“Where is everybody?”

Documented, critical research into walter Battiss’s happenings is limited. A new book, published to coincide with a retrospective show of his work, corrects this with an essay by Kathryn Smith

Throughout his career, Walter Battiss demonstrated a remarkable creative and intellectual agility, moving between media, subject matter and stylistic approach with a noteworthy, if sometimes uneven dexterity. His love of travel and meeting international contemporaries cannot be overestimated in terms of how these experiences impacted on his practice as an artist, educator and outspoken advocator for freedom of expression in a politically skewed South Africa.

Of these activities, Battiss’s performance happenings (from 1967 onwards) seem to respond to some kind of perceived or experienced instability: whether art world politics; provincialistic mediocrity in art; or state-sanctioned censorship as a symptom of South Africa’s burgeoning political volatility — none of which Battiss could abide. Rather than identifiable, contained or isolated incidents, these moments of instability during the 1960s and 1970s were continuous, a dormant fault line registering on Battiss’s creative seismograph that reached various peaks and troughs as his freedom, and that of other artists, was more or less compromised. We see parallels between Battiss’s increasing interest in performance and his growing older, a kind of reverse process of playfulness. “[H]appiness” he once commented, “belongs to youth but I’m finding it as I get older”.

Battiss’s various happenings coincided chronologically with similar developments in the European and American art worlds. At the time, South Africa was participating in major international art events, such as the Venice Biennale and Documenta (Battiss participated in three Documentas), and international groups like Fluxus, who worked within a performance framework, was stimulating much cross-cultural dialogue between Japan and the Euro-American art world ‘centre’.1

Travel enabled Battiss to engage with his like-minded contemporaries abroad. He maintained a long-distance friendship with Eat Art originator Daniel Spoerri and referenced Spoerri’s fellow New Realist, Jean Tinguely, in his screenprint Tinguely and his machine(1971). Spoerri and Tinguely both embraced creative processes that favoured aspects of chance, recalling the work of surrealists and dadaists before them, and Battiss clearly responded to the playful, anarchic and critical ethos of their work. Interestingly, Spoerri’s peripatetic existence mirrors Battiss’s own penchant for travel.

Tinguely and his machine was one of five ‘advertisements’ Battiss placed in Studio International. Juxtaposed with standard gallery announcements, they function as camouflaged but strategically site-specific interventions. The caption for Tinguely acknowledges his collaboration with Chris Betambeau, with whom Battiss printed serigraphs in 1969. Of the other Studio International ads, with the possible exception of the erotic drawing Seychelles (1972), two photographic entries and one reproduction of a painting clearly demonstrate a link to a live action or gesture on Battiss’s part. Two other text-based entries, Walter Battiss & Ferdinand Fook the Fifth (invisible) make islands (1973) and To Daniel Spoerri from Walter Battiss (1973) reference his Fook Island project and his relationship with Spoerri respectively.

Battiss’s First multiple mini-mobile monument on wheels in Africa in the Indian Ocean, Natal, dedicated to YOU (1972) is a photograph of the object described in the title, isolated in the surf on the shoreline of a beach, ostensibly in Natal. A sign on the plinth declares “Mobile Monument to You. Copyright: Battiss”. This monument was constructed of coloured blocks of varying sizes, which packed into each other like a Russian matryoshka (nesting) doll, and fitted into the boot of a car.2 His personal archive contains many more images of this monument in various urban settings.

Battiss deploys a similar approach in works such as String Thing from Africa acquiring experience in Europe (Madrid; Ibiza; London; Natal, Southern Crete) (1972) and Open tent for contemplating the cosmic origins of art (1973). It is interesting to note that it was around this time that the concept of Fook Island was beginning to mature and take shape. These documented public events were ‘public’ in the sense that they didn’t happen in the privacy of his studio, but they may not have been produced necessarily with an audience in mind. As such, these publications become sites in themselves.

Writing in the context of Allan Kaprow’s influential 18 Happenings in 6 Parts (1959), performance art scholar RoseLee Goldberg observes that the term “happening” was relatively meaningless, simply indicating “something spontaneous, something that just happens to happen”,3 even though the piece was precisely rehearsed and controlled. Despite its internal paradoxes the term stuck, and its legacy reflects its original open-ended nature — no defined group of artists, no manifesto or publications, a failure to distinguish between diverse intentions and conflicting beliefs in Kaprow’s definition that a happening as “an event that can be performed only once”.4

It would seem that Battiss’s penchant for performance began to coalesce as an art teacher at Pretoria Boys’ High School (PBHS) between the 1940s and 1960s. Battiss scholar and colleague Murray Schoonraad was a pupil of his at PBHS. One practical art exam consisted of painting a still life of pebbles, which Battiss had arranged at the bottom of the school swimming pool. Told to bring a bathing costume along with their brushes and paintbox (paper was provided by Battiss), students were instructed to dive down to the bottom, look at the scene and resurface to paint what they remembered. Like his future performances, Battiss’s classes seemed unstructured but were, in fact, cleverly strategised to keep interest and inventiveness at peak levels.

Recalling Kaprow’s “emphatically participatory” events, academic and curator Karin Skawran confirms this as a direct intention of Battiss when he mounted the Yes-No exhibition in 1967.It was “his way of changing the face of an exhibition and getting people involved”.5 The show, hosted by Pretoria’s Association of Arts in its old Church Street location, had all the windows blacked out, and viewers engaged in a process of investigation and discovery, using torches to navigate the darkened space, while Battiss managed a slide presentation of his own photographic views of Africa and the Greek Isles, projected onto the walls, ceiling, floor and the bodies of visitors. Works consisted of cellophane-wrapped drawings and watercolours in keeping with the Africa-Attica dialogue set up by the slide show (viewers were expected to unwrap the works), a Mapogo crown displayed on the head of a shrouded shop-window mannequin, as well as amusing tributes to fellow artists made from newspaper poster headlines and similar found ephemera. Other objects exhibited included a pair of old trousers strung on a line, a plaster cast from an injured leg, a spade buried in a pile of sand, and a jangled soundtrack of Beethoven competing with traditional African music completed the heady installation.6

Newspaper reports from the time aptly capture a range of responses, from excitement, to bewilderment, to utter confusion. One review concludes with the author noting: “The final word belongs to one anonymous art lover who, to a cry of “where is everybody?” replied in sepulchral tones, “In the dark, madam, in the dark”. Journalists praised the show, concurring that Battiss effectively “… used the darkness to illumine closed minds”.

It is interesting to note that the Yes-No exhibition took place almost immediately after Battiss’s return from the Greek Isles and a visit with Daniel Spoerri. The dialogue between found objects and created works; Battiss’s clear appreciation for the history and contextual significance of found objects; a conceptual transposition of two geographical areas connected perhaps, in Battiss’s mind, by the ancient histories and deep-seated cultural ethos of each; and finally, making a performance of the viewers’ interaction with the installation results in a deeply complex and significant exhibition that has not yet been given its due acknowledgement in the history of South African contemporary art.

Viewed more generally, Battiss’s performance vests a key insight. The significance of art — a cultural artefact, the product of an individual’s labour and personal concerns — and the context of the work’s production is said to be relative. Authoritative players in the art world economy (artists, curators, critics, dealers) test this by contracting arbitrators to mediate between the object, history and the present. Battiss performed this role, as a conduit through which much of the global issues that concern creative production were channelled and made palatable for relatively isolated art audiences in South Africa. Addressing his critics who “condemn me now for what seems to be fun or humour”, Battiss quipped “I’ll leave it to the future to discover that it’s much more than that.”7 And of course, as his legacy affirms, he was right.

Kathryn Smith is an artist, curator, critic and educator based in Cape Town

notes

1 RoseLee Goldberg, Performance Art: From Futurism to the Present (New York: 2001), p.382 Personal interview with Giles Battiss, 20053 RoseLee Goldberg, op cit, p.1304 Ibid, p.1325 Personal interview with Karin Skawran, March 20056 Pretoria News, November 29 & December 1, 1967; Die Vaderland, December 4, 19677 Karin Skawran & Michael Macnamara (eds) Walter Battiss (AD Donker: 1985), p.11

This is an edited extract of Kathryn Smith’s ‘An accidental situationist, or, what happened when Battiss thought out loud,’ from Walter Battiss: Gentle Anarchist (Standard Bank: 2005). The book is published on the occasion of the Walter Battiss retrospective at the Standard Bank Gallery, Johannesburg (October 20 to December 3, 2005)