In 2012, for my third year visual arts degree finals, I performed a performance piece titled Gaze. It was the culmination of three years of intensive research into feminism and various gender issues. An upcoming collabrative exhibition in 2015 with the respected artist Bernice Stott has led me to revisit this work so I thought I would share it with you again, dear reader. I enjoyed reading about what I was feeling and thinking during this extremely emotional, transformative time, I hope you will too.
Above: Hannah: Gaze (2012) by swany (embroidery)
OK, so fasting while writing exams is a really dumb-ass idea! Try waking at 3am so you can squeeze in 30 minutes of studying before rushing off to work. Then working until midday and rushing off to Durban to write the exam at 14.30. This all surviving on only a mug of tomato soup, a couple of Pro-vita biscuits and two naartjies! To say the exam went badly is to say the very least! Irritable, light-headed and woozy are not very conducive to focus and clarity of thought, and quite frankly suck when you are trying to write an art history theory paper on popular culture, in particular Pop Art! But I survived my self-induced dumb-assery and the exam is done, and bar some major nastiness I am almost certain I have passed! Third year art theory done and dusted!
Let me return to the fasting though, because I am pretty certain it is this that you will be wondering about. OK, so why am I fasting? Well, in a few days time I will be presenting my performance art piece called Gaze, in a public gallery before an audience, for my third year practical exam mark. “Nervous?” you may ask. OH YES! “Stressed?” HELL, YEAH! But I am mostly excited… “terrifiedly” excited! This is a huge, quite probably, life-changing event for me, and though it has been extremely challenging, things are all coming together now, falling into place. OK, so sorry, so the fasting: well, firstly, I was inspired by The Artist is Present, the docu-film about Marina Abramovic and her recent show at the MOMA (Museum of Modern Art). If you have not seen it I most certainly recommend you get hold of this documentary. The woman is awe-inspiring, her story fascinating, her presence overwhelming. Watching her processes regarding performance I realized that for her it begins long before she even presents anything to the audience/viewer. It is largely about mental preparation, about getting your mind in the right place.
Most performance art, and most definitely the performances of the second-wave feminist artists I have focused on, consists of rituals which are used to challenge and provoke. Viewers are asked to question their own definitions of art, society and its norms, and not always in a comfortable or pleasant manner. After watching and studying Abramovic’s processes I resolved to get myself into that place where it needs to be. Abramovic said of the audience:
“The audience is like a dog. They can feel immediately that you are afraid, that you are insecure, that you’re not in the right state of mind – and they just leave…” – Marina Abramovic.
Above: Marina: Gaze (2012) by swany (embroidery)
On the evening of 20th November 2012 I will enclose myself within a small space with an audience, and expose myself to their gaze. It will be an extremely intimate experience for both the audience and me, and it is imperative that I am able to get myself into the right state of mind so that by sheer force of will I am able to make myself totally oblivious of that same audience, as well as the photographer and the videographer. Any hint of fear, embarrassment or nervousness and the performance will fail. I cannot acknowledge their presence. One technique performance artists utilize to become insular, oblivious, is that of creating a ritual. So the performance piece becomes that of performing a ritual. A ritual is: the body of ceremonies or rites used in a place of worship, or the body of ceremonies used by a fraternal organization. Generally there is a book of rites or ceremonial forms that are adhered to and followed. The performance of such acts however need not be religious or enforced by a group such as a club or organization. All it requires is a detailed method of procedure faithfully or regularly followed: therefore household chores can become a morning ritual. This state or condition is characterized by the presence of this established procedure or routine; actions associated with or performed according to a rite or ritual, and/or being part of an established routine: for example, a ritual glass of milk before bed.
What I observed in the Abramovic documentary is that she begins to clear her mind long before the event of her performance as well as physically preparing her body. She begins establishing the ritual before the performance so that the instant she is inserts herself into the “art space” the world falls away and she becomes the artist. An observation many of her friends and associates make in the documentary is that Marina is always performing, she does not stop, in other words one cannot tell where her life begins and her performance ends. To me that is not odd, true artists’ lives are part of their art and vice versa, they are indistinguishable, one and the same. It is the same for me.
In truth my ritual began 4 months ago, back in Los Angeles, in the aftermath of my ruin and destruction by one I loved the most (see past posts). When your live has spun disastrously out of control instinctively you search for things in it you can control and you focus on those things. For me it was a regime of tough exercise, and yes, it was a ritual. It is a ritual which I have maintained and further entrenched, and in fact, expanded on within my life back in South Africa. Three weeks prior to my opening night I added fasting to my ritual of exercise, this in an effort to purify my body and clear my mind. By fasting I do not mean starving, people often associate the two, and this is not the purpose of fasting.
Although fasting can and does consist of abstaining from food, drink, sleep or sex to focus on a period of spiritual growth, specifically, one denies something of the flesh to glorify God, enhance our spirit, and go deeper in our spiritual life. Certain civilizations fasted before they made important decisions or if they sought enlightenment (Native Americans for one). Fasting and prayer are often linked together as is evident in all the major religions. However, too often, the focus of fasting is on the lack of food. In fact, the purpose of fasting is to take our eyes off the things of this world and instead focus on God or our inner beings or the Creative force “out there”, Nature, if you will. What I resolved to do was cut out things toxic: alcohol, fried foods, sweets, salty snacks, bread etc. Truthfully this was not much of a change in my normal diet, just a little more severe. As I have mentioned I am a vegetarian and have been since I was 21, and that in effect is a form of fasting.
As a young boy I was always dealing with moral conflict within myself regarding consuming meat. Being a fanatical animal lover this went totally against what I believed was right. But I grew up in a society where it was considered manly and healthy to consume huge amounts of flesh, daily, at every meal! Top-of-the-food-chain mentality and all that! As I grew older I took more and more control of my diet, steering away from the consumption of meat. Two events occurred, however, which finally strengthened my resolve: one, I saw cattle being slaughtered, and two, a band called The Smiths released a song called, Meat is Murder. OK, first, the cattle slaughtering-thing: It was during my first year Varsity at Edgewood College and we went on a history excursion up to Zululand to visit all the battle sites of the British, Boer and Zulu wars. We stopped off at the historical site of King Shaka’s kraal (compound) where it just so happened they were expecting the visit of the incumbent king and were slaughtering cattle. Horrible, horrible, horrible, those poor, poor creatures. I couldn’t eat meat after that. This event and the resultant resolve was reinforced by hearing the song by The Smiths. It opens with the buzzing of slaughterhouse saws and the pitiful lowing of cattle and is followed by the most powerful of lyrics, in my opinion it is a powerful, meaningful, classic song; a rarity in these modern times. You cannot listen to it without it touching you, affecting you.
Meat Is Murder by the Smiths
Heifer whines could be human cries
closer comes the screaming knife
this beautiful creature must die
this beautiful creature must die
a death for no reason
and death for no reason is MURDER
and the flesh you so fancifully fry
is not succulent, tasty or nice
it is death for no reason
and death for no reason is MURDER
and the calf that you carve with a smile
and the turkey you festively slice
do you know how animals die?
kitchen aromas aren’t very homely
it’s not “comforting”, “cheery” or “kind”
it’s sizzling blood and the unholy stench
it’s not “natural”, “normal” or kind
the flesh you so fancifully fry
the meat in your mouth
as you savour the flavour
NO, NO, NO, IT’S MURDER
NO, NO, NO, IT’S MURDER
who hears when animals cry?
Above: Carolee: Gaze (2012) by swany (embroidery)
It is the morning after, and while the event is still fresh in my mind I am writing about the last night’s entire experience. What experience you may ask? Well, if you have been following my posts, you will know that I am in my third year of an art degree, and last night was the opening of my year-end examination piece. It is a conceptual piece inspired by the second-wave feminist performance artists of the 60s and 70s, and relates to the patriarchal gaze and attempts to rupture that via exposing myself to the gaze! I am here to tell you it was one of the most unpleasant experiences I have ever put myself through! One of my fellow artist’s husbands put it perfectly: now you know what a stripper goes through when she steps onto that stage. What was supposed to be an intimate space turned out to be a sauna-like one located next to a bar, it was hot and loud, and to attempt a performance, a FIRST performance art piece under those conditions was very difficult!! Add to that an audience passing through, in and out, plus a photographer and videographer in my face under the stark, hot studio lights they required, while I shaved my entire body and performed a number of other rituals!! I am proud to say though, that I stayed focused, and shut out the outside world, ironically, while performing my rituals for that same world to observe. I experienced the weight of the Gaze as I am sure few men have, but as women probably do every day of their lives. As I said, it was not a pleasant experience!
In addition, the sheer enormity of my personal journey really is astounding, I kid you not! It began in my first year of my studies when I discovered the artist, Ana Mendieta, and her silhouette art works. I have an incredible, natural thirst for knowledge so I voraciously pursued any information on her, and this in turn led to my discovery of other feminist performance artists such as Carolee Schneemann, Marina Abramovic, Mary Beth Edelson and Hannah Wilke. I was overwhelmed, enthralled, addicted (add any emotive you choose in this space)! This was in 2010, three years later, and my concept crystallized into one final act, or in this case, performance.
As the artist swany, I explored the nature of my Gaze. To look is not a neutral thing, but is a social construct. To quote John Berger, “one might simplify this by saying: men act and women appear”, in other words, it is men who do the looking while it is women who watch themselves being looked at (Berger: 47). Looking is thus about relationships of power; the active and the passive. Laura Mulvey, in her essay, Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema (Mulvey: 6-18) says:
the determining male gaze projects its fantasy unto the female figure, which is styled accordingly. In their traditional exhibitionist role, women are simultaneously looked at and displayed, with their appearance coded for strong visual and erotic impact so that they can be seen to connote to-be-looked-at-ness.
My multi-facetted art piece includes: an installation, visual works, a documented performance and the resultant video, and utilizes five selected feminist performance artists, and my presence to investigate and interrogate this relationship.
The performance consisted of three rituals: shaving, lighting of candles and cracking open of coconuts. The shaving spoke of shedding, while the simple act of moving from one station/altar to another, lighting candles certainly spoke of ritual, which then culminated with the “coconut sacrifice”. The coconut is a powerful motif and has a ritualistic association (especially in Hindu tradition). As a fruit, it speaks of sexuality/reproduction. To crack it open speaks of an attempt to “break open” these issues, to extract meaning. The husks relate to the shaving ritual and the coconut flesh to human flesh. All these came into play with the notion of offering the coconut up in an effort to seek punishment or redemption. My investigation of the gaze consisted of: firstly, an internal gaze, and the resultant unlayering of my various male identities in an effort to understand where I am at this point in my life. Secondly, the subjection of myself and this introspective act to the audience and their gaze. This spoke of a type of public shedding of skin, so instead of being the stereotypical gazer (the colonizer) I became the colonized, the object gazed at.
So here I sit writing about how I feel, and what it felt like, this most visceral of experiences. OK, immediate stream-of-consciousness thoughts, the assault on my senses: exhaustion, discomfort, a flatness of spirit and emotion, aching muscles and back, itchy. I feel like, to quote my mentor, a sordid whore, and as the saying goes: ridden hard and put away wet. The body is sore because of the extremes I have put it through in creating this performance piece: 21 days of fasting, stress and lack of sleep, the physical toil involved in creating the installation pieces (altars, drops), the final four full days of erecting the installation, and then the climatic physical as well as emotional effort of the performance These were the things that I had some control over, however once the performance began I was no longer in control, of the audience and their reaction and comments, of the photographer, of the videographer, of the space I presented in. It was set in motion and I carried out my rituals within it, presenting myself to the gaze. I felt myself to be in a fragile, embryonic bubble which my mind instinctively created in order to offer some protection to the almost hostile attentions. My senses were heightened to supernatural levels; the feel of the razor on my flesh, the heat of flames, the scent of candles, sulphur, fabric, shaving cream, perfume, alcohol and cigarettes…my sweat.
I could hear the voices of the public, as though from the end of a long, misty tunnel, yet with crystal clarity, each syllable making my skin crawl and tense and twitch. The masculine comments especially, as traditional possessors/wielders of the gaze, were aggressively dismissive and derisive; their gaze threatened and threatening in equal measure. “What is this supposed to be?” “This is art?” “I’m a serious, competitive cyclist and that’s not how you shave your legs. I should show you all how to do it!” “Whats that supposed to mean?” “There are you happy now? He’s taking his fucking pants off. That’s what you’ve been waiting for!” “I need a drink.” “What the fuck?!! He’s breaking coconuts nuts now!! He’s nuts!! Ha ha!” “What a load of fucking shit.” The noise of the crowd around the bar in the room alongside, rumbled and growled threateningly the entire time, providing an audible presence to the gaze.
Now, I sit writing, my body itching and tender as a result of my savage shaving. It is as though it can still feel the weight of the gaze I exposed it to. Although clothed it feels vulnerable and emasculated, its protective hair removed: head shaved and planed like a piece of wood, strength removed as in the old Biblical tale of Samson; genitals soft and baby-like without their covering of dark curls; chest that of a youth, flat and pale in its nudity; legs, shiny and smooth and feminine. Accompanying this physical discomfort there is also a measure of irrational shame that I feel, as though by exposing myself, not just physically but emotionally, to the gaze, I have done something sinful and implicitly, morally wrong. I feel like people, when they look at me and see my shaven head, can see my sin and so I have taken to wearing a cap to hide my shame.
But it never was supposed to be pleasant, the gaze, and if nobody else in the gallery took anything away with them from my work I most certainly did, and therefore it was a worthwhile journey! My goal then, was attained: my investigation of the gaze: firstly, an internal gaze, and the resultant unlayering of my various male identities in an effort to understand where I am at this point in my life. I feel that I certainly presented my internal gaze as well as questioned the male identity as possessor of the gaze. Secondly, the subjecting of myself and this introspective act to the audience and their gaze. These spoke of a type of public shedding of skin, so instead of being the stereotypical gazer (the colonizer) I became the colonized, the object gazed at. I most certainly felt the sheer, terrible weight of the gaze, and what it felt like to be the other.
So what remains? Well I need to face my shame and discomfort, and edit the video so that my piece can be completed. The edited video (ten minutes) will be looped and play continuously within my installation, a stark record of the rituals which took place within that very room. This should create a feeling of dislocation within the viewer, somewhat like coming across a bloody garment in a room and being told what occurred there by another. The physical evidence of my rituals remains. To then view these same rituals taking place on a screen while the sound of a slow, steady, rhythmic beating heart fills the room, surrounded by this evidence is sure invoke disquiet and uneasiness.
Above: Mary Beth: Gaze (2012) by swany (embroidery)
The period after the opening of an exhibition is a strange time for the artist, and this year it was heightened for me because of my journey into the world of performance art. Usually once the artist’s piece is up in the gallery, pre-exhibition, his/her work is complete. However, even after my performance at the opening of the exhibition, my piece was still not completed. There was the documentation of this performance to deal with, so that it could be included in my installation. Despite, as one of my mentors put it, feeling like a “sordid whore”, and as much as I wanted distance myself from the discomfort and the violation of the experience, I had to work on the video of my performance while the same experience was fresh, and edit it with an audience in mind. So despite how exposed and vulnerable I felt, this is what I had to do, and despite desperately wanting to leave the piece at rest. Art is/should always be experimental but is always a process: despite the completed pieces inhabiting the space of a gallery, it is the creative process/journey that really counts, both for artist and audience.
As an artist, post-exhibition depression is something you have to learn how to live with but you never quite get used to. The pressures of working under intense deadlines to complete very personal projects create within the artist the oddest miasma of conflicting forces of joyful euphoria and unbearable stress, hope and fear, purpose and uncertainty. It is something very few people, sadly, have the opportunity of experiencing very often: living with the intense purpose of attaining a meaningful goal. Effectively, as students, we have been living with this steadily increasing pressure and the accompanying adrenalin rush for an entire year! Add to that, if you are a part-time student with a full-time job, the fact that your time to create is extremely limited. Finally you attain your goal, often in the most miraculous manner, and there is this moment of absolute euphoria (too often way, way too brief!). Then: emptiness, loss, and if your work has been criticized, anger and hurt. Depression sets in. This is, of course, exacerbated by the fact that you are exhausted and worn-out (artists often pick-up the flu during this period), and funnily enough now you have too much time on your hands!!
This is quite normal, and as an artist, one needs to get used to it or choose to do something else. There are, however, ways to counter-act this emotional bleakness that follows an exhibition and get yourself back into creative mode and moving forward with your life as an artist:
- REST. Take the time to recover and get over the intensity of the project you have just completed. You deserve it and your body and mind require it.
- Define a time period for this rest. This will, firstly, help you maintain direction while resting. You are defining parameters to your rest period. Secondly, this enables you to relax guilt-free and prevents apathy and laziness from creeping in.
- Reconnect with your family and friends and the simple pleasures of life. This is important as they would have, no doubt, been neglected in the past year.
- Do all the little everyday admin / housekeeping chores that have also been neglected. It will feel good to clear your to-do list and slowly start working again.
(then slowly begin to ease yourself back into your creative mode)
- Write down your reflections of the past months experiences. What you learned, how the experience felt, ideas for potential works that came to you during those intense moments of the creative high. It is kind of like a debriefing if you will and will help you with achieving closure and enable you to move forward freely.
- Lovingly put away your work: don’t just throw it in a corner and leave it there for the next 5 years (haha). Fix anything if necessary and bubblewrap it. The fact is you never know what the future holds: Louise Bourgeois was only “discovered” in her late 40s but when an art dealer came to visit her studio, she had 20 years of work carefully stored, waiting to be exhibited. How awesome would that be?!!!
- Document your work by completing your workbook with your final pics and reflections of the final work
- Clean your studio as a cathartic process and making space for the next project
Then, big deep breath: (this stage can happen in January 2013, but remember not to leave it for too long)
- Move onto the next project: mine is my final year of my degree!! I already have ideas germinating for the focus of my 2013 exhibition! This is important because it is important to set deadlines for oneself so that you continue making, creating. If you do not have defined projects that you are participating in or working towards, days and months can go past where you make no work, you create nothing. That thought terrifies me: to create nothing.
So as I reflect on my past year, my performance art piece and the exhibition, and I await my year grades, I would like to share some of the responses I received to my work.
Wendy Bisset, a new friend of mine, had this to say in response to my post About Last Night:
Hello – I read your article, and can empathize that your body feels strange and itchy. The good thing is that this will pass.
The gaze made me think of my favourite actor, Antony Hopkins, and what he said to Clarice in Silence of the Lambs:
Hannibal Lecter: First principles, Clarice. Simplicity. Read Marcus Aurelius. Of each particular thing ask: what is it in itself? What is its nature? What does he do, this man you seek?
Clarice Starling: He kills women…
Hannibal Lecter: No. That is incidental. What is the first and principal thing he does? What needs does he serve by killing?
Clarice Starling: Anger, um, social acceptance, and, huh, sexual frustrations, sir…
Hannibal Lecter: No! He covets. That is his nature. And how do we begin to covet, Clarice? Do we seek out things to covet? Make an effort to answer now.
Clarice Starling: No. We just…
Hannibal Lecter: No. We begin by coveting what we see every day. Don’t you feel eyes moving over your body, Clarice? And don’t your eyes seek out the things you want?
Obviously you experienced that first hand in a very different context – well done
Please don’t feel shame – yours was a beautiful meaningful work, and stuff those that are ignorant and blinkered, WTF were they doing there anyway?
Have a good day,
Isn’t that just awesome?!!! So eloquently and intelligently put! Loved it!
On Facebook I wrote this when I got home:
Me: wo midnight! jusr got back from the opening of art exhibition and my first real performance piece! Wired and hyper does not begin to describe my state!
Me: Hey Soul sister! It was so tough! I felt so distressed but used my mind to overcome! Still feeling, I dunno, I suppose this best describes it (a husband of an artist said this to me) like a stripper!
Have to admit it was one of the most unpleasant things I have ever put myself thru! But I can say I have done it so : tick!
Other: why? because of the ‘exposure’ ?
Me: Also the surroundings! Was supposed to be an intimate closed off space but it was next to the bar etc was like stripping! In a club!
Other: Andy it was really beautiful. If you were stressed it didn’t show. But yeah, agree about the bar! Well done.
Above: Ana: Gaze (2012) by swany (embroidery)
I have passed the third year of my art degree but to say that I am disappointed and extremely…irritated with the marks I received is an understatement! But I guess that’s the risk you take when you select contentious subject matter: there will always be clashes, disagreements and conflicting opinions. I know I researched my subject matter extensively, and that should not be negated merely because there is a disagreement about or dislike of the conclusions that I, as the artist, arrived at, nor how I chose to present them. The sheer amount of work I produced was immense, and my attention to detail and quality exhaustive. Also it was an extremely personal project, climaxing with my performance, I took huge risks and experimented way beyond my comfort zone, and that at the very least, should be acknowledged. Fortunately my skin has metaphorically thickened over the past three years so I don’t feel like dying (well debatable) as a result of their implied and actual criticisms. But yes, I am mightily pissed off, and sadly, hurt!!! Unfortunately this is the cross that an artist has to bear, and especially a student artist: you live to create and die when your creation is scorned. Those little deaths are terrible! Apparently, academically my piece was crap! Next year I should make it easy for myself: select a pretty mundane, simple subject, get some butcher-paper and crayons, and do some drawings and sketches, attach some pleasant research with it and present that. No angst, torture or blood, sweat and tears. A nice, safe and pleasant final year! AAAaaah but I know I won’t do that, I live to challenge myself, and to learn and experience new things,so bring on Fourth Year!!!