Marina Abramovic and Paolo Canevari
by Kathryn Smith
The visit by Marina Abramovic and Paolo Canevari to the Johannesburg Art Gallery merits a position alongside some of the other memorable performance events that have taken place in recent years in South Africa. Among others, these include Steven Cohen at the rugby, Cohen and Kendell Geers at Fort Klapperkop, Peet Pienaar as a Springbok, Robyn Orlin's trapeze-style spectacle at the opening of the 1997 Johannesburg Biennale, Tracey Rose in her glass box at the South African National Gallery, Robin Rhode attempting to steal his own wall-drawing of a car at the Market Theatre Galleries (and most other Rhode insurgencies), the auction of Bruce Gordon. All of these events and their tertiary realities documented in catalogues and the popular press represent an immediacy and an engagement with broader artistic and social frameworks beyond the gallery space that non-performative work can't nail down quite as well.
I'm sure it has something to do with spectacle and everything to do with the dynamics set up between performer and viewer/s. It is seldom that an artist of Abramovic's stature visits South Africa and affords the artistic community the time, respect and sensitivity for issues as relevant in a local context as they are globally. I attended both her and Canevari's artist's talks, and where Abramovic is concerned, everything is about energy. It is the basis for her groundbreaking early performances, with and without long-term partner in life, love and art Ulay - they ended their astonishing relationship by walking the Great Wall of China from opposite ends, meeting in the middle to say their goodbyes and going their separate ways - and now. Over the years, her work had steadily marked a subtle shift away from the obvious aggression and raw physicality of her earlier pieces (documented so evocatively in black and white film) to a subtler, but no less compelling use of the body, and a fair amount of physical pain, as a transformative device.
Abramovic harnesses the energy shifts that come with extreme endurance, working with the body's limits and ability for tolerance, and its emotional and perhaps even spiritual capacity to transcend physical punishment. Her ritualised, cathartic brand of performance with shamanistic overtones has provided a framework for her to access different cultures in a completely immersive way. Born in Yugoslavia in 1946 of Communist parents who served in the military, the events of May 1968 were deeply formative for her, and her innovative work has always been about trying to make sense of experience, whether traumatic, violent, transformative or destabilising, through the body. By her own admission, she experienced a profound connection to contemporary South Africa, its political parallels with Yugoslavia, and traditional spiritual practices. Intending to come back to spend time developing new work, her experience here included a visit to a sangoma initiation ceremony in Tembisa, which the participants gave her permission to document on video.
Both her and Canevari's artist's talks filled the JAG's auditorium to capacity, beyond the fire regulations I'm sure, and those who attended hung on every word. Here and at the opening, it was pretty clear that Abramovic was the star attraction. Canevari's presence provoked a range of responses from the bemused "so who's this guy now?" to unfair but unfortunately classic art-tart mutterings of "tag-along". With attitude like this and we wonder why the artworld's reputation for pettiness, paranoia and a lack of generosity persists? But that's a whole other gossip column.
Abramovic has an arresting presence, humorously self-deprecating and in possession of a genuinely dynamic energy that had students rushing out wondering when they could spring a radical performance piece on unsuspecting lecturers. For me, Paolo Canevari's work was more of an unknown quantity, but his work for the Liverpool Biennale, of which I'd seen photographs, impressed me immediately. Between two city buildings, he mock-precariously suspended a replica of a WW2 German bomb (undetonated) which he found in the local museum, as a reminder of the city's destruction during the war and its subsequent regeneration. It was a privilege to hear him engage with his practice, in his über-cool and witty Roman manner, and put the Liverpool piece into the overall context of his work, which despite being produced primarily in Rome, is uncannily prescient of political change and urban realities in South Africa.
Canevari is the product of a family of sculptors in which there was enormous pressure to pursue a traditional art career of the classical Italian variety. By his own admission, he is almost over-trained academically, and in 1991, held his first solo show "fairly late" (he was 30). He speaks of the enormous weight of classical heritage in Italy, and Rome in particular, which can result in a kind of artistic paralysis, a stripping of one's agency to make a significant mark on such a dense history. His solution was to adopt an Arte Povera-type approach, working principally in discarded rubber tyres and inner tubes. A readily accessible, 'junk' material, its conceptual significance to Canevari is of a contemporary urban artefact that contains evidence of modernity's failure rather than success, or pollution rather than progress. His approach is minimalist, and while his early work was primarily concerned with formal issues, his work has emphatically asserted itself - much like Kendell Geers's - as a device to make political statements. The changing status of his preferred materials invites this - tyres are no longer manufactured from rubber plants but from synthetic materials produced from crude oil. They thus represent the conflict between US and the Middle East, but in SA, can't escape the reference of necklacing.
He will often produce work that is a direct and sensitive response to the context in which he finds himself. For the JAG exhibition it was no different, with Canevari working with a team of assistants and producing his work on site. Transient, ephemeral, modular, his practice is spare, demonstrating the kind of economy of strong conceptual art, where the premise for the idea is elegantly contained (but not absolutely determined by) a discursive relationship between medium and message. And still, his formal eye prevails. He shows three large works, constructed in the main from tyres and oil drums, and emphatically concerned with current instances of political strife, framed by the current US/Middle East conflict and the oil-for-food controversies. Landscape occupies the centre of the first gallery, a collection of tyres and oil drums shrouded beneath an American flag. The adjacent space is for the most part consumed by Black Stone, an enormous cuboid construction constructed from strips of tyre nailed to an armature. Resembling an outsize, Third-World-style Donald Judd, Black Stone is a clear reference to the Al-hajar Al-aswad, or Black Stone of Kaaba or Mecca, Islam's most sacred sanctuary and pilgrimage shrine located in the courtyard of the Great Mosque of Mecca, and towards which all Muslims face during daily prayers. It's an aggressive thing, its scale dwarfing the body and making a pointed comment on the translation of religious doctrine into political ideology.
Abramovic's performance and video installations are effectively buttressed by Canevari's work. To the side of her Spirit Cooking performance installation is Canevari's Totem, a blatently phallic construction that is remarkably sensitive to the neo-classical vaulted space in which it rears its head. If you were fortunate enough to encounter Canevari on opening night, he probably would have greased your palm with an artefact and gift from the exhibition - a very oily dollar bill peeled from a considerable wad.
Abramovic's video installations - one single channel piece and a five channel work presented in two adjacent spaces - had me going back five times, simply to sit in the environment and reflect. The Hero, a black and white, single channel piece depicts a pastoral landscape with Abramovic, dressed in black, sitting motionless on an equally still white horse in the centre of the image, holding an enormous white flag. The effect is crusade-like, with Abramovic the ironic, female bearer of peace. Accompanied by a female voice singing a solemn song - the Yugoslav national anthem perhaps - the effect of the film, in which the only motion is the artist's hair, horse's mane and flag blown by the wind, puts the attention to the landscape, which one begins to read with the silence of ancient battlegrounds. This piece is strikingly installed so as to be visible down the architectural sight-lines of the museum and in relationship with Canevari's Totem.
Canevari's formalism resonates within Abramovic's five-channel Count on Us. Dominated by tones of red, black and white, it's a complex, cyclical piece that demands focus and attention. On the far walls of the space, two videos face each other, one depicting choir of children singing a highly rhetorical, partisan song about the United Nations, conducted by Abramovic with human skeletons strapped to the front and back of her body. The other depicts an aerial view of the artist lying in a public space, complete with skeletons, with arms and legs spread with her body forming a pentagram. A crowd of children gather around her, repeating the pentagram-form. The opposite walls contain footage of Abramovic enacting a new-famous piece, channelling electricity through her body to illuminate a fluorescent tube, which she holds on both hands. Opposite, two children, purportedly from the choir, are isolated, each singing a plaintive, poetic folk song about love, loss and longing. As the soundtracks merge and separate, the piece represents the action-reaction and transformative power of human energy and desire so prevalent in Abramovic's work.
Abramovic made good on her endeavour to present a tableau vivant-style performance piece that was, in her words, about "the here and now, the presentness of the moment". Standing on a ledge mounted midway up the gallery wall between two angled recesses, dramatically lit with a rectangle of bright light, flanked by two galvanised buckets and dressed in a white lab coat, Abramovic held out her hands, covered in a red and white substance respectively, in offering or supplication. Her presence and poise, and the combined atmosphere of reverence and desperation from the crush of people to get a glimpse of the scene, prompted someone standing near me to speak of "the angel on the ledge". Occasionally she would bend, dip her hands into the buckets and resume her stance, the stuff in her hands - a fine porridge and great globs of congealing blood - slapping down onto the floor.
Beneath her, the words 'SPIRIT COOKING' were painted in blood on the wall, accompanied by a series of numbers and symbols of spiritual significance, both pagan and religious. Abramovic began the performance alone, before the space was open to the public. By the time the double doors were opened to reveal her on the platform, she was mentally elsewhere, her eyes tearing and in a heightened emotional state. Her slow, measured movements of bending, dipping in to the buckets and straightening up, moving each time to the very edge of the ledge had a deeply meditative effect.
Where her performances are concerned, the work is as much about her own endurance as the audience's limits of tolerance of actually witnessing, unmediated and in real time, the obvious discomfort and suffering of another human being. Many people left after satisfying their visual curiosity, and missed the point of the work. As hours went by, her exhausted muscles began to twitch involuntarily, and at one point she started mechanically singing along to the soundtrack of her video The Hero. Shortly after this, and just over two hours into the public part of the performance, she was apparently overcome by the intensity of it all, and the doors were closed.
The energy of this event brought all manner of artists and cultural figures out of the woodwork, so much so that I couldn't help thinking that if anyone wanted to wipe out all the major personas of the Johannesburg art world, present and slightly past, all you'd have to do is unleash some terrorist-type action on the JAG on the evening of Sunday May 1, 2005.
On the subject of terrorism, it's already a well-worn discussion but I must acknowledge Kendell Geers's opening address in all this. It was a gem of a performance, the most colourful moments of which included Geers thanking ex-JAG director Rochelle Keene for resigning, and thus opening up the JAG to new, more contemporary possibilities; and lamenting the fact that many South African artists are, in his view, "festering under a rock" without the necessary exposure to the international art world.
Any artist who is privileged enough to travel regularly will appreciate what Geers was trying to say. The opportunity to dialogue with one's contemporaries and see exhibitions of contemporary and historical work first-hand, rather than in the pages of books, is an invigorating thing.
Kendell's address was tasty bait for his detractors, not to mention the media. The Sunday Times has run articles over three consecutive weeks, hinging (and whinging) on Geers's allegedly hypocritical attitude, which is surprising but also boringly predictable. Contemporary art issues never attract this amount of coverage in the popular press. Did Geers not, of his own volition, organise this rather significant event and negotiate financial support through the Goodman Gallery, knowing the JAG's resources would not stretch this far? Some focus, people? Of course Geers will use his fifteen minutes to state his inflammatory case about the state of art. If he didn't I'd be suspicious. But it's a real pity that people are naïve enough to fall once again for this kind of vintage Geers performance and spend their time gnashing their teeth at his irascibility when the occasion was actually about two international artists showing in Johannesburg, both of whom donated works to the institution. I suppose some journalists were no doubt happy they had something sensational to write about again, despite that fact that most of them completely missed the point.