A few days ago, someone gave me a weighing scale for free. I summoned all my courage, stood on it and vowed to never do anything quite as self-esteem shattering ever again. When I told a friend of mine, she suggested I try Pilates. Watching a video of a Seiji Shimoda performance today, I figured I should take her advice. Whether or not I lose weight, I could always set up an alternative career as a performance artist.
Performance art has a bad rep for being obscure, self-indulgent, a touch ridiculous and basically very, very weird. Because why on earth does a man put a banana on the floor, get down on his hand and knees, rest his head on said floor and then huff and puff at the banana as though he’s related to the wolf from the story of the Three Little Pigs? What point is made when a man wraps his head in pink wrapping paper and does a curious version of musical chairs? When a man carries a bucket around, asks the audience to spit into it and then upturns the same bucket on his head, what is communicated other than “get this man shampooed immediately”? What is artistic about laying out a line of watermelon wedges, squashing them underfoot and then extracting the juice from the floor with a syringe? The only one I understood was a chilling one in which a man and his young son sit face to face and eat chips. Unexpectedly, from time to time, the father slaps himself and the kid follows suit. It was a somewhat frightening look at farcical systems of reward and punishment, ideas of self-worth and continuing cycles of self-inflicted violence. Shimoda didn’t do the self-slapping, watermelon-squelching and saliva hairpack. These were performances by artists who Shimoda has presented at festivals he’s organised and in which he’s participated. One of his performances that he showed had him doing some serious Pilates moves on a table, naked (naturally).
For his impromptu performance in Bombay, Shimoda had two pen torches, clear cellotape and two white plastic bags. First he blew some air into the plastic bags and let them fall to the floor, semi-inflated. He taped the torches to either side of his head. Then, he stuck some cellotape to the middle of his forehead. It dangled till his knees. He lowered the tape twice so that it picked up the two bags one by one. Then he swung the dangling cellotape around, complete with plastic bags, so that he had two plastic ears. While doing this, he coloured the bags with red and white markers so that they looked like they’d been scraped. He proceeded then to shred one of the plastic bags and stuck the ragged pieces to some tape that he had peeled off his head. The other plastic bag went around his shoes, tying his feet up. With his feet up like a baby, Shimoda stuck the piece of tape with the shredded plastic bag to the one around his feet, again demonstrating control over stomach muscles that would have made Joseph Pilates proud. Then in roughly this order, the following happened: Shimoda revolved on his back, shredded the other plastic bag and wound the dangling tape around his head again so that his face was shrouded by a plastic curtain; stuck a whistle in his mouth, and blew it while he spun around slowly on his side and then manically on his stomach. The performance ended with Shimoda on his feet, doing what looked like Buddhist hand mudras.
During the question and answer session at the end of the performance, a woman asked Shimoda what he had meant to communicate. He grinned and replied he didn’t know. Much to this woman’s irritation, he also said that if what he did was incomprehensible to his audience in some part, then he was satisfied. Which of course neatly sums up why performance art is so annoying — watching the more bizarre performances, you can’t help thinking this person is making a fool of you. While you’re there trying to figure out whether Shimoda whistling manically and spinning on his stomach symbolises a hunted animal, Bombay’s traffic, child’s play gone terribly wrong or something completely different, there’s actually no reason for him doing any of this. Except does a man end up discussing performance art in front of an audience with half a metre of cellotape stuck to his head and bits of plastic bags fanning around his ears for fun?
Weird as it was, there was something about Shimoda’s performance, much like the Pilates-on-table routine that he showed earlier in the evening. The table one, in particular, is riveting and not just because there’s a naked man with awesome muscular control lying on a table with his legs in the tabletop position. It’s strangely beautiful how the table is used, how it seems to go from being a prop to a part of Shimoda’s body and how he emerges from it as though being birthed into this world. But let’s just step off the Art planet, return to Earth and attempt to work this out logically and cogently. A man takes his table out of his house. He takes off his clothes and starts doing Pilates exercises on it. A man sticks cellotape in his hair, tears up plastic bags, wears them on his face, does a mean impression of an overturned turtle while blowing a whistle. If a kid did this, we’d say he’s retarded. A grown, good-looking man does it, it’s art. Great.