Teju Cole, Black Paper, 2017. Photo Credit: Paula Court. Courtesy of Performa.

Here, There and Everywhere

Place & History at Performa 17

 

Installation shot of Zanele Muholi’s intervention in Time Square, New York City, as part of Performa 17. Courtesy of Performa.Installation shot of Zanele Muholi’s intervention in Time Square, New York City, as part of Performa 17. Courtesy of Performa.

 

Since I moved to New York in August, I’ve watched my country slowly disappear. Usually this happens in small ways, of which the loss of a shared cultural idiom is maybe the most insidious. Sometimes, though, home is vanished more conspicuously. On my third day in NYC, the woman behind the till at Trader Joes said, “I like your accent. Where are you from?” Keen to make friends, I told her I’d just moved from South Africa. “Oh that’s nice,” she said, smiling, “But honey, which country?” At a loss for words, I was quiet too long – she looked away and the conversation was over.

Afterwards I thought about what it is to take the vectors of place and of history for granted, inasmuch as these intersect to produce a sense of self. To be from somewhere matters, because you carry that knowledge embedded in your body where it can be wounded. Place matters, especially when you find yourself mapped imperfectly onto somewhere else.

 

Zanele Muholi, City Point installation, 2017. Digital Screens. Courtesy of Performa.Installation of Zanele Muholi’s intervention in City Point, New York, 2017. Digital Screens. Courtesy of Performa.

 

Performa, a behemoth of performance art spread out across 32 venues in wider New York, is very much a festival of place. Practically by definition, of course, a biennale is a localised manifestation of the international circulation of art. It necessarily stages a ‘here’ in relation to ‘there’, locality held in tension with globality in pluralist and hybrid ways. However, in this, its seventh edition, Performa 17 has anchored itself to a concrete ‘there’, organising two platforms with Africa as a frame alongside a third that showcases Estonian art.

The first of these, ‘Afroglossia’, curated by Adrienne Edwards, revolves around the work of nine African artists and collectives. Although it’s the product of intensive research on the continent, the final selection is weighted equally in favour of diaspora artists, all of whom are established names. When I asked Edwards about the decision to include so many artists resident in the United States, she pointed out that they all retain a foothold in Africa, and that the question itself was problematic. It forced a divide between the continent and its diaspora, reducing complex affinities and antagonisms to nothing but location. As Edwards concluded, “There’s something about needing to prove authenticity [for artists in the diaspora] that is frankly unfair. The fact of the matter is these artists are all engaged in an international art world.”

 

Tracey Rose, Die Wit Man, 2015. Single channel HD projection, stereo surround sound, 42’ 40”. © Sven Laurent. Courtesy of Performa.Tracey Rose, Die Wit Man, 2015. Single channel HD projection, stereo surround sound, 42’ 40”. © Sven Laurent. Courtesy of Performa.

 

While this commitment to transnationalism is important in our age of ossifying borders, it does come at a cost, reinscribing that same ‘international art world’ as always implicitly coterminous with Euro-America and recentring New York as a site of access and legibility. I’d go so far as to say that New York is a city-sized white cube. It claims a kind of ideological neutrality (imported art objects are not changed by the city), an unencumbered audience (presumed to consume culture without pre-existing limitations because they are cosmopolitan and diverse) and a status apart from the outside world (beyond America, and even beyond the borders of the city). “But honey, which country?”

In fact, New York is as much – if not more – a character in Performa’s figuring of place as is Africa. The festival is in and of this city; each work burrows into it and hollows out new spaces.

This is easier to see when those spaces are an uneasy fit. Teju Cole’s Black Paper, for instance, took place in City Point Mall in a rapidly gentrifying area of Brooklyn. Though we could hear the sounds of the food court while standing in line, the commercial environment had no bearing on the work’s content or form, an early indication of the insularity of the piece. An author and journalist by day, this was Cole’s first venture into performance. He feigned sleep in a black bed in the middle of the performance space while, around him, his photographs, all taken after Trump’s election in 2016, were projected on huge screens. The ebb and flow of the images was set to an arrhythmic, A-key sound-piece composed of instrumental sounds and found audio and fragments of human noise and speech. The effect was something like a scored Instagram feed: mediated individual experience, writ large.

 

Teju Cole, Black Paper, 2017. Photo Credit: Paula Court. Courtesy of Performa. Teju Cole, Black Paper, 2017. Photo Credit: Paula Court. Courtesy of Performa.

 

It forced a divide between the continent and its diaspora,

reducing complex affinities and antagonisms to nothing but location.

 

Cumulatively, the photographs had a powerful levelling effect. Switzerland became Lagos, which became NYC, without respect for borders or linear time, allowing closer attention to the formal beauty and ominous mood of each image. Juxtaposed with a palimpsest of Trump headlines on another screen, though, these thick pictures are pulled thin by the weight of an American centre of gravity. This was confirmed by Cole screaming himself awake from his faux-sleep … everything is a nightmare, I guess. Given the political stakes, the dream sequence as a narrative device seems too easy, a one-liner that over-determines the images as it cordons them off from the world.

The South African Pavilion Without Walls, the brainchild of Performa director Roselee Goldberg, is the first Performa ‘pavilion’ dedicated to a single African country. This, too, feels like a question of insularity at a different scale, because any attempt to shore up South Africa from the rest of the continent has troubling precedent. In art as in other things, the myth of South African moral, cultural and political exceptionalism persists. AfriPOP editor Phiona Okumu makes a useful comparison in a 2012 essay on South African arrogance: “South Africans act like the Americans of Africa … When they describe someone’s origins as ‘from Africa’ they mean a land far away, homogenised into one country by untold suffering.”

 

Kemang Wa Lehulere, I Cut My Skin to Liberate the Splinter, 2017. © Paula Court. Courtesy of Performa. Kemang Wa Lehulere, I Cut My Skin to Liberate the Splinter, 2017. © Paula Court. Courtesy of Performa.

 

That’s partly why it was exciting to see work like Kemang Wa Lehulere’s performance I Cut my Skin to Liberate the Splinter included under the South African umbrella, alongside the usual names like Kentridge. For all that it was presented under the sign of national identity, Wa Lehulere’s work moves fluently between registers, not so much becoming global as transcending context. The artist is sensitive to the dangers of exporting his work, remarking in an interview last year, “My caution is, always, what kind of story does one tell outside the country?” His solution here seems to be to forego narration almost entirely. Housed in the Connelly Theater, an independent arts space, consists of elaborate sculptural constellations activated by a cast of actors and choreographed by theatre director Chuma Sopotela. Interspersed with Wa Lehulere’s ever-present porcelain German Shepherds, an array of salvaged school desks, bird houses and found-material contraptions are repurposed as instruments to be played and played with.

The work is as much a series of visual vignettes as a musical piece. As actors animate them, objects transform as well as emit sound. Wa Lehurere mimes manual labour using a slapdash wheelbarrow manipulated with crutches, then the crutches become a means to spin tyres in an accelerating centrifuge, then the tyres themselves become a tool to cast looming shadows. The only spoken narration takes the form of short messages extracted from bottles and read aloud, including “Please remember on my behalf” and “This freedom is too much. I write myself into history.” There’s something to be said about ‘re-placing’ as a tactic in these soundbites, a fight for room in time, in space, in memory and in history.

 

Kendel Geers, WhoDoVooDuchamp Rack, 2009. Courtesy of Performa.Kendell Geers, WhoDoVooDuchamp Rack, 2009. Courtesy of Performa.

 

By comparison, Kendell Geers’s WhoDoVooDuchamp, the only South African piece I saw that explicitly took up the question of ‘Dada’ proffered as Performa’s anchor this year, was about displacing secure histories. Mixing fiction and fact, Geers delivered a pseudo-lecture on the work of Marcel Duchamp that began with his own story of flying across the United States in a plane struck by lightning. The fast-moving presentation took its cue from the fantasies about art embodied in Duchamp: the artist as genius trickster, as liar, as black magician (a role in which Geers also clearly sees himself). Instead of taking art history at its word, Geers unpeels the layers of myth that surround Duchamp and his practice, intervening in the canon of Western art more widely in the process. By doing this, he arguably shrugs off the mantle of national affiliation entirely; it’s imposed by the pavilion in name only, and Geers’s accent is incidental.

The matter of place, or the way in which place matters, is equally social and personal. It operates at the level of the intimate (my place, a la Teju Cole) and in wider national and supranational questions of belonging and meaning-making. Performa led me to believe that place invoked is also a kind of metric, a measure of the distance between here and there, which can sometimes feel very far indeed.

 

Kendel Geers, Ritualresist, 2017. Durational performance. Photo Credit: Lydie Nesvadba. Courtesy of Performa. Kendel Geers, Ritualresist, 2017. Durational performance. Photo Credit: Lydie Nesvadba. Courtesy of Performa.

 

On Saturday night, at the Performa AFTERHOURS party in the swanky Public Hotel in the Bowery, the photographer Zanele Muholi took to the stage with her crew of 23 South Africans. Besides conducting a series of conversations about visual activism and LGBTQIA rights in South Africa over the duration of the festival, she’s in New York to accompany her photographs, displayed on digital screens everywhere from Times Square to Queens. Some of her subjects are now the size of an apartment block, towering over this foreign landscape. At the event in question, however, Muholi’s team cheerfully jostled for space while holding a South African flag high as the artist greeted the crowd in isiZulu, half laughing but half serious. Behind me a group of college-aged Americans lost the plot. “Is this a performance?” one asked, loudly.

Maybe it was.

 

Installation shot of Zanele Muholi’s intervention in Time Square, New York City, as part of Performa 17. Courtesy of Performa.Installation shot of Zanele Muholi’s intervention in Time Square, New York City, as part of Performa 17. Courtesy of Performa.

 

Anna Stielau is a South African writer and educator living in Manhattan, where she is a PhD candidate in Media, Culture and Communications at New York University.

FEATURED IMAGE: Teju Cole, Black Paper, 2017. Photo Credit: Paula Court. Courtesy of Performa.
An earlier version of this article referred incorrectly to the founder of Performa. This error has since been corrected online.