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by Dela Gwala / 19.12.2012

“I’m cerebral, I prefer the academic”, it’s a snatched statement I overhear while slathering hummus on a piece of toast. The tall man with his loud opinions and quaky wine glass is trying to justify his sceptical stance on performance art. He sounds like a man who’s been dead since 347 BC. For Plato, when it came to knowledge, poets and painters left you standing in an intellectually darkened corner, staring at a blank wall. For him, art toyed with the most squalid part of human nature: that intelligence-less lair of feelings and emotions. The towering man nattering by the Mezze platter thinks that he is making a distinction between what comfortably gets the label ‘art’ and what needs to be prodded at with theorised critiques. Instead, he is borrowing from the mouth of someone who accused art of being an irredeemable lie.

The opening address of the GIPCA (Gordon Institute for the Performing and Creative Arts) live art festival is undertaken by a bespectacled man with multitudes of blue paper. Standing in a corner on GIPCA’s take on the soapbox, he asks us to make up our mind. We need to decide whether what we will see for the next 4 days is art. The catch-all phrase for the event seems to be “inter-disciplinary”; an opportunity for all forms of contemporary art to share a space. After an auspicious three-peat of the word “sublime”, the opening speaker locates performance art’s formal beginnings in Europe but points back to its closer-to-home origin – African ritual and custom. He then acknowledges the dark-skinned men standing on either side of him, dressed in black and carrying the kind of brooms barely found away from a rural yard. These men are the ushers – their thatch brushes are to identify them.

The screens that hid the performance/exhibition space are removed for the performance of Highway to Heaven/ Paradise Road. What’s revealed is what seems to be a white runway with two rows of chairs facing it on either side. ‘Bring out the flashing cameras and Gavin Rajah.’ Giggles the man sitting next to me. There’s no sign of any highbrow Indian fashion but at the edge of the blank floor space is a pile of tyres – above them is a dangling microphone. When it goes dark and silent, a man in blackface, earmuffs and a suit that alternates between silk and velvet approaches the white block. Sdu Majola’s first words are the names of the colonial powers with a particularly special mention of Belgium. Majola then removes a tyre to partially release a wailing and floundering woman who’s wearing the same blackface.

Somewhere there’s the disembodied call of ‘Phesheya’. As Zulu words go, it’s one of my favourites – it could mean anything from ‘very far’ to ‘overseas’. In this context, it seems to point to a distance as far as heaven. The woman drowning in the tyres, Hlengiwe Lushaba Madlala, sings it as an echo that seeks the mountain of salvation. Images flicker onto the white block, then comes a chatter of indistinct voices and the two performers begin to frantically jive. “We need to tell our stories”, says a voice from above. It’s said matter-of-factly, but narrative is the prophet of power relations. It endows knowledge with the privilege of being deemed ‘true’ or getting the label of truth’s partner in fancy dress – ‘scientific’. By this point, Sdu has pushed Hlengiwe and her dress of tyres over and left her thrashing on the ground. They join hands at the end, each with a tyre around a part of their body. The information booklet tells me that I should have seen a contention between emotional and physical borders– all I saw was a simple tale of colonial exploitation.

We’re moved from one part of Hiddingh Hall to another – relocated to the Little Theatre. The men with brooms stand guard at the door, inside lies the setup for a piece called Imitation of life. “With every orgasm, I die a little more”, according to the voice on stage, sex is the difference between life and death. Like everything else, it’s a relationship of irony. There’s a screen lowered only a tenth of the way down for live subtitles – most of this performance is in German. The entire gag is an attempt to act but pass it off as not acting. It’s lecture theatre with pieces of autobiography and arb musical moments thrown in. It’s hard to tell which part of the story is true and which isn’t. Malte Sholz and Beatrice Fleischlin describe everything from their first acts of masturbation to previous jobs. I believe Sholz’s unlikely tales about military tours in the Middle East but struggle to latch onto Fleischlin’s testimonial about farming and fruit picking. It’s simply because one is better than the other. The conversations between them expose Fleischlin’s waning believability which screws with the overall concept of the piece – the mind game of trying to figure out if you’re being lied to.

Day 2 of the festival leaves me standing on a farm in Tamboerskloof. Two minutes from the lights of the CBD, a black pig toddles past me on a dirt road. The 7 minute walk it takes to get to the performance space yields the sight of disintegrating furniture, an abandoned Roman bath house and a mid-size tower of old shoes. When we reach Zink – a theatre made of corrugated iron – cushions are handed to us by giggling children. Judging from what had gone before, I should have known shit was about to get weird. The over-capacity room quietens down to watch Mama Papa Kaka (a leg to stand on). It’s a surrealist trip that begins with a man rolling toy cars through the front door of a dollhouse. It continues with a pregnant lady lying on a table of dirt and the man tracing her form with a dead fish. Somewhere along the line there’s a little ballerina girl strutting her stuff to a Japanese song about dogs and bombs. Towards the end, the man drags around an over-sized limb attached to his leg – the little bursts of laughter indicate that I’m supposed to find this funny.

Mama Papa Kaka’s claims to Dadaist/ Surrealist influences compels me to call on my own personal phantasm of Freud to confer with the irrationality and fucked-up-ness of the human psyche – and by extension this piece. On the bus transporting us from one venue to another, a woman loudly identifies herself as a curator at the Iziko gallery. She turns to the people seated behind her to gab about the fact that she’d seen this piece in the 80s. They nod their heads in affirmation but call this recent version “contrived”. As we pass the stables of the police force’s horses, she turns to me to ask for help with a shot of ginseng. I poke a hole in the little green coloured bottle for her with a pen. She knocks it back and then starts raving about Athi- Patra Ruga – the next stop for the bus labelled ‘UCT field trip’.

‘I hope I didn’t come all this way to watch gay porn.’ The statement originates from a woman with coiffed hair and high heels standing in the shadows of a shop front in Hope Street. I echo this sentiment with a sigh – knowing that I will be bitterly disappointed if this ends with a penis. The shades covering the shop window are pulled up. The backdrop is a wall covered with the words “Purge your elders” and luminescent sketches that include evil-looking school children, zebra carpets and anal sex. The foreground showcases two pairs of netted legs topped with a tree of balloons filled with highlighter-coloured paint. The high-heeled legs stand up to move around and one by the one the balloons are popped. And then, one of the human pieces comes tumbling down but uses the wall for leverage. This fall is reminiscent of a close call that Athi-Patra Ruga had when he was showing The Future White Woman of Azania at the Grahamstown Arts festival. That time, in his ballooned regalia, he took a misstep into the street and was nearly run over by a taxi.

The oft-called ‘dregs’ of the CBD infected Patra Ruga’s performance with comic value and fortuitous relevance. A drunkard stumbled out of a nearby bar to ask half-finished questions about the reasons for this inexplicable gathering. A man selling metal and wire flowers peered into the window in confusion. Athi-Patra Ruga has accused the white walls of exhibition spaces of being a form of alienation – another triumph for Western values and its little helper capitalism. This performance happens behind two panes of glass but still seems to do its job. It holds a little protest sign against those cheerless drones who build a fort of impenetrable academic babble around art.

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