Experiments with rubber and metal

Don’t be confused by the burning rubber tyres, smashed cars and painted white stones; it’s not Protest Art. By Sean O’Toole

In 1998 avant-garde Japanese fashion label Comme Des Garçons released a fragrance devoid of natural ingredients. Aside from nail polish and a flash of metal, the 53 non-traditional notes that comprised Odeur 53 included burnt rubber. Similarly inspired by the peculiar scent of rubber is Marcel Waldeck.

In September the young Wits art student staged a one-off performance at The Premises Gallery, the asymmetrical Johannesburg venue for an afternoon filled with the distinctive smell of burnt rubber. Titled Burn Out, the performance was a collaboration between Waldeck, son of artist Ian Waldeck, and the Stallion Riders, a club founded in 1982 by biker Clive Lewis. Recognising the ephemeral nature of his performance, Waldeck freeze-framed the moment by asking his collaborators to spin their tyres on floor-mounted blank slabs.

Expressing a similar interest in the aural potential of human transport, this in a city increasingly beleaguered by grinding traffic queues, are Clare Loveday and Gerhard Marx. Their The Collision Project, hosted by the Substation Gallery during the city’s September Arts Alive festival, had three male performers coaxing strangely haunting, rhythmical sounds from a smashed-up car (a Peugeot — why not a BMW?). Choreographed and scored by the pair, the live performance elegantly mixed experimental sound, movement and theatre traditions.

Recognising the fertile possibilities of collaborating across disciplines, renowned choreographer and dancer Jeannette Ginslov has recently established a new multimedia dance theatre company, Walking Gusto Productions. Her contribution to the 2006 Arts Alive programme included a 40-minute performance piece titled Writing with Stones. Inspired by JM Coetzee’s novel In the Heart of the Country (1976), a story of an unattractive but intelligent spinster daughter of a sheep farmer in the Karoo, the dance piece incorporated contributions by Colleen Alborough (visuals), James Webb (sound) and Nathaniel Stern (multi-media).

While dancers Annett Brunnader, Yuhl Nala Headman, Penny Ho Hin and Zoey Lapinsky occasionally struggled with the expressionistic language of the piece, the production nonetheless represented an accomplished debut. Webb’s menacing sound design, almost invisible at first, was complemented by Albrough’s inspired title design and melancholic roadside visuals. There is talk it will travel to the 2007 National Arts Festival.

As with Loveday and Marx’s piece, Ginslov’s production echoed the improvisational spirit of John Cage and Merce Cunningham’s groundbreaking collaborations. In a local context, the meeting of William Kentridge, Warrick Sony and the Handspring Puppet Company cannot be overlooked either, Ubu and the Truth Commission (1997) a definite benchmark for projects conversing across disciplines.

The relative scarcity, however, of projects following in this tradition remains noteworthy. While lack of institutional funding is often cited as a reason, the dictates of an extended bull market for commercial art is equally to blame — it has spawned a generation of earnest wannabes and demure yuppies whose only concern is the market. Which makes it all the more refreshing to see a host of young artists engaging with art as a site unfettered expression and diversionary play.