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:

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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 

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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.

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What I Did This Past Holiday

Remember when you were a kid? Remember when you got back to school after the holidays the teacher would get each of you up in front to tell the class what you did? Remember show & tell? I do, I especially remember in class one (grade one) getting up and telling the class that my father had died over the holidays. The teacher was horrified and I was taken to the headmaster’s office and my mother was called in. It is one of the few memories I have of that time of my life. I guess my young mind just blocked it all out to protect itself from the trauma. Anyway, this relates to what I am going through at the moment. In 2015 my mother passed on and I really struggled with it in 2016 and it was doubly tough over this festive season period. I have been plagued with bad dreams, ghostly disturbances (really not joking) and spells of dark melancholy. Her passing has weighed heavily on me.

ad&dadAbove: My brother & I (standing) with my Dad just before he died

So anyway this is what I did over the holidays:

Firstly, I actually got 2 weeks off from work which I have not had in 3 years. I worked over the last 2 Christmas periods so that I could take that time off later in the year to lecture at the university I am doing my Masters at. I really love lecturing so the sacrifice was worth it but I have to admit to being really worn thin by the end of 2016.

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So yeah, 2 weeks!  For Christmas and the days around it I watched all the Harry Potter movies: 2 on Christmas eve , 2 on Christmas day and the rest on the days following. I have to say that it was quite a surreal experience to watch those kids go from 10 to 20 over the span of the movies. How much weirder must it be for the actors?!! All in all though, they seem to have handled fame at such a young age pretty well.

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A lot of child actors really do not, the cast of Diff’rent Strokes being an example. Diff’rent Strokes, an American sitcom, was about two black kids from Harlem who become part of a wealthy white family.  I remember the fact that it appeared on television in Apartheid South Africa at all was a huge thing! I was a kid when it was on and had a crush on Dana Plato who played Kimberly Drummond, the rich guy’s daughter. She was cut from the show in 1984 when she became pregnant because it was felt the teen actress no longer fitted their wholesome image. Her career dwindled after that and she became a drug addict. In 1991, out of sheer desperation, she held up a local video store with a pellet gun.  Grabbing less than $200 from the register, she was arrested by the police only minutes later. She died of an overdose on May 8, 1999, at age 34. How sad is that? The sitcom, which also starred Gary Coleman (cute and cuddly and at the height of the show’s popularity earning 100 000 dollars per episode) and Todd Bridges, launched Plato and her cast-mates into instant stardom. Their newly-found fame resulted in the young stars abusing drugs and alcohol. Addiction plagued all 3 actors’ lives as a result.

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Everybody Loves Raymond is another sad example. In 2015, one of the young stars committed suicide.  Sawyer Sweeten played the role of Geoffrey Barone in the popular sitcom from 1996 to 2005. He starred alongside his twin brother Sullivan as well as his older sister, Madilyn. He was just 16 months old when he started on the show, and quit acting altogether when it ended after 9 seasons.  The 19-year-old Sawyer shot himself while visiting family members in Texas. The autopsy revealed drugs in his system.

everybody-loves-raymond

As you can see, death has been on my mind a lot lately. And, yes, it does happen to all of us. Things do not end well or happily ever after for us. So it is all the more important that what you do with your time makes a difference. Measure your life out in 10 year blocks and you will see how quickly it is over once your childhood is done. Zero to ten and ten to twenty seem to take forever but after that it’s gone in a blink. I look at those young actors who had so much handed to them and how they squandered it and it makes me sad. Granted those are extreme examples but most of us are guilty of this. Use the time, good fortune and talents that you are given wisely!

OK, so that was a bit of a detour, sorry…back to what I did this holiday:

So whilst in this dark place contemplating how quickly life is over, on sheer impulse I decided to get out my little seaside town, choked as it was with holidaymakers, and flee to the mountains to see in 2017. I frantically searched for accommodation over that New Year holiday weekend, not really expecting to find any. But low and behold, I did, and really affordable too.  I was fortunate enough to find a vacancy at a place called Mountain Park Hotel situated in the little farming town of Bulwer.

bulwer

Perhaps once it was a hotel but to me it seemed more like a huge 4-storey farmhouse. Eccentric and creepy as hell I loved it there! Think the Outlook Hotel in the movie The Shining without the nasty and the murder. To be fair though it was summer and the hotel was full of guests. I certainly would not like to be stuck there in winter though, snow on the ground and just me and the ghosties! It was built by a Canadian, McMenigal, from local stone and timber, and was completed in 1942. After the 1st and 2nd floors were completed the original workers refused to work on the 3rd floor and left the area. It was completed by Italian prisoners of war (POWs). Five days before it was due to open though McMenigal died mysteriously. Immediately after his death his house alongside the hotel burned down.

bulwer8bulwer2Creepy, right? Over its history the hotel has stood empty for long periods, passing from owner to owner. Mysterious happenings have been reported and its legend as being haunted has grown.  The eccentric and atmospheric hotel is at the base of the Amahaqwa Mountain which means “the misty one” in Zulu. The building has the feel of an old Tudor homestead, with massive blackwood beams. Ghosts wander through this haunted hotel, specifically on the third floor. In fact, apparently they seldom place guests there because of this. One is definitely that of the original owner, McMenigel, who went bankrupt before he finished building the hotel. Apparently he still roams his beloved hotel today. There’s also little Mathilda, frequently spotted sitting on the large wooden staircase. Her old school desk is at the end of the first floor passage. It apparently used to mysteriously move to different locations in the hotel until it was placed in its current position on the 1st floor. This is where my room was but I didn’t bump into Mathilda, thank goodness, only her desk. The 3rd floor is super-creepy though so I was happy to be on the 1st (or what Americans would call the 2nd) floor. Mathilda has a ghostly companion, her governess, Ruth. Ruth, it is said, fell to her death from the top floor of the hotel. I also steered clear of the sauna/jacuzzi room because it has the feel of a slaughterhouse. Some guests have apparently seen blood on the walls in there. As a result of Mountain Park’s notoriety dozens of mediums and psychics have visited it, including Discovery Channel’s Ghosthunters International.

bulwer4

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Moving on from the creepy, the area is really beautiful and I went for a number of hikes up the  Amahaqwa. There are forests and rolling farmlands, mountains and hills, and even San cave art. I definitely want to return, but in winter this time because it was super hot out there up on the mountain and no place really to shelter from the sun unless you hide out in the nearest forest. Food at the hotel was simple fare (like the rooms) but awesome and plentiful, and very reasonably priced. I had a very decent mac and cheese on one evening and the breakfast omelettes were massive. And importantly, the staff were great!

bulwer7

OK, so 2017 is here, and we are at last rid of vile 2016. Trump straddles the 2 like some great, hairless King Kong as Time’s man of the year, and now the US President. He is so similar to our own morally deficient Zuma it is frightening!

zumatrump

New Year’s resolutions?: I definitely want to submit my Master’s dissertation this year. I have also been accepted into the Thabo Mbeki African Leadership Institute (South Africa’s 2nd democratically president, wedged between the saintly Mandela and corrupt Zuma) where I will be completing a programme on Afrikan Feminism and Gender which is really massively exciting. I guess what I am saying is that 2017 is going to be an extremely busy academic year! I am seriously amped!!

bulwer6

 

 

Loss

It’s been a year since I lost my mother and 4 since I lost my little furry buddy, Champers, and to be honest, the loss still weighs heavy upon me. Time, they say, heals all but heal is probably not the right word. I think it is more that one learns to deal with the loss. You suck it up and carry on because that is what life does, it continues. You get dragged along regardless. What is really bothering me at the moment is the suffering my mother endured, especially in the last years of her life. I am so sad for her. Those final months at her side, watching her die, really haunt me.

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Above: my mom (on far left) with her brother and his wife. 17, I think?

Now you should know that I am a firm believer in the idea that to live is to suffer. God does not want you to be happy, He/She wants you to be strong! Through adversity we grow and become stronger and better for that suffering. That is if we can find meaning in the suffering. Nietzsche said, “he who has a WHY to live can bear almost any HOW”. And I guess in a way this relates to my last post and the “So what?” question. You are alive, so what? Make it count, do something with it that is meaningful. For my mom that was her children, her family and her animals. For me it is about making a difference: animal rights and feminist rights, and of course, making art that makes a difference also. In this way you find meaning in life. Unfortunately our societies have become very much about consumerism and being consumers. Got to have the new iPhone, got to live in the right neighbourhood, go to the right school. Squeeze out more children; spoil them so that they can also become consumers. Buy huge, petrol-guzzling vehicles and tell yourself it is for safety reasons and never mind what we are doing to the environment. Connect on social media and present yourself as a commodity there too, and bitch and whine but do nothing really. For too many people that is their meaning of life and the world as it is today is the result of that. For too many the idea of being a good provider (consumer) is the meaning of life. No! Go do something meaningful! Make a difference!

Below: My Champers.

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So I guess I like Viktor Frankl’s notion of meaningful grief through the contemplation of one’s beloved. Frankl was a survivor of the Nazi concentration camps during the Second World War where his entire family (apart from one sister) including his wife, were killed. This was how he survived he says; contemplation of one’s beloved. Suffering somehow allows for transcendence when it finds meaning. Existence or experience moves beyond the normal or physical level. Think Mandela or Mother Teresa or even Marina Abramovic. Similarly contemplation of your lost loved ones as well as imagined conversation can lift you up to a spiritual level and help you make sense of the loss. Inside you they will endure. I like that thought. In my contemplative state my mother remains that youthful, exuberant, warm nurturer who loved to have a house full of children, her own and the entire neighbourhood’s. In my contemplation Champers dozes, pressed up alongside me as I read, purring contentedly.

Below: Me lighting candles in preparation of my 40RTY (2016) performance.

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