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!

The Usefulness of the Cup

For those of you who don’t know it, Bruce Lee was not just THE master of kung fu. He was also a great thinker. An indication of this is of course how he critically analysed classical or traditional martial art forms such as karate and kung fu and deconstructed them to create the belief-system, Jeet Kune Do. I like to think of Jeet Kune Do as a postmodern take on the traditional fighting styles.

BRUCE LEE – Hong Kong-born martial arts expert and film actor

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I remember finding karate really boring and stifling when I practised it as a teen. I lasted about a year and then left the dojo. But in my room and at the local gym,  I would continue to follow Bruce’s heuristic method of martial arts. This is the notion of self-knowledge through self-discovery.  Essentially the idea is to be able adapt to specific situations and opponents/attackers.  There are no katas or set moves, so there are no fixed stances as in classical martial art styles. Lee believed fixed stances and forms were rigid and had no place in martial arts. They are inflexible to change, and do not represent actual fighting situations. In Jeet Kune Do, drills are used that are fluid and alive and always changing. This is why I say that Lee’s thinking about martial arts was postmodern: it presents many solutions to many questions, and is never fixed.

Interception is the leading principal of  Jeet Kune Do. This is reflected in its name which means ‘Way of the Intercepting Fist.’ If you are merely blocking an attack it means you are at a disadvantage.  You are only reacting to the attack, reactive instead of being pro-active. It is better to simultaneously block and strike, or even better, to just hit first. The physical goal of Lee’s art is perpetual development of physical speed, timing, footwork, coordination and power.

 

In order to understand it, Lee advised emptying yourself. He uses an analogy to explain:

A learned man once went to a Zen teacher to inquire about Zen. As the Zen teacher explained, the learned man would frequently interrupt him with remarks like, “Oh, yes, we have that too…” and so on. Finally the Zen teacher stopped talking and began to serve tea to the learned man. He poured the cup full, then kept pouring until the cup overflowed. “Enough!” the learned man once more interrupted. “No more can go into the cup!” “Indeed, I see,” answered the Zen teacher. “If you do not first empty your cup, how can you taste my cup of tea?”

So for Lee the usefulness of the cup is its emptiness. As an artist this is a philosophy I ascribe to: as student, teacher and practitioner.  If you want to learn, first acknowledge you know nothing. Empty your cup. Then learn by allowing yourself to be filled from the source you have come to. After that you can take what you have learnt and make it your own and pass on what you have learnt. I still do this as a Masters student .  As the poet, Keats, once proclaimed:  My Imagination Is a Monastery and I am its Monk.

As a lecturer though, I warn my students not to get so focused on the tasks that the art degree sets them that they forget to experience the sheer joy of their journey: the joy of learning, of making, and of doing this with people who are like-minded. But I mostly remind them of their love of art and how it feels to express themselves visually.  Bruce Lee again illustrates this beautifully using the analogy of a finger pointing to the moon:

Please do not take the finger to be the moon or fix your gaze so intently on the finger as to miss all the beautiful sights of heaven. After all, the usefulness of the finger is in pointing away from itself to the light which illuminates finger and all.

Go to Lee’s official site if you are interested in finding out more:

https://bruceleefoundation.org/2016/05/whatisjeetkunedo/

The reason learning has been on my mind recently is because I have been, over these past 3 months, hectically involved with university matters, both as student and as lecturer. It is quite a surreal experience to be both. You become very aware of the symbiotic relationship involved in the learning process. It is rarely a one way thing.

I recently had to attend a postgrad seminar as a requirement of my Masters degree. As I presented an overview of my dissertation to the university board a part of me reflected on my students’ experiences and what they must feel when facing my fellow lecturers and me.  Faced with the arduous task of attempting to make the connections between my theory and my art-making understandable to a group of professors and doctors, I felt a huge wave of empathy roll over me for my students. I have been in the fortunate position to have been the student, then the lecturer, and now both the student and lecturer. And isn’t that just how life should be?:  to be open to learning, to be willing to pass on knowledge, to share experience. Most important is to acknowledge when you do not know something.  Not knowing is OK. What is not OK is ignorance. Ignorance is you assuming you know more than you do. Prejudices and racism originate in ignorance. Be a better person than that.

swany: Revisited

My final year students are in the process of conceptualizing in order to create a body of work for an exhibition at the end of the year. One of them is dealing with social media and this resulted in me reflecting on my own troubled, ambivalent history with this post-modern form of interaction. I thought I would share with you an excerpt from my own proposal essay to my supervising lecturers and the gallery owners. I have also included some of my (never before seen) experiments for my Proof of Life (2013) exhibition:

touch

In November of 2011, ascribing to Jacques Lacan’s fundamental tenet, “that the self is an Imaginary construct” (Sherman 2006: 19), I created an artist persona for myself whom I named Swany. As a scholar-artist I had encountered Giorgio Vasari’s (1511-1574) Lives of Artists and Roland Barthes’ The Death of the Author during the course of my theory studies. I found the conversation between the two premises when juxtaposed extremely interesting, Vasari centralised the creator while Barthes went as far as to deconstruct him. Catherine Belsey claims that Poststructuralism’s “key term is difference” (Belsey 2002: 12). In other words, meanings develop through the conflict of differences. “The language that poststructuralism advocates is useful to ask uncertain things, and not useful to give a final answer” (Belsey 2002: 107). In very simple terms this means each is illuminated by being compared to the other, their differences quantify them.

I find myself in some sort of middle ground between the two points of view. I believe that both the artist and the viewer/reader share the creative process in the creation of an artwork. It is, in my opinion, a symbiotic relationship, and it is with this collaboration in mind that I created Swany, and the www.swanyart.com site. There I placed all that drives and influences me as an artist, my states of mind and emotions. This is where the viewer/reader can be informed on the artist, to find clues and information which will further develop the creation.  I like to think of this as my own little statement to be added to the Postructuralist discourse, a reaction to the modern (or is it postmodern?) times we find ourselves in. It should be kept in mind that Modernism, expressed at its simplest, is a reaction to modernity; democracy, capitalism, industrialization, science and urbanization. Postmodernism in turn reacts against Modernism, and is anti-modernist, if you will (Barrett 1997:17). Formative of Postmodern thought are “two competing intellectual movements”, Structuralism and Poststructuralism (Barrett 1997:18). What all four disciplines share is this confrontation of the modern world, and their, our, attempts to come to terms with it by quantifying it, or merely reacting to it, or even both.

All of the above reflect my thematic concern for this year, and have informed my choice. My title, Proof of Life, is, in simplest terms, a commentary on contemporary existential angst. My personal watershed moment was when I removed myself from the modern (post?) phenomenon of the social network. I was haunted by this quote from Kurt Vonnegut’s Mother Night:

 “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.”

Essentially I committed suicide. It was a digital one, but a suicide nevertheless. I deleted myself; closed my Facebook account and took back my person, my spirit, my soul that was pinned to that social media wall. There is a certain voyeuristic-exhibitionistic hue to the way we interact in our modern society these days. It twists and maligns our relationships, both with others and ourselves, leaving ghostly, malformed, diseased essences floating in the ether and within our minds. We wail and rail, grasp at and grunt at, in lines of digital code instead of in each others’ faces and each others’ arms. The irony of the ease with which we can get in, and stay in contact with anybody anywhere is that we are no longer close. The same social constructs that we think bring us together, in fact separate us, distance us. We remain to each other, pictures in a book, catchphrases and captions…empty and shallow. I wrote this poem as a way of explaining my disappearance from Facebook, which I posted on www.swanyart.com 

zumavszuma

 

Suicide

 

 

 

                                 Today I committed

 

                                  Suicide,

 

                                  I’m no great loss.

 

 

 

                                  I left no

 

                                  Body,

 

                                  No corpse to rot.

 

 

 

                                  Veins, blue veins

 

                                   Opened,

 

                                  No bloody crimson shower.

 

 

 

                                  Throat, scarred  neck

 

                                   Snapped,

 

                                   No black tongue protruding.

 

 

 

                                   No splat of meat, no shotgun blast.

 

                                   No palour, no final medicated slumber.

 

 

 

                                   Not icky thump,

 

                                   Not pumpkin squish.

 

 

    None

 

 

 

                                    Today I committed

 

                                     Suicide,

 

                                     I won’t be missed.

 

 

 

                                    I took back

 

                                    Self,

 

                                    Pinned to social wall.

 

 

 

                                    No more comments,

 

                                     Likes,

 

                                    And status to update.

 

 

 

                                    No list of friends’ recent stories.

 

                                    No ghostly acquaintances on glowing screen.

 

 

 

                                    Not share.

 

                                    Not comment.

 

None

 

 

 

                                    I trust you see,

 

                                     Suicide,

 

                                     Digital that it was.

 

 

 

                                     I only

 

                                     hope

 

wish

 

                                     It is

 

                                     Enough

 

                                     .            

 

                         swany      2013/01/25

4 AUGUST MOVE2

 

 

 In my opinion, Facebook and other similar social network interfaces such as Instagram, certainly reflect our desperate need to quantify and define ourselves, as well as to reach out to others. I think these words of Calvin, addressing his toy tiger, Hobbes, encapsulate the essence of what I am trying to say, “I wish I had more friends, but people are such jerks. If you can just get most people to ignore you and leave you alone you’re doing good. If you can find even one person you really like, you’re lucky…and if that person can also stand you, you’re really lucky” (Watterson 1991: 16). However, and I return to where I began this essay, the cruel irony of our existence is that in order to quantify/define and position ourselves we need other people, even if only to compare and contrast ourselves with them.

move