Interview: Virginia MacKenny talks to Aryan Kaganof
Aryan Kaganof, artist, filmmaker (winner of the 2002 Milan Festival of African Film with his film Western 4.33) and writer (his debut novel Hectic! was recently published in Holland), has just completed a residency in the NSA Gallery in Durban. Filming and editing video footage on site, covering the walls with his meditations and organising performances and events with friends and fellow artists Helga Janssen, Nicola Deane and and Catherine Henegan, Kaganof converted the gallery into a giant evolving artwork he entitled Virgins: the staging of the artist as the work itself'.
Virginia MacKenny: Mr Kaganof you were originally christened Ian Kerkhof but changed your name to Aryan Kaganof. Can you tell us the background to this?
Aryan Kaganof: My mother was married to a man called Tommy Kerkhof for two years before I was born and he divorced her because she was an intolerable woman. She subsequently had, I think it was, a 32 minute affair with my father and I was the product of those minutes and so because my father didn't want to spend any more time with her and she didn't want to be known as the mother of an illegitimate child I was given the name Kerkhof. I met my father for twenty minutes in 1993 and then later on for two years in 1999 and when he died I took on his name, Kaganof. I took the name Aryan because my father was of the Jewish faith and meeting him I became very interested in the history of the Jews and what Jewishness is and of course, if one looks at Jewishness one can't not look at Hitler, at Auschwitz, at the six million and when I read Mein Kampf I realised that one of the big obsessions Hitler had was that no Jew can be an Aryan, no Aryan can be a Jew. So for the Jews I am not Jewish because my Mum's not, but for Hitler I am. Now for Hitler ontologically no Aryan can be a Jew so I thought if I become the Aryan Kaganof which is the Aryan Jew I will disprove Hitler's theory so by his own terms the six million will be healed.
So it was a kind of healing of the theory which led to the cooking of all those people and it was quite an interesting issue because basically after the camps everybody's a Jew. You have to take on the whole thing. We are all human beings and I think it is very important for artists to not be black or white or Jewish but to be all these things, just to be soul. I think ultimately art must bring us all into a kind of unity which is soul. The real issue of art is to deal with what we all have to do which is find out why we are here, who we really are and become one with each other.
So the notion of becoming the Aryan Jew is trying to marry and merge things which are seen to be very different which is why I become Hitler in my performances. I put a moustache on and I wear a yarmulke whilst I am doing my performances because I want people to realise Hitler is a Jew and I mean that in the real sense, in that if anyone is going to be gassed because they are Jewish we all have to take that upon us and none of us is free. We are all interconnected. While there are people being bombed because they happen to have a different faith somewhere then none of us is free.
VM: During the course of your exhibition in Durban you chose to live in the NSA gallery, both sleeping and working here. Why did you choose to do this and what has the experience been like?
AK: Well first of all it is cheaper than the Hilton where I normally stay in Durban. On another level altogether I wanted to involve the audience in the process to show them that art doesn't just come out of the sky - you don't shit it up, you work at it, there is labour involved. I am very excited about the notion of labour so I wanted to be working every night between 5 and whenever I fall asleep and if people come back - and I am very relieved to say people have been coming back quite regularly - to see that this is growing and that there is labour involved. Siyabonga everyday brooms here, everyday, and Charlotte Kuswayo brooms here, we need them - it is very repetitive, quite boring, but very meditative work and in the same way art is very repetitive and boring if you are serious about it - you are actually doing and engaged in very similar things everyday. What I do is labour. I am a labourer. I want to get away from this airy-fairy notion of the artist who has some strange fantabulous life out there. It is daily labour.
I have become very happy in this space because I have made it my own through the rituals that I do every night, the little crazy things that you do to make yourself comfortable. It is very noisy at night, these youth gangs come and rev their cars and say obscene things to each other in a comradely way and that always scares me but I have dealt with that kind of weird stuff and the ghosts.
It's not a gallery for me it's home and when I leave the gallery I'll be leaving a home I have had for three weeks.
VM: Scribbling on walls is a pastime most small children like to engage in. What is it like to be given the freedom to do so on a large scale at the NSA?
AK: Um... one must of course thank Storm Janse van Rensburg for that because I think he has been a marvellous curator who has allowed us the freedom to do basically what we want with very little interference.
For me the most wonderful and exciting part has been that I have been able to invite people to participate, whether it is the children who write their name and I draw the outline and they fill in their faces, whether it is Taryn who is doing the fire dance and writing outrageous stuff about her life, whether it is Helge � (Durban artist Helge Janssen was exhibiting paintings on the Mezzanine level of the gallery, and was present at the interview). On any level, the fact I have been able to act as an anticensorship device, has been very exciting for me because I think one of the problems with the whole fake sense of freedom that we have is that we do have a constitution but it is worthless if we don't use it.
Knowing that there is no censorship means nothing until you actually produce work that is possibly on the borders of the debate as to whether it should be censored or not. A lot of people in Durban say "I really love what you are doing but I couldn't do it because no-one would accept me" I think fuck, no-one is accepting you if you have to censor yourself to be accepted - that is not acceptance, that is like, What are you doing?! I think the truth is that the only valuable thing you have to give the world is your uncensored, unmediated truth and that is what those kids do. They pull in and they fuckin' draw their shit and one little girl wrote "I am happy" and I thought that's fantastic, it's the first thing that came to her mind; "Hayley, 6, I am happy" and I thought yeah, "Kaganof, 38 I am happy" - that's my message to the world.
Be happy by being it, not by thinking about it, dreaming about it, feeling sad that you won't ever be it, having self-pity, all that shit, all that suffering Christian guilt stuff is all unnecessary you can just drop it like that, just walk into the gallery and write on the walls. It is such a liberating device and what is also interesting is the notion of the gallery as a sane asylum. At the beginning I say, "welcome to my sane asylum". This is an asylum because we are all insane in the sense that we have lots of conflicts. In this space you can just be whoever you are and it is cool.
VM: Your novel Hectic was turned downed by a Cape Town publisher as "too shocking". In it, Red Kowalski, its politically incorrect anti-hero, sums up the new South Africa by saying, "today things are a lot murkier. Comrade Viva is now selling driver's licenses to corrupt yids using the hard-core boere racists as his middlemen. Everybody's in on the cut. It's called democracy". Is Kowalski another persona for you?
AK: No, no it is a novel, fiction. Kowalski has nothing to do with Kaganof. Kaganof wrote the book. I wanted to write a book about the people that I met. I was living with my Dad in Sea Point at the time while he was in the cancer ward getting all the treatment.
I was hanging around various pool halls and I came across a lot of underbelly characters, people who didn't work for a living, basically dealing drugs, making a deal every now and again and their whole take on the new South Africa was amazingly cynical and jaded. I thought they were fascinating and interesting people. They had nothing to do with this whole media world of political correctness - they just lived the same life they'd always lived, nothing changed for them except that they were now more people who were part of their deals - it was easier to work in City Hall now.
The novel is basically kind of a worm's eye view of South Africa, about a Jewish guy who wants to be a Nazi because he wants to fit in. It's a very funny book. He wants to get laid but the girl he's not in love with but thinks he might have a chance with doesn't want to sleep with him. The book is a strange passage into adulthood because he finally finds out how to do it. Basically he has to rape her because only then do they respect you - that's his perspective.
The publisher said, it's a very funny book. If it was written by a European and took place in France we'd really like it but our audience aren't sophisticated enough to realise that the 'I' figure is not you and that you are not legitimating rape and racism and all that. And I said, "Fuck you bru - what are you saying? Are we children?" That's when I realised that although you have a free constitution, the powers that be aren't interested in exerting and exercising that freedom. Everybody is scared of standing on somebody else's toes. Everybody just wants to say "yeah well we are all free now" but meanwhile we should be testing that freedom, seeing if we are grown up or not.
If you assume people are not sophisticated to deal with literature or art then you are just censoring everything, then nothing's changed. So I am going to publish it myself. The weird thing is that it has been published in Holland and has sold and been received very well and its getting translated into Hebrew, of all languages, and into German and it's pumping. It will eventually be published here and then it will be a really nice legend that this hip cutting-edge publisher, Kwela Books, was too intimidated to release this.
VM: As a follow on to the rape in Hectic! and, given the violently pornographic content of the Snuff Collection it might fairly be concluded that you are a misogynist. Do you have anything to say in your defence?
AK: Well, I am not interested in defence at all. Offence is much more interesting, but what you do you mean when you say "violently pornographic"? Have you seen the whole Snuff Collection?
AK: And you think that it is violently pornographic?
AK: Well, what does pornographic mean to you?
VM: Pornographic means explicitly sexual although it means more than that. Violently pornographic in this case includes the amount of bondage, the amount of self-mutilation, the masturbatory elements in front of the camera, and the violence perpetuated particularly upon women.
AK: Well I think that the most interesting thing about violence to women, as Dario Argento said, in the early seventies when he was interviewed by a feminist who said "why do you always have women tortured in your films, not men?" and he said, "Because it is sexier".
VM: Well, that is the traditional answer.
AK: Yes. As a heterosexual I am not turned on by images of violence against men. At best I am just bored by them.
Helge Janssen: You say you are turned on by images of torturing women?
AK: Yes I am absolutely turned on by torturing women, absolutely. I'd like to show you a piece if you have the time called my Mediation on Torture.
VM: I have to confess I might be of frail heart.
AK: No. I'll tell you why you should watch it, because it finally, in one statement, blends what I learnt in Japan - the formal, aesthetic, pleasure and appreciation of torture, which I hadn't yet got in the Snuff Collection.
VM: Well you have that suicide, that Japanese woman's suicide which is very explicit and which you keep showing the images again and again.
AK: Yes. In the Snuff Collection I don't think I was as formally in control of my devices as when I made the Mediation on Torture. It's only five minutes, you'll love it. The work answers the question in itself and that's why it's very dangerous to talk too much about anything.
(After the showing of Mediation on Torture, which juxtaposes a series of images of a woman being tortured on the rack with images of lovemaking, Kaganof resumed with a discussion of his experiences with SM practitioners)
AK: I was with what I guess what you'd call lesbian butch dominatrixes who live their sexuality. They beat each other, they tied each other up, they tortured each other, they got off on the torture as much as I do. SM is about sensitising you. It's about trust. SM is incredible - to give yourself up to someone who ties you up and hangs you from a ceiling and they can do anything they want with you. It's very, very sexy to be that vulnerable with someone and, to me, trust and sensitivity are actually what torture's about.
One has to make a distinction because in this culture it is very loaded because it wasn't very long since people were being tortured in Vlakplas� the man who taught me to use a gun was a torturer in Vlakplas I found out - that's the country we live in, but now in a free, accepting adult world we must accept that some of us enjoy hurting each other, some of us enjoy being hurt, consensually as adults, mutually and that is completely fine and if not actually physically doing it then at least fantasising about it or using the zone of art and representation to allow ourselves to experience that stuff and mutually share it to become aroused by it. I am not too sure that my work is pornographic because pornography for me always involves masturbation and I don't think my work arouses people to the level that they want to masturbate, I think my work goes against that. Showing explicit images isn't necessarily pornography. I think one must really distinguish in this culture between explicit imagery which might have a very different raison d'etre than pornographic images which we generally assume are there 'cos you are going to buy them and they are going to turn you on and either get you to masturbate or fuck so they are part of consumer culture. Pornography actually is what TV is, is what magazines are, is what mass media is, child pornography is what the Internet is - those are the extreme examples of those forms. The actual meaning of those forms is nothing other than that. What I do is not that at all, what I do is actually an interrogation of that, it's an extrapolation and an attempt to understand what is really going on. I don't think my work functions to turn people on. If it does I can't help that, it's a by-product, but you know people get turned on by the strangest things.
VM: In the Snuff Collection you obviously borrow and collage from a lot of different places and presumably you got a lot of those images from pornographic films.
AK: Yes, Most of my images I got from the source. When I went to Japan I went to the Masami Akita, I went to libraries and the people who had made them. All those black and white stills have never been published anywhere before. They were illegal stills at the time. They were using guns on those girls; they were forcing those girls...
VM: That's precisely my point - it is not consensual.
AK: That not, but that's what I am doing I am exposing. The suicide is about the strange bizarre, legal zone in Japan. They are legal, not illegal - that's my point. I went to Japan where you can buy a Nazi uniform, you can buy Nazi equipment. I wanted to show what the level is, where the limits are. There is no law in Japan against Nazi equipment or uniforms, they are legally sold in the shops. You can just buy swastikas etc so for me the onus is on me as a travelling artist, as a world artist, to show you that. To make you realise that the norms and limits of your culture are very much about your culture, not about norms and limits.
VM: That becomes clear in the Snuff Collection.
AK: That's what I want to do. It's all about Japanese identity - the fact that cruelty and torture is an aesthetic adventure in Japan and has been so for hundreds of years - there is a tradition of that. So all my work is about going into different areas and exploring what the limits are.
The truth of a country comes when you really live there and you see what they are about. Coming back to South Africa it is really interesting because I feel that I have been trained about appearance/reality which is the old Shakespearian model where art is about uncovering what's really going on and why I love living here now is because I think it is very important to engage in what's really going on in the so called post-apartheid South Africa.
Why are there no black people at the NSA? I mean there are, three or four of them and all graduate students, but why do no black people come here, at all. There aren't even black waiters here - the only black people are doing the "brooming", Siyabonga and Charlotte who I have filmed alot. Why is this? What does labour tell us about the truth of what is really happening in this so-called post apartheid culture. That to me is what is interesting and whether I am using devices, which involve pornography and torture or whether I am using a broom, the work is the same, it just has a different manifestation in different places. It wouldn't be appropriate to be concerned with sexual torture here in South Africa because I think sexual violence towards women here is more about marriage, that institution.
This interview took place at the NSA Gallery, August 14, 2002.
The exhibition ended August 18.