew Swanepoel) and then as inhabitant of Durban, South Africa (Andy) mired in my humanity.

Shakespeare’s Hamlet voices my disgust:

What a piece of work is a man, how noble in reason, how

infinite in faculties, in form and moving how express and

admirable, in action how like an angel, in apprehension how like

a god! the beauty of the world, the paragon of animals—and yet,

to me, what is this quintessence of dust? Man delights not me—

We are capable of so much, all that Hamlet lists, which makes the horror show that we are that more terrible. Perhaps it is this that Vincent saw in his terrible skies above dark fields of corn and sleeping towns and it was this vision which drove him to utter despair and finally to death, an abdication from the species which destroys such a beautiful world.

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