THE LONG BLACK ROAD

OK, so I often talk about taking the less travelled road and also the scenic route in my posts. And for better or worse my life as I have lived it and where I find myself is as a result of this inclination to follow these paths. By most accounts I am a huge failure, having not amounted to what most people would consider much. I have no wealth and have received no accolades of any sort. I’m not the CEO of a corporation, I do not own my own business nor do I have a career. I work to pay bills, that’s about it and I hold no illusions about it. I have few friends, no family of my own, that is no wife nor have I ever had one, that is to say, no shared future with anyone. I believe this is because of my less travelled choices. I have lived a life that would be considered “not the norm” by most. And yet I have lived a life!

In one of my favourite movies of all time (definitely on my list of awesomeness), Blade Runner, the replicant Roy Batty played by Rutger Hauer, delivers the iconic tears in rain monologue. The dying Batty delivers the speech to Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford), moments after Batty has saved his life. This is despite Deckard having being sent to terminate him. Enveloped and shrouded in heavy rain, Batty reflects on his life experiences as Deckard witnesses his passing:

I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain. Time to die.

I often imagine myself delivering those lines when I consider my own life; I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe despite living an almost isolated life. Perhaps that’s why I commit myself so utterly and obsessively to my art. Perhaps it is because I fear that all my moments down those less travelled paths will be lost, like tears in the rain.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And in a scenic route moment, here is something to wrap your mind around! The movie, made in 1982, was set in 2019! How freaky is that?!!! And now 2019 is almost upon us and I’m still in this factory TCB-ing (taking care of business, paying the bills). Wow, I remember seeing that movie as a teenager and thinking how far away that was…the future! 2019!

Anyway, 2018 has been on hell of a year! And I’m not saying that fondly! I welcomed it in with a ritual performance in a deserted factory space, tearing hair from my face with hot wax. Followed that by commencing an almost 10 month fast, which culminated in another ritual, but this time taking place in a gallery space before an audience. Between and around these 2 performances, January 1st and October 13th…tears in the rain.  I will give you an example of what I mean. On November 2nd at about 3.30 pm I headed back to Durban from Pretoria in a hired panel van loaded with 1.5 tons of salt and my performance installation. I know that have mentioned this in a previous post. What I have not mentioned is how unseasonably cold it was or how filled the roads were with large cargo trucks. The first a result of global warming, and the second a result of this country’s failing parastatals (in this case the railways) pillaged by the ruling political party, the ANC, and their cronies. And of course our rampant consumerism.

The sun was sinking as I left the environs of the Johannesburg metropole and its surrounding towns, and headed into the darkening vast farmlands one has to travel through to get to Durban. Stretching ahead of me as far as I could see, necklaces of taillights and trailerlights snaked and wound their way into the night. Despite my exhausted and aching body I was filled with a sense of well-being. I remembering thinking that in order to observe the beauty of the stars and the moon we need the dark and similarly it is the dark times that bring out the true wonders of life. Around me the music flowed and reverberated through the cavernous interior of the huge vehicle I was traveling in, my senses enveloped with the spices released by the crystal salt. Playing was a good old 80s band, the great Simple Minds. Made famous by their anthem for the movie The Breakfast Club, they are a lot better than that song, as memorable as it is. I was enjoying revisiting them on my trip home.

Above: the final moments of the movie as Don’t you (forget about me) starts playing.

I was making really good time despite all the trucks on the road. That is until just about the halfway mark. Did I mention that it was a Friday night? Well, in these farm areas it seems that for entertainment people tend to gather around the highway petrol stations and restaurants, like moths drawn to the light. These highway oases (yes, that is the plural of oasis) serve as the equivalent of the shopping malls of the suburbs, a place to hangout. And between these nodes the police setup massive roadblocks. And yes, you guessed it, I got pulled over…with my load of arcane accoutrements (magical ritual thingys). Now you must be wondering how did I explain to the police why I was transporting this huge amount of salt, as well as a very realistic looking AK47 and other military equipment. Believe me I don’t know. As I pulled over all I could imagine was how it must look (Durban drug trafficker hiding his merchandise in salt), and I could imagine them making me unload the approximately 50 bags so they could check them all. Even worse, I could imagine them discovering the AK, and me suddenly face-down on the wet, cold tarmac with 20 firearms pointed at me, a sniffer dog’s snout between my legs and somebody’s boot on my neck.

Fortunately I told the truth, entertaining those men and women in blue at the roadblock for at least 30 minutes, which is all I’m sure they’re looking for on a Friday night in the boondocks, some entertainment. So I explained why in my drivers’ licence I have this mass of hair and no longer do, and how the salt and the mirrored installation were tied to that. There was a moment when I opened a bag to show them the salt where it all could have really gone bad. Alongside the bag was a duffel bag containing my AK47 in it. One of the policemen began to feel it, testing to see what was in it. Fortunately I had wrapped the rifle in bubblewrap (let’s hear it for good artist practice) so he couldn’t guess at what it was and soon lost interest! My heart eventually crawled out of the pit of my stomach and back into my chest…but it took a while. Anyway, so after a few laughs I was sent on my way, my story being something they felt I really could not have made up. So an attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion moment, ammarite?

I recently came across the song, Long Black Road, and it made me think about my really tough…well, quest is probably about the best word for it, that I undertook this year, and especially the nocturnal journey/adventure I have just described. The song is a really obscure one by ELO of all people. And what an awesome song too, and totally not like what the band are known for. It definitely finds a place on swany’s list of awesomeness! Electric Light Orchestra (ELO) are probably best known for the Xanadu soundtrack (the Olivia Newton-John movie) so when you hear Long Black Road you’ll know what I mean! What a gem-of-a-find! One of my new favourite songs! Anyway so I’m going to end off with this last post of 2018 with the lyrics of the song. Merry Christmas, dear readers, and here’s hoping for a new year filled with making a difference and changing the world for the better. You gotta get up in the morning, take your heavy load and keep on going down that long black road!

Long Black Road – Electric Light Orchestra:

They used to tell me boy you ain’t goin’ nowhere

With your cheap guitar and your big long hair

You gotta realize all your responsibilities

You gotta get out to work and face reality

You gotta get up in the morning take your heavy load

And you gotta keep goin’ down the long black road

So I drifted for a while down the road to ruin

I couldn’t find my way I didn’t know what I was doin’

I saw a lot of people coming back the other way

So I kept on goin’ when I heard them say

“you gotta get up in the morning take your heavy load

And you gotta keep goin’ down the long black road”

I made a lot of money I was makin’ quite a mess

But they all told me money wouldn’t bring me happiness

“you gotta work like a man in a real man’s life

You’re gonna have to take all the trouble and strife”

You gotta get up in the morning take your heavy load

And you gotta keep goin’ down the long black road

Songwriter: Jeff Lynne

 

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!

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.