Apologies in advance – this is a VERY long post. But trust me, it will probably feel shorter than some of the performances described below felt.
Day 5 at Live ’08
Alliance Francaise (stupid PC keyboard is crap at reproducing the cedilla) is a lovely building in Lodhi Estate. The Indian International Centre – pretty rose garden winter and great lemon tarts and lobster thermidores all year round – is right around the corner and the UN has its office in the same lane. I’m sure the French wanted a place that would be, comment vous dire…ahrtee? I’m pretty certain they didn’t think the foyer would ever end up being the scene where an artist would propose to anaesthetise two goats, one sheep, a donkey and herself.
Someone needs to do a documentary on Neha Choksi. Under her shorn hair and smooth, unbumpy skull is a remarkably inventive brain that has a lot of good ideas. Somewhere in that brain are a set of neurons that are completely and totally frazzled. I can think of no other explanation for how a woman can have as smart a set of ideas as she does and who can butcher them so violently in execution.
The last show of hers in Mumbai was an attempt at showing what are the physical things we construct identity with. She wanted to create something like a diagram of people considered outsiders by using the things they held dear to them. It’s a great idea and very timely in a city that is being plagued by issues of whether being from a certain regional community makes you a true citizen. Choksi ended up dislocating her shoulder in the process of putting this project together. The experience of seeing the show dislocated most viewers’ sense of … well, sense. The exhibit was terribly unstructured and felt pretentious and forcibly dense.
For “Petting Zoo”, Choksi saved the livestock in question from an abbatoir and I overheard that she is going to be raising them. Part of raising them is to be made part of an art exhibit where they will be knocked out. In case you’re feeling righteous about issues of whether these animals should be used like this, Choksi was going to get herself knocked out too. What works for mommy works for baby. The fact that mommy knows what she’s doing while baby is clueless about why baby’s being jabbed with needles is a lesser evil, I suppose, when you consider the treatment baby was going to receive would have left it dead. Ultimately, the only one who did get knocked out was Choksi herself because there were fears that the animal welfare board would be able to protest and disrupt things if anything was done to the animals in a public space. So the zoo was an enclosed blue tent-like space in which the animals sat around, occasionally making piteous noises, and Choksi lay sleeping. Viewers were let in one by one and told they could pet the artist and the animals but they should maintain a significant distance from the hind legs of the donkey. The tent also showed videos of Choksi and the animals being knocked out. Choksi got the biggest screen. As Orwell said, some animals are more equal than others.
Below the zoo, in a basement gallery Indonesian artist Reza Afisina set up his show. This involved one video camera and one one table with syringes, bandages and cotton wool. His performance involved him holding out his arm and getting the following passage tattooed on his forearm:
My birth was a product of tourism and diplomacy,
From hence you came, you shall remain
Until you complete again
Uniformity of our minds to the fact.
Deep stuff. Written in italics, no less. He didn’t flinch much when the drilling sound of the tattoo machine began but then, he’s quite used to a) getting tattoos since he had about six huge (decorative) ones on his other arm and b) scratching words on his skin in the name of performance. The brochure shows him standing with the word “PRIDE” cut into his scrawny chest. If he was hoping inking a quote by Julio Cortazar would give him the writer’s brooding intensity, I’m sorry to say he’s going to be disappointed. Indonesia is exotic, mais oui, but Belgian-born Argentine who wrote in Paris has much more mystique going for him. It was actually rather sad because there Reza was, going through this pain, and almost no one stayed. There was, after all, livestock to pet upstairs and other performances happening in the basement while the tattoo droned on.
Sarnath Banerjee and Ray Langenbach took the “stage” in the basement while Reza bled his way towards experimenting with his body to explore ideas of systemic violence. Banerjee performed “Tito Years”, a story about the romantic ’80s when Nike was rare and Bangladesh TV was our window to the world. Accompanying Banerjee’s storytelling were slides – some were scenes drawn by the graphic novelist turned artist and others were little gems like Kimi Katkar romancing Tarzan (god bless You Tube and Bollywood) and Banerjee himself singing the Bangladeshi commercial for Coca Cola. It was funny, endearing and a repeat of what Banerjee did in Mumbai for the opening of his debut art show (more on that in another post, perhaps). Whether it was performance art is another matter because if this qualifies as performance art then a whole bunch of power point presentations, including those annoying ones my mum keeps forwarding me for good luck, could be called art. However, I will cut Banerjee some slack because he seemed to be having some technical trouble which didn’t help his story-reading skills.
Ray Langenbach, on the other hand, had no technical difficulties. His performance went smooth as silk, despite or precisely because the performance was riddled with disturbances. Ostensibly, Langenbach’s show was the most boring thing in years because he sat at a desk, opened up a Macbook and gave us a lecture on Socratic philosophy which most people know, especially if they’re an arty crowd who probably read “The Republic” in college. As he droned on, a man in a red shirt kept weaving in and out of the crowd, tapping the brochure really loudly so that it sounded like there was a branch hitting a window. Another guy started heckling Langenbach in Hindi, saying this was a shit performance and where the hell was the action and what kind of fools stuck around listening to this crap. One guy told him to shut up. He didn’t. Langenbach behaved as though nothing had happened. Most of us looked a little embarrassed and tried to ignore the heckler even though if we were honest, we’d admit he was saying precisely what we were thinking. Then, abruptly, Langenbach got up and walked over to see Reza being tattooed. At this point, the guy who had defended him against the heckler stood up, pulled out a puppet from a red bag and gave us a quick little performance. The puppet contorted itself and kept losing its head, literally (he kept lifting his head and balancing it on his feet and what not). Then the show was over. Credits were projected on the walls and it seemed there were six performers, including Langenbach, which was when the audience caught on that the entire thing – disturbances and all – were part of the performance. Langenbach was probably hoping the audience would get into fisticuffs with the heckler or something but his experiment in his version of Plato’s cave failed. Or perhaps we the audience failed him by being too used to ignoring rude behaviour (especially in Delhi).
No possibility of ignoring rudeness when it came to the last performance of the evening by South African artist Steven Cohen who, for all we know, might also be the billionaire hedge fund manager who is believed to be the 47th richest man in America. With Bear Stearns folding up and everyone seeing the Great Depression round the corner, maybe billionaire Cohen decided he had better chance of earning his daily bread by prancing around naked at Alliance Francaise in New Delhi.
Whoever the real Cohen might be, the one you see on stage is one hell of a character. The picture here is from what he called his “Chandelier Project”. I don’t know what that project involved but from the look of the pictures in Cohen’s website, I’m willing to guess it involved him shoving something up his anus. On previous occasions, he’s gone so far as to stick a firecracker in there and light it. I suppose we should be grateful that all he did in the Alliance Francaise auditorium is stick a camera in there.
We were warned as we entered the auditorium that Cohen’s performance could seem offensive, that the star represented the Star of David and the swastika was meant to evoke the Nazi one. Did that prepare us for the sight of Cohen with his much-painted face walking in wearing a corset, oversized stripper shoes and a sticker with the Star of David on his penis? Nope. He lost all the props soon enough and proceeded to give us one helluva video show using two little cameras which looked like flashlights. He created the illusion of flashing sirens, ran us through bits of Hebrew texts and strategically positioned the cameras so that against the soundscape of Nazi speeches, the head of his penis (with the aid of what looked like a metal wire) and his anus turned into mouths. He danced like a cabaret dancer, used his body to create a swastika and then shoved the camera you know where – I have people landing up at this blog while apparently searching for “l.c. transsexual” and “sexy mallus” (Mr. Google, wtf???); I shudder to think what kind of searches this blog will appear on after this post – and finally put something on near the end of his show: a gas mask. The performance ended with a video of Cohen dressed in a tutu-type thing which had a magnifying glass over his penis and a huge Star of David on his head, holding a replica of the spine. He was standing outside the Centre d’Histoire de la Resistance et de la Deportation in Lyons. People tried to ignore him for a while, from the look of things but ultimately, three cops (one of them a woman) came up to remove the gent in the tutu from the premises.
Cohen’s performance could make some thankful for having a moral police in this country. I’m not there yet but the kind of oohs and aahs this performance got made me want to rattle the I’m-so-cool leftists in the crowd. The fact that he was naked and very athletic seemed to draw a rousing applause from the audience. Yes, he’s brave for being able to strut naked before us but why on earth was he doing what he did? What were we applauding? His capacity to do backflips? Admirable but surely that’s a sporting feat rather than an artistic one. Cohen was provocative and trying desperately to infuriate the audience but what I didn’t understand was what he was trying to say. There were bits of his performance that did work for me – like the way he used the cameras when he wasn’t shoving them into his orifices – because they played with the idea of how history is represented. He seemed to have issues about how the Jewish identity has been constructed with the experience of the Holocaust as a major component but precisely what his problem with that was eluded me. Was him standing in costume outside the building a Lyons an experiment to see how making an exhibition of being a Jew is treated even today? Are we supposed to ignore the tutu, the magnifying glass and his outsized silver shoes?
I’m clearly just not smart enough for this stuff. One thousand nine hundred and ninety eight words is more than enough to prove that point, methinks.