Angry letters on "lewd" art performance give rise to NSA Forum
by Virginia MacKenny
In response to a flood of angry letters to the Independent on Saturday criticising both the NSA Gallery for hosting Nicola Deane's performance piece Home Economics and the newspaper for writing about it, the NSA hosted a forum entitled The Vagina Dialogues: Art on the Edge of Acceptability which took place on Thursday, September 5. The event provided a context for such performances and a defence for the NSA's decision to host the work.
Deane's performance was part of an ongoing exhibition project initiated by artist Aryan Kaganof and it produced a number of rather delicate chocolate vulvas moulded from the artist's own body in front of the audience. It ended when Deane "anointed" Kaganof by urinating on his head. The reports of the performance hit the mainstream media a week later and unleashed a heated fracas around pornography, 'what art is not' and the perceived moral position of the gallery, the artist and the media.
Most of the comments in the newspaper tended to the outraged as JB Maritz from Durban North attested when s/he said that "I am appalled...I feel insulted" S/he saw the work as "blatant, piggish, disgusting pornography...revealing her (Deane's) pigsty-like sense of art". For E Poulter of Sherwood the newspaper report and exhibition were "symptomatic of a society completely adrift from its moral moorings" and both were "flaunters of depravity in conditioning society to accept the unacceptable". V Smith of La Lucia said "this exhibition of so-called art leaves me speechless...(it is) lewd behaviour... if someone had done this outside the door of the NSA Gallery they would have been arrested" whilst J Fourie of New Germany turned his attention on the audience calling them "self-indulgent voyeuristic trendoids". (All quotes from Independent on Saturday 24.08.02 letters page).
In response to such criticism and in line with its policy of educating the public in contemporary discourse, the NSA Gallery invited interested and enraged members of the public to join a forum to discuss these issues. Storm Janse van Rensburg curator of the NSA Gallery outlined the gallery's selection process and the curator's function at such events, whilst Andrew Verster, an artist and member of the Publications Review Board, defended freedom of speech and answered the public's questions on the legality of presenting such work. Virginia MacKenny, Senior Lecturer in Fine Art at the Durban Institute of Technology provided an historical context for artists' utilisation of their own bodies in such performance art and in particular referenced feminist protest art in response to the hierarchies of patriarchy. Nicky du Plessis deftly chaired the event.
Possibly predictably, very few of the 'outraged' public bothered to show up. Most had never seen the show and were acting on heresay and of the thirty odd people who did pitch only one was against the work shown and she was not so much concerned with Nicola Deane's work as Aryan Kaganof's utilisation of overtly pornographic material on the final night of his exhibition. Kaganof had shown particularly difficult material accompanied by an extremely noisy sound track and had successfully managed to drive a good 80-90% of his audience out of the gallery. The content of the work had generated much intense discussion.