When it comes to performance art, I’m at a bit of a loss. The genre itself, only recently adopted by the National Arts Festival as part of its programming, is ill-fitting. In South Africa it seems to have become a broad catch-all for performances that don’t quite fit into any of the established theatre genres or spaces.
A brief search for a definition doesn’t offer much illumination. Most posts refer to the inclusion of visual art of some kind, and artstory.org, which has a page devoted to performance art as a genre, talks of artists who practice traditional modes of art, such as painting and sculpture, turning to performance as a means to rejuvenate their work. It does, however, go on to note that the body is often a central focus.
Gavin Krastin’s Trophy, performed with Alan Parker and Kai Luke Brummer in the Jubilee Hall at Cape Town Fringe, billed as performance art, didn’t clarify matters. It was performed in a theatre (albeit a Fringe venue – so not traditionally a theatre) and involved three performers on a stage. There is a lot of work that offers much more of a challenge to traditional notions of theatre yet is not billed as performance art.
Not that this is a problem, it’s more of an observation, at most a questioning of what sets performance art apart from theatre, or drama.
Trophy left me as puzzled about the work as I am about the genre under which it is placed. I really don’t know what to think about it. All I could do was use the title and notes as a means to try put meaning to what I saw.
It was a strange mixture of static and dynamic performance, as Brummer, and particularly Krastin, bear a much closer resemblance to sculptures than performers, while Parker, his white shorts nailed to an orange plastic chair, engages in an a-rhythmic dance that is in turns staccato and surprisingly graceful.
Krastin, with an off-white sack over his head with the two top corners tied so that they resemble ears, ends up stuck in a framed certificate – ‘Rhodes University, Master of Art’.
Parker, who in the beginning draws a Springbok badge onto his white shirt with a black marker, walks and leaps and rolls around the stage, his chair stuck to his arse the whole while.
About a third of the way into the performance, Brummer enters stage left, vacuum packed in plastic and thus suffering severely limited movement, wormed his way into view.
What it all means, I’m not sure. There’s two trophy’s symbolised. One the Springbok badge, the other the certificate of academic achievement. Perhaps vacuum-packed Brummer, with the suction pipe forming a sort of halo or crown around his head, represents the way the achievement of a certain status can be stultifying. The Saint, for instance, has to be careful to do nothing to sully his sainthood, royalty are stifled by the conventions of their title.
Given the programme stated Trophy is “a performance respone to our publice staTue (sic) and monuments, and the history and political gestures embedded in their significance and function, or lack thereof”, I saw the three white male bodies as white male bodies, embodying a specific race and culture.
In this context, Parker was the white South African ‘everyman’. The braai-loving rugby supporter who, due to being white and male, is confined to the status of spectator in the political arena. However much he might try move, the fact that he has a seat stuck to his arse just makes him comical, and possibly pathetic.
Krastin, who as I mentioned is more a living sculpture than a performer in this work, would represent the white male stuck in a western intellectual mode of thinking and being, unable to move in a society that no longer recognises his values.
Brummer, shrink-wrapped so that every move is a struggle, might represent the daily struggle for movement and relevancy as a white male in South Africa.
These are just my interpretations, the associations conjured by my subjective view, and I suppose that is what Krastin offers us: a number of images, a dynamic artwork for our own interpretation.
I did think the second half of the work, which is just Brummer’s vacuum-packed body slowly subsiding, giving up, was much weaker than the first half when Parker and Krastin offered some dynamism.
Certainly the vacuum-packed body is disturbing, conjuring images of corpses or meat stored in the deep freeze – I had to hold back the urge to run onto stage and release him – but I believe Krastin has hauled this image out a couple of times in other work, I am told, so it is no longer new – although it was new to me.
Overall the work, although obviously offering food for though, was far less fulfilling, less complete than On Seeing Red and other Fantasies which was performed at the National Arts Festival.
This felt rather like a first draft, the work as unresolved as the genre.
— Steve Kretzmann