Remember Ninja’s dick in slow motion in the Dark Side of the Moon shorts? That worked because it was something we haven’t seen before. “Something we haven’t seen before” is a cutlass hanging over the head of any artist pushing novelty. And that’s all artists ever push (novelty or nostalgia): hey even Johnny Cash was doing U2 covers on his death bed.
What we have here is The Terrible Law of Piero Manzoni. The guy who canned his own shit. Merda d’astista. 90 tins were made (actually filled with plaster) in 1961 to be sold for their weight in gold. Manzoni’s Law is basically yeah so what’s next, Piero? You can’t go on shitting forever.
Many artists do of course. They go on canning their shit and sending it out into the world long after it stops, well, mattering. But there’s a way out of the novelty trap – substance. Artists long for it. Anne Hathaway got naked in Love and Other Drugs because of it. Fela Kuti reeked of it. Substance is the universal stuff that reaches you no matter what. Shakespeare works in Nepal as readily as Beirut. Van Gogh can put anyone with eyes to see under the spell of that starry night. Chaplin still cracks up 6 year olds. Universally relatable substance – the opposite of shit.
So no surprise then that Ninja and Yo-landi hanker for substance in Harmony Korine’s new short-film collaboration Umshini-Wam.
The blatant Spoek Mathambo steal.
Spoek is a far more substantive and exciting artist. The Die Antwoord crib offers us rare insight into the pressure they must be under to outrun the “novelty act” noose. “It’s time to step up our game my blaar. It’s time to get the respect we deserve,” is the first thing out of Yo-Landi’s mouth. Whatever narrative drive the film ever achieves is out of this desire for credibility.
But Korine – who directed staunchly indie flicks like Gummo and Trash Humpers – has been feeding at the trough of the post-modern “decline of symbolic efficiency” for too many years to bother making films that actually “mean” something; so the premise never gets interesting. Ninja and Yo-landi play Beckettian wastrels rolling around in wheelchairs in Pikachu and Gloomy bear pajamas firing uzi’s in a depopulated American Nowhere. Nothing registers or works. No image, aspect or moment stays with you. The film is vapid, indulgent and dreadful.
Visser simulates an excruciating crying jag at one point. You get to see how wildly misguided David Fincher was considering her for the Dragon Tattoo re-make. She has the range of an unplugged radar. Ninja plays dead a lot which was the smart move here. At one point they risibly murder an incongruous Afrikaans patriarch, straight of Bitterkomix central casting, who tells them, “you’re a waste of white skin.” This kind of puerile race baiting finally reveals the emptiness of Die Antwoord. They have nothing to offer beyond raucous live shows and ‘meme-friendly visuals’. There’s nothing like an analysis of contemporary South Africa going on. No substance.
As Ninja puts it, “We’re basically just exporting our South African experience. South Africa is like undiscovered real estate.” Clearly South African experience is what guarantees the duo substance. It’s what lifts them free of the novelty trap and differentiates them from the other acts on their mega label Interscope. But “undiscovered real estate” sounds suspiciously like the Empty Land fallacy in SA history. The lie that Van Riebeeck landed here in 16 whatever only to discover an empty Eden ripe for the taking. Indigenous social life was conveniently left out of the narrative. Die Antwoord perform a similar kind of silencing act by fetishizing indigenous extremes, swallowing local aspects of culture whole and converting them into the amped up currency of their international brand – zef.
Hence the Tokoloshe. “He’s really terrifying and comes out at night and he’s got a penis as big as a horse’s. And African ladies explained to us that if they’re having a wet dream, it actually means the Tokoloshe is boning them in their sleep.” This is the shit Ninja’s telling Pitchfork. There’s all that purloined gangsta imagery. A Xhosa teen’s personal defiance of circumcision rituals becomes a WTF “dark continent” penis-frenzy in the NSFW Evil Boy video. “We like to absorb all the different elements of South Africa… we’re like sponges.”
In international interviews, Ninja never stops detailing the outré excesses of Mzansi. “South Africa’s like the wild west. The PC-version people try and promote is this image of South Africa as a rainbow nation and make it all pretty and stuff. But it’s actually like this fokked-up, kind of broken fruit salad.” Die Antwoord re-packages local culture for a bemused international audience. It’s Saartjie Baartman with Diplo beats. And they’re the first to admit it. “We are constantly trying to look at different ways of how we can create and recreate South African music to be consumed abroad, so we always combine what the international market likes with the local sound.” And good luck to them.
Only thing is there’s a better way of taking exotic local “strangeness” out for a walk in the world. One that seems infinitely more promising, valid and rewarding – there’s Spoek Mathambo’s “darkwave township house” take on Joy Division’s “She’s Lost Control”. There is no strained reaching for shock effect here. No confused rush of imagery. Spoek is in control. Using his cosmopolitan influences to deepen his sound while pushing local culture forward. Die Antwoord already seems like a dead end. They threaten to quit after five CDs. They’ll barely make it to three.