CONABOR

A caution, dear reader, a warning from the outset that this post is a return to the characteristics of my earlier writings on this site; scenic route verbal meanderings. However, do not despair though, as I do, as always, eventually get to the point. You see, I agree with Mary Oliver’s observation that “attention without feeling is only a report.” You see, there must be an “openness”, an empathy, for me the attention must matter.

Impartiality is something I have struggled with in the academic world. Impartiality is just not me because I am certainly no removed observer. The reality is though, that none of us are. We colour everything we see and experience with…well, ourselves… and who we were and who we are and who we are to become. There must be an openness about how we affect what we report, and I’m not even talking about empathy here. Our points of view are unique and there is no impartiality. We need to admit that.

My art practice is definitely evidence of this, with my body and lived experience always being at the centre of it. Therefore my attention to even an academic field of study is coloured with feeling, not merely a point of view but my feeling! This translates into my writing, which although academia has often frowned upon it, I have pushed the limits of by embracing the personal. My Master’s dissertation is an example of this.

You see, if personal writing is telling one’s story, then academic writing analyses and evaluates that story and comments on it. “I” is at the centre of storytelling while in academic writing, the “I” is observer and commentator. I never could understand why the 2 could not live in harmony in academia. Certainly personal writing contains the writer’s experiences and personal views and feelings. But I believe academics were fooling themselves when they believed in an objective observer and writer. Hell, artists having been saying for years that art is subjective, and feminists supported this, claiming that the actual body is political.

Fortunately, academia is changing and becoming more inclusive and accepting. You see, there is very little point in writing something if nobody is going to read it. Imagine reams and reams of postgrad dissertations yellowing, gathering dust and fishmoths in every academic institution’s archives across the world, most only being read whilst being assessed and then never again.  So there is a movement now to make academic writing more readable and more relatable. So less jargon and less dense convoluted thinking and sentence structures, and more involvement, and, you guessed it…emotion! More relatable! This does not mean that as academics we cease to gather information from other sources in order to support and provide evidence of our personal points of view. We do, but now we are acknowledging the personal.

“Learn a little about the man and I guarantee you will look at his art differently,” I said that, and that is the value of writing critically about art, especially one’s own art. To quote one of my favourite authors on what he has to say about personal writing, Neil Gaiman:

Honesty matters. Vulnerability matters. Being open about who you were at a moment in time when you were in a difficult or an impossible place matters more than anything.

Having a place the story starts and a place it’s going: that’s important.

Telling your story, as honestly as you can, and leaving out the things you don’t need, that’s vital…Because we all have stories. Or perhaps, because we are, as humans, already an assemblage of stories. And the gulf that exists between us as people is that when we look at each other we might see faces, skin color, gender, race, or attitudes, but we don’t see, we can’t see, the stories. And once we hear each other’s stories we realize that the things we see as dividing us are, all too often, illusions, falsehoods: that the walls between us are in truth no thicker than scenery.

I always hope that my writing is evidence of how to write reflexively and with emotion. Certainly my battles with my academic lecturers/mentors/assessors have left me with the self-belief that, for better or worse, I do write mostly with a pen that has been dipped into my innards. This is not to say that I do not adhere to the rigours of academia. I most certainly do, and thrill at the challenge. To be honest, the identifying of a problem and constructing a way to possibly solve it, and then arguing the hypothesis, is something I have become addicted to. In fact, having just completed my Master’s I am already contemplating my doctorate.

In the past, the study of Latin was considered the best suitable foundation and preparation for a life in academia. In fact Latin was once the universal academic language in Europe, and was even taught in middle and upper class schools to those who aimed for the highest level of education. Even today this so-called dead language continues to haunt Western academic traditions like some musty old ghostly schoolmaster. Many of our schools are emblazoned with Latin credos (even out here in Africa). Think of that movie with Robin Williams, Dead Poets Society, and the Latin phrase, carpe diem. Even the working class high school I attended, Queensburgh Boys’ High, incorporated a Latin word, conabor, in its badge. A verb, first-person singular, future active: I shall try; I shall attempt.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Despite it being described as a dead language, Latin didn’t actually die. It changed, evolved, as languages do, in this case into the so-called Romance languages: French, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian and Romanian. So why was it still taught at schools? Well, largely to instil academic rigour. Firstly, learning another language teaches one to understand one’s own language “better”. Having studied Spanish I can certainly attest to this. So learning Latin was important because it taught one to read, write and speak English “better”. Studying Latin forced one to focus on grammar, syntax and parts of speech. These are things we do without any reflection because we have learned to speak English from birth by imitating. Latin, however, is an exercise in concentrated thought. It has a rigid sentence structure and rules which must be applied: nouns are declined, verbs are conjugated, and adjectives must agree with the nouns they modify in gender, number and case.  Therefore for every sentence we must consider whether a word is a subject, a predicate, a direct object, an indirect object or part of a prepositional phrase. In short, we have to learn sentence structure and parts of speech, and have to therefore use the language reflectively, with consideration and forethought, rather than intuitively. Awareness of language and how we construct and express our realities through its structures is at the centre of most modern/postmodern thinking.

Many of Western civilisation’s schools of thought originated in the cultures who spoke Latin. Philosophy, medicine, science and art as we understand them today all sprang from Latin’s users and were expressed through its structures. In this soundbite, screenshot, image-grab, social media-obsessed, contemporary society we live in, many people confuse information with knowledge. In an era where we have such easy access to vast amounts of information our attention spans have drastically shrunk, and therefore our ability to focus for any extended period of time. Knowledge is the casualty. As a lecturer I have been witness to this through my students. Believe me when I say that I do not mean to imply that they are stupid, no! But intelligence is no guarantee of wisdom, or knowledge. I hear of these matriculating high school kids receiving multiple distinctions at year-end and I am very sceptical. I believe that they are learning to regurgitate information rather than gaining any real knowledge, or in fact, instruction on how to think, to analyse, to critique. I have had to deal with what I call the cut&paste generation in my tutorial groups. Both visually (in their making) and in their writing (essays) this lack comes across, and as a result I often I struggle to see the person, the artist. It is all very superficial, surface level stuff. My immediate admonishment is always, “make it personal”! I want to see the artist/author in the making and in the writing. Reflexive, self-aware, authentic creating is what I want to see, and I don’t just talk the talk, I walk the walk because I hold myself up to that standard as well.

And here is my point, dear reader, Latin was exercise for the brain, in the same way that working out with weights exercises your muscles. Similarly I like my art to be rigorous and to provide me with a workout. If it’s not doing that, if it’s not challenging me, if it’s not taking me out of my comfort zone and transforming me as well as others, then it’s likely to be decorative and mundane, and that’s not the type of art I want to be making. Hell, I will be the first to admit that I’m not always successful, that sometimes I crash and burn! But I always try, yes, conabor (I will try), and I make wonderful mistakes, glorious in fact, because I don’t hold back! To quote that most celebrated of Latin aphorisms: Carpe Diem! Seize the freaking day indeed!

This echoes my celebrated buddy, Neil Gaiman’s exhortations:

I hope you’ll make mistakes. If you’re making mistakes, it means you’re out there doing something. And the mistakes in themselves can be useful…And now go, and make interesting mistakes, make amazing mistakes, make glorious and fantastic mistakes. Break rules. Leave the world more interesting for your being here. Make good art.

You see, making any good art, or any real art, is about a conscious ignorance. It’s about knowing that you do not know and the wonderful irony/incongruity of that. And then going out there and, more than just learning from, but growing from, glorious and fantastic mistakes!

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!

Gaze

There are seven weeks to go until the opening of the collaborative exhibition at the ArtSpace Gallery in Durban: 20 November 2012. 49 days until my art piece will be unveiled and along with it myself, exposed…to gazes, scrutiny, judgement, critique. But as an artist this is what you live and die for, and this is a huuuge opportunity to get my work out there, and my name, as well as certainly taking a big step toward my dream of becoming a fulltime artist. Granted the work I am presenting is obviously aimed toward my degree requirements for this year, and as such is very experimental and not the type of thing I would normally choose to do. But it has taken me way out of my comfort zone and will test and try me in ways that I have not been before and this is good. I will also most certainly grow as a person and an artist: the process is as important as the completed artwork. People tend to forget that: the process is as important as the completed artwork!

As I have mentioned in previous posts of mine, as well as listed under my influences, my particular area of study has been feminist performance artists of the 60s and 70s: in particular, Carolee Schneemann, Hannah Wilke, Marina Abramovic, Ana Mendieta and Mary Beth Edelson. The sad fact is that most of you will be asking yourself, “who?” Three years ago I would have been doing the same thing .You know of Picasso, Da Vinci, Van Gogh, even perhaps (I say hopefully), Frida Kahlo, maybe Georgia O’ Keefe? But these warrior-artists, I’m guessing not. Why do I call them warrior-artists?  Well, it is a really complex question because it not only deals with art but also our society and culture (another important concept: art does not exist in a vacuum but reflects, is coloured and is a response to a myriad of stimuli and influences). Western Art, for the last few thousand years, to a large extent, reflects the patriarchal nature of our society: in other words, a male-dominant society, originally driven by Abrahamism (Judaism, Christianity and Islam), which has determined and dictated how we behave, see and think. A fine example of such a reflection is the Neoclassical painter, Frenchman Jacques Louis David (1748-1825). Just to place him in history for you, he was prominent during the French Revolution and Napoleon’s rule. In his paintings David treated his subjects according to their gender. The masculine were depicted as muscular, strong, powerful and hard, rigorously striving. The colours he used were polychromatic, vivid and bright. The feminine, however, were limp, weak, powerless and soft, languid and without will or character. In contrast the colours he used were monochrome, muted and dull.

Two fine examples of this are his works, Oath of the Horatii (1784) and The Lictus Bring to Brutus the Bodies of his Sons (1789), see below.  You will notice, however, that I have disrupted his work, ruptured it, by inserting the image of Carolee Schneemann from her performance art piece, Interior Scroll (1975), into them. In a similar fashion this is what Schneemann and the other feminist performance artists did. The female body, now depicted by a woman became a weapon against the patriarchal constructs of gender, and so is reclaimed for women by them. However, body art by its very nature attempts to draw the spectator into the work rather than distancing them, and so by doing this also asks questions of the viewer, causing ruptures in mindsets and social constructs.  It is the colonizing male gaze that these artists sought to disrupt where the female is depicted as the seducer: an object, to engage with and to perform for the male, who is the seduced, yet detached viewer.

 

Schneemann vs David: Horatii (Swany, 2011)

 

Schneemann vs David: Brutus (Swany: 2011)

To gaze is to look; to look steadily and intently, as with great interest or wonder: my gaze; is white, European, African male. I colonize space with it, an insertion as well as an assertion of my presence, and my reaction and interpretation to encountered and experienced stimuli as a result of this, and then my presentation of these experiences. There is a duality to my reaction and interpretation: one is of a primal nature, the other more cerebral, of the intellect. In one I am a male looking at a naked female, she is a body, an object, and I wish to possess her, while the other is one of awe for this great human. I am filled with great respect and admiration for her, her courage and accomplishments, subject with an identity rather than an object. Logically it is a point-of-view coloured and biased by the “eye”, me.

The issues above are what my artwork will attempt to address, in the form of performance piece, installation and documentation. I will provide more details of the actual piece in a later post, but for now I would like to introduce you to the subjects of my piece:

Carolee Schneemann: embraced her femininity and sexuality.  In a menstrual dream, she dreamt of piercing a man’s leg with the tip of a red umbrella.  For a woman it is quite natural to bleed and in fact, regenerative, while a man can only bleed when subjected to trauma. The dream led her to her work: Fresh Blood – A Dream Morphology. Menstrual dreams have an extra vividity, the power of her insight as result of the body’s increased sensitivity of her menstruating body. She imagined her lover’s penis as a paintbrush stirring her blood as primeria material in a dramatic fluid exchange. Red drench to white ejaculate.

“I made a gift of my body to other women; giving our bodies back to ourselves.”

By December, 1963, Schneemann had already established her body as visual territory with Eye Body: 36 Transformative Actions; by going public with her body she deprivatized it. Interior Scroll reclaimed the female body from the patriarchal eye and its gaze through, ironically, this deprivatisation of herself. At the For Women Here and Now festival she placed a long table under dimmed spotlights in a corner of the hall. Her audience was largely composed of other women artists. Schneeman approached the table carrying in two sheets. She then undressed, wrapped herself in one and spread the other over the table. She told the audience that she would read from, Cezanne, She was a Great Painter. Then, dropping the sheet, she painted large strokes defining the features of her exposed face and body. She climbed onto the table, reading out aloud with the book in one hand, while taking a series of life model poses. Schneemann then dropped the book and stood upright on the table and began extracting a scroll from her vagina. As she did this, inch by inch, she read from it.

 

Hannah Wilke:  was often accused of flaunting her model-looks and body in her body art work, “people give me the bullshit of ‘what would you have done if you weren’t so gorgeous?’ What difference does it make? Everybody dies”. Ironically it was in her death that she answered her critics with her Intra-Venus project which was exhibited post mortem. She documented her struggle with and eventual death from lymphoma cancer. She began her career by utilising vaginal imagery creating sculptural forms, and then in her Starification Object Series in 1974 she used her naked body as a backdrop for these vulvas.  For her medium she used chewing gum saying, “it’s the perfect metaphor for the American woman, chew her up, get what you want out of her and pop in a new piece”. Each of these “vulvas” stuck to her naked body was a scar.

 

Marina Abramovic: “I saw that all cultures pushed the body to the physical extreme in order to make a mental jump, to eliminate the fear of death, the fear of pain and of all the body limitations with which we live.”  Marina Abramovic disintegrates herself and thus her mind is removed from the reality of her body. The body is penetrated or punished to feel or encounter the self, mental absence from the body as a result of pain. In her piece, Lips of Thomas (1975), she ate a kilo of honey, drank a litre of red wine and then broke the wine glass with her hand. She whipped herself, and lay on a cross constructed of blocks of ice with a heater suspended over her. She also cut a large five-pointed star on her belly with a razor blade. These rituals pointedly indicated a marked body, a visible wound and the destruction of her identity and in turn resulted in the elevation of her mind from her body. With pain Abramovic destroyed the image of feminine narcissim as well as the role of women as passive objects.
Ana Mendieta: “I have been carrying on a dialogue between the landscape and the female body based on my own silhouette… I am overwhelmed by the feeling of having been cast from the womb of nature. My art is the way I re-establish the bonds that unite me to the Universe. It is a return to the maternal source.” Mendieta’s early works are primordial rites of blood sacrifice in celebration of Mother Earth, invoking her power, while she is consumed and taken into the womb of the Earth by the Goddess in her Siluetas. She makes herself and her body autonomous by turning herself into a silhouette or earth trace. The masculine colonizing gaze is thwarted by ritualizing as well as removing the actual female body.

Mary Beth Edelson:  has frequently employed a variety of figures such as the femme fatale, the trickster, movie stars, and the mythological goddesses, Baubo and Sheela-na-gig in her work since the early 1970s. This is a moment when feminists sought out sources of power and spirituality that reflected not only an alternative to Western patriarchal religious structures but also spiritual histories in which women held significant positions and power. Diverse as these female types appear, they are connected through humour. As Edelson states: “Humour is a mode of speech that is indirect and ambiguous, and therefore, can have multiple interpretations. It can potentially disrupt dominant meanings and the social order while protecting the joker from consequences that might occur if the same message were delivered in a serious mode. Humour sabotages critics, for unlike spoken language, laughter does not belong to a linguistic code and, therefore, has the possibility of creatively breaking that mold while taking advantage of humour’s natural attraction.”

I am hoping you will be inspired by this post, and go and do some research on these artists, and talk about them. People should know about them, they deserve our acknowledgement and respect, as well as our appreciation of their work as art, these warrior-artists.