Today I feel all of my days, each and every one: each and every second, minute, day, week, month, year…hell, every milli-second of my existence. My meat aches, my bones creak, my muscles are stiff and sore, I move like something very brittle and fragile, like ice with cats’ paws. I have lesions on my swollen hands and a large bruise on the inside of my right arm. My feet are tender and blistered and my head feels as though it has a pillow stuffed into it. Eyes all skritchy-skratchy, I am tired, sooo tired: physically, emotionally and psychologically. I have just completed a performance and I am here to tell you that performance art is not for sissys! I am not just saying this to butch myself up. It really does take its toll on you. I am such a train-wreck today. Let me tell you about it so that you, dear reader, may grasp the sheer unbearable being of the performance experience.
Traditionally in performance art the human body is the site for creation, the Materia prima. It is the empty canvas, the instrument, and an open book; it is the centrepiece of the altar. The body is the matrix of the performance piece regardless of the location, situation or the artefacts and participants/viewers involved. This is quite logical if one considers that our body is also the very centre of our symbolic universe—a tiny model for humankind, and at the same time, a metaphor for the larger socio-political body. If we are capable of establishing all these connections in front of an audience, hopefully others will recognize them in their own bodies.
Just for interest’s sake, the other basic elements of performance are time, space and also the audience, the one element that the artist has little or no control over. Marina Abramovic, the so-called mother of performance art, said that “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…”
So just to re-iterate, for performance artists our main artwork is our own body, ridden with all the accompanying semiotic, political, ethnographic, cartographic and mythical implications that the body implies and carries with it. This is magnified/amplified by use of ritual, artefacts, symbols, a sacred space and a significant gesture. OK, but what is the difference between Performance Art and the Performing Arts? Performance Art is “making, not faking”! The intention of performance art is not to simply entertain: it is to provoke, to raise questions and most importantly, to implicate the audience/viewer. Performance art is rooted in conceptual thinking while performing arts has its roots in the theatre. In performance art you, the artist, are always you, it is only your context that changes. In performing arts the actor/dancer plays a role, they act. So in performance art one enacts (carries out) while in performing arts one acts out.
OK, back to my performance in particular, the “why”, the “what”, the “when” and the “where”.
Why?: for the practical component of my master’s degree
What?: a performance which explores/comments on/questions white masculinity
When?: from 6 pm on Saturday 16 January until 7 am Sunday 17 January (13 hours)
Where?: at artSPACE Gallery (6 to 6) and then at the Natal Command Precinct (6-7)
OK, so you have the particulars, now the details. Gender theory states that our gender is socially constructed, by our families and various organizations such as schools, universities, sports teams and the military. They shape our various masculinities and femininities. I spent 3 years in the armed forces so I my masculinity was definitely affected by that time there. In my Masters study I am asking one central question, do artists (white and South African in this case) represent the status of masculinity in their work or do they, as the avant-garde, lead the way in changing what masculinity is and should be? Is it evident in their creations?
To investigate this moulding of masculinity in the army I undertook a nightwatch in a local gallery, artSPACE durban. The owner, Claus, locked me in the gallery for 12 hours, from 6 pm until 6 am. In the gallery I performed certain rituals such as hitting a punching bag I had installed until my hands were bloody and bruised, and so swollen and tender that I could not hit it anymore. I also performed marching drills and martial arts katas throughout the night. This is where I stood guard, within the so-called “white cube”, surrounded by artists’ visions and creations, dreams and nightmares. Being January the air was moist and heavy, swampy, and I was soon drenched with sweat. Outside Durban’s city life clamoured at the doors and windows: music from a nearby club and passing vehicles, an adrenalized heartbeat; drunken bellows and laughs like street hyenas; the smashing of glass, the wailing of sirens; gunshots. And then at about 5.30 a brief moment of silence, the city pausing to catch its breath and then once more onward.
At 6 am, dressed in my old army uniform, I ran the equivalent of a 2.4 kilometre to what used to be the Natal Command military base in Durban. The 2.4 was the standard fitness test that we would run once a week while in the training phase in the army. Once at the old base, I performed 3 blood rituals using my own blood drawn by a nurse.
I have to say I was really worried that I, at the very least, would be arrested once I entered the public space and that was the least of my worries. There was also the very real possibility that I could be attacked on the streets. I was after all wearing my old apartheid-era military uniform. However, the reality is, the local police with their fat bellies wedged behind steering wheels looked the other way, white people avoided me like the plague, detouring around me frantically, while black people were quite inquisitive and interested to know what I was doing.
So 13 hours of physical exercise, no sleep, no food, lots of stress and really testing my physical and mental limits, pushing my body. Performance art asks a lot of not only the viewer but also of the artist. One hell of an experience! And where to now? Well, I need to build on this beginning, this experiment I carried out. As I tell my students: the answers all lie in the making, in the doing.