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!

City of the Seven Islands

 “What the four seasons of the year mean to the European, the one season of the monsoon means to the Indian. It is preceded by desolation; it brings with it hopes of spring; it has the fullness of summer and the fulfillment of autumn all in one.”

Khushwant Singh:  I Shall Not Hear the Nightingale

The rain during the Monsoon Season is something to experience. In her novel, The Cosmopolitans (about the work of art as fundamental to human existence), Anjum Hasan says of them:

“The monsoons were the real thing; they dissolved things to the bone.”

If caught out in the Monsoon, under the weight of those falling Indian heavens you certainly feel as though your flesh is being dissolved. And even if under shelter, you are aware of the deluge wearing away at anything in its path: the roof above you, the walls around you and the floor beneath you. Evidence is all around Mumbai, in its mossy, stained buildings, in its rusting structures, and in its pitted and pocked streets.

Nature and its lush vegetation inexorably wear away the city, rotting and decomposing it. As if in some actual concrete jungle, buildings are worn down, subsiding into the muddy floor whilst alongside others spring up, new and modern. New, that is, until the Monsoons get at them. That rain falls with such a force that it rises again from the jungle city floor in huge blankets of spray and mist. The moisture insinuates itself everywhere. Another Indian author, Anita Desai, in her collection of 3 novellas linked by the passion for art, The Artist of Disappearance, describes it like this:

“Everything in the house turned damp; the blue fur of mildew crept furtively over any object left standing for the briefest length of time: shoes, bags, boxes, it consumed them all. The sheets on the bed were clammy when he got between them at night, and the darkness rang with the strident cacophony of the big tree crickets that had been waiting for this, their season.”

Cocooned in a world of falling water, vision and hearing are indistinct, misty and muffled. Moving through Mumbai is like moving through a half-remembered dream. I visited Mumbai in mid-August  last year on a business trip. The factory where I work had recently purchased a screen-printing machine and the manufacturing company offered a free training course. The catch was that it was in India. To be honest, I was loath to go, and made every excuse not to. As a result of growing up in Durban which has the largest Indian community in the world outside of India, the culture and country held no real interest for me. In fact, my boss had to insist before I finally agreed to go. And man, I am so happy that he did insist!

Arriving at the Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport in Mumbai at about 4am on a Sunday morning I was grim! But moving through what is generally known as Terminal 2, my spirits rapidly began to lift, this despite being herded along by the omnipresent armed soldiers. They are everywhere but in particular in the airport.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The lifting of my spirits was because the T2 is home to India’s largest public art programme, Jaya He. The businessman in me fell away and the artist came to the fore, and suddenly the trip became so much more than I had imagined! India welcomed me with this amazing collection of examples of its artistic heritage. Jaya He takes the form of a 3.2 km multi-storey Art Wall, and is illuminated by skylights, housing over 5000 pieces of artwork and artifacts from every region & corner of India. In the arrivals corridor passengers pass a series of especially commissioned artworks that map the city as a layered narrative, unfolding page by page. The art all works together to welcome travellers, and to infuse them with India: culturally, aesthetically, historically and socially. Visitors are made immediately aware that they are in the heart of the South Asian subcontinent. It is quite incredible, and perfectly housed in the white, honey-combed architecture of the terminal, Its genius loci (the spirit of the place) is unlike anything I have experienced in buildings of this sort. You know what I mean, those type of places specifically designed for shovelling as many people (like cattle) through them as quickly as possible.

 

 

 

After a couple of hours spent clearing immigration (it is an extremely slow process and there were so many people) we walked out into Mumbai and its Monsoon. Mumbai (formerly called Bombay) is on India’s west coast and is the world’s most populous city. In parts of the city there are more than 1 million people per square mile! The densely-populated metropolis (21 million people) is built along the coastline on a series of islands and much of it is a result of multiple land reclamation projects. This is of course a serious problem (depending on the severity of the rain) during the Monsoons. In fact, heavy Monsoon rains brought Mumbai to a halt for days only a week after I left. In just 3 hours Mumbai suburbs recorded 86mm of rain, just 2mm short of what was recorded over the previous 24 hours.  That is immense! More than 1,200 people died across India, Bangladesh and Nepal as a result of the flooding, with a further 40 million affected. I can only imagine what it must have been like because as we drove through the city that day I had never experienced rain like that before. And this is from a boy from sub-tropical coastal Africa where we have our very own versions of extreme rains! I was there for 7 days and in that entire time the rain rarely stopped, and when it did it was never for more than a couple of minutes. In fact, on the day I was to leave the intensity of the rain had increased (I would never have thought it possible) to such an extent that my flight was almost cancelled.

I was located in northern Mumbai, in the industrial suburb of Vasai, near the factory I was receiving training at. As a result I didn’t do the touristy thing: one, because it certainly was not tourist season in India (duh, it was Monsoon season!), and two, my accommodation was in a working class/industrial area. This made all the difference! I generally tried to walk to the factory from my accommodation, timing it between deluges. The locals were fascinated by me and often asked to have their photo taken with me. I was equally interested, but in the buildings instead, ruin porn being a fetish of mine. Ruin porn is part of a recent photographic movement, and refers specifically to the capture of images of urban decay and decline in the post-industrial zones of the world. Ruins photography aestheticizes the abandonment and decline of cities generally.

In environments such as that my vivid imagination takes over and I see ghosts  everywhere. Mumbai is full of ghosts and their stories. Portuguese and British colonizers roam alongside Muslim and Hindu kings, all moving through damp, mossy buildings and streets. Plump, happy stray dogs, pigs and cows scavenge on the verges of those same muddy streets. All edges and harsh architectural lines are softened and blurred by verdant foliage as it works with the rain to break down, consume and reclaim all in its path.

As an animal rights activist and vegetarian, I was particularly pleased to see the respect that the Indians show animals. The stray animals, and there are loads of them, all seem to be very well fed and healthy. Many of the locals are vegetarians too, and therefore the food, and the sheer variety of it, was quite amazing to me. Living in South Africa I have found that the South African Indian food here is way too spicy and generally unpleasantly hot for my tastes. Like runny nose and burning orifices HOT!  In India this was not the case. The food is spicy, make no mistake, but not flamethrower hot! I was really spoiled for choice, a situation I am so not used to living as a vegetarian. Every street has at least a couple of street vendors or a restaurant. A favourite of mine were vada pavs (fried potato and chutney stuffed into a fluffy bun). I also loved the mushroom masala served with cheese naan bread. Man, my mouth is watering just writing about it!

On the last day we had some time to kill before heading to the airport as we were only boarding at 3 in the morning. The bus driver stopped off in South Mumbai to allow us to see some of the sights, notably the Gateway of India. This 26 meter high triumphal arch is an historical monument. It was built in 1924, during the British rule to commemorate the visit of King George V and Queen Mary to Mumbai (then Bombay). Despite its colonial heritage it is embraced by the locals who have taken proud ownership of it. Perhaps something African countries like my own can learn from? The Gateway faces the Arabian Sea and is flanked by Mumbai’s other attraction, Marine Drive, a road running parallel to the sea. Marine Drive is also known as the Queen’s Necklace because, if viewed at night from an elevated point the street lights resemble a string of pearls in a necklace.

To get there you have to cross the Bandra–Worli Sea Link which is a cable-stayed bridge.  It links Bandra in the Western Suburbs of Mumbai with Worli in South Mumbai. The 5.6 kilometres long bridge spans the sea and is an incredible feat of engineering. I cannot believe it has not appeared in any big Hollywood movies. It is certainly up there with the likes of San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge. Crossing it in our colourfully decorated bus, the sea on either side of us and the rain thundering down, I felt like I was in a Bond movie.

I would definitely love to return and spend some time exploring that Chowpatty (Chau-pati) Beach/Marine Drive area in particular. It is seriously spicey Bohemian not affected, posing, Western hipster Bohemian! While waiting for some of my fellow travellers as they purchased sari dresses for their wives in a back alley some way from Marine Drive , I got the opportunity to chat to some local hairdressers. I found the people, the architecture and just the whole vibe extremely appealing. What an art scene one could create there, that is, if one doesn’t already exist!

Back on our bus heading to the airport that night, I reflected on my experiences, and masala sprung to mind! Masala is a good word to describe India – ground spices aimed at heating the body. India is a sensory explosion! Just travelling on the roads is an adventure! Indian drivers live with a hand on their hooters. The continuous hooting is something that takes a while to adjust to and as my room was across from a highway I did not sleep much. But saying that, the Indians are really good drivers and although the sheer volume of traffic is frightening, it flows effeciently. Coming from South Africa where the drivers are terrible (my personal experiences backed up by traffic statistics) it was awe-inspiring to watch those drivers operate. Lots of soldiers and policemen all over the place too, which is understandable because India has a long enmity with its neighbour Pakistan. It is also pretty close to Afghanistan and the whole ISIS threat. Despite this, I never really felt unsafe or threatened. I guess living in Africa kind of immunises you against that. Coming from country that is a bad neighbourhood (very few sissies here) within an entire continent that is a bad neighbourhood will do that to you.

Anyway, so, on the bucket list: return to India! And quite honestly, I would choose to go during the Monsoon season again. There was something impossibly romantic and otherwordly about the country in its gowns of slivery water.

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.