Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Performance Art in Context: A Provocation to Discourse

(JohnyML as Malcolm X, Mumbai 2008)

When the performance piece, ‘Migrant Art Critics Eating Banana’ with Premjish Achari and Anurag Sharma (with Anush Singh as technical supporter) was published as a series of photographs, several of my friends came forward to tell me very frank opinions about it. The observations range from ‘great’ to ‘bullshit’. On behalf of the team that made it possible, let me express my gratitude for all those who expressed their views without mincing words.

One question that people pose before me quite often is this: are you an artist? I am and I am not. If writing is an art form, then I am an artist. If only visual art practices come under the purview of ‘art’, then I am not because I cannot draw a straight line; the moment I try, it takes different curves and become letters. However, years before, categorically I had stated that writing/blogging was a performative act. In that sense I remain a performer at each and every passing moment. I keep performing in a very private space and only the outcome is shown to the public.

One may wonder why JohnyML, all of sudden start performing. I am a very reluctant performer; but when I perform, I do it with flair. In 2008 October, when I was trying to explain the logic of my blogging, I published the photograph that you see above along with that article. I was enacting the posture of Malcolm X who was retaliating at the white aggressors outside his home. This picture of Malcolm X was published in the Life Magazine. I became a great fan of Malcolm X when I was studying in London and learning more and more about black people and their histories. I took ‘By All Means Necessary’ from a Malcolm X speech. And I wanted to perform like Malcolm X.

(JohnyML performing with a nude sculpture at Chintan Upadhyay's Home)

Since then I had performed on several occasions. One of my performances was with a nude sculpture at Chintan Upadhyay’s Juhu residence and Chintan had documented them in detail. On another occasion, again at Chintan’s home in Juhu, I performed with Somu Desai and it was called ‘Artist and Critic’. Quite provocative with its blasphemous acts, Chintan only has the pictures of that performance. I hope one day we could release those pictures for public perusal.

I have a special interest in performance art and its theatrical varieties because in me there is always a performer working sans fatigue. As a keen art history student, I am quite fascinated by the evolution of performance art from its early 20th appearance in Duchampian intervention in art till date. Till recently, in India at least performance was a part of a larger work, or an outcome of a process, which could be a video or photographic piece of art. Though Nalini Malani, Ayesha Abraham, Pushpamala to Sonia Khurana, Shilpa Gupta to Atul Bhalla to Ravi Agarwal performance is an integral part of their works, the outcome is not pitched on the performance; performance remains an integral but un-articulated area in these works. Perhaps, ‘Bird’ by Sonia Khurana was one performative acts that invested the energies on the very act of performing/performance.

(Bird by Sonia Khurana)

However, by the end of mid 1990s itself we see a new crop of artists making attempts to do performances in their own regions. Umesh Madanahalli was one amongst pioneers of performance art (though we call his work as ‘earth art’) by physically acting in a space with machines and mechanics to help him. One could say that it was a scripted act on the earth. Subodh Gupta, before he became a ‘bartan’ artist he did a performance at the Khoj Artists Workshop at Modi Nagar in 1997-98. Gupta smeared his body with clay and cow dung and lied down before the energy house that he created out of the dung cakes.

(Umesh Madanahally)

(Subodh Gupta)

However, there are some unheralded performative acts that literally defined performance art in India. ‘I Slapped my Traditional Father’ by Santanu Lodh was one among them. In this series of eleven photographs taken from a performance Shantanu did with his father. Here you see a nude son/Shantanu serving tea to a fully clad father (to know more read my article from 1997-98 in this link http://artindia.net/johny/art6.html). It was one of the defining moments in Indian Performance art practice.

(Shantanu Lodh)

Later Shantanu did another sado-masochist performance in the memory of his mother. Shantanu was a teacher in Mira Model School in West Delhi then. He brought a group of fresh water fish with sword like mouths in a large tank made out of rubber tubes (the way Bengalis buy fish from the market). He tried to catch them one by one and in the process got attacked by the fish. Then with the bleeding hands he cut his hair in separate tufts and put them into the water. (I don’t know whether the photographs of this performance exist today)

(Kaushal Sonkaria)

(A work by Manish Kansara)

Koushal Sonkaria, Manish Kansara, Manmeet Devgun and Sushil Kumar were the artists in Delhi who did provocative and deeply meaningful performances. In 2000, Koushal performed with two pencils and went on drawing for hours in a roll of paper that ceaselessly unfolded before him. Manish Kansara brought his child’s funeral ashes into the artistic context. Manmeet Devgun, even before she did the nude performance with Shantanu Lodh at Khoj in 2005, in 2001 she had created a prosthetic body using balloons to exaggerate her breasts and stomach, in a show curated by Mrinal Kulkarni, titled ‘Closet/Closets’). Even Sabrina (Osborne) did a performative act in her work where she portrayed herself in all her bridal fineries. Vidya Kamat was another artist in Mumbai who indulged in performative acts in her works.

(Manmeet Devgun)

(Vidya Kamat)

Somehow our art history is lopsided. Today performance art is hailed in such way as if it had never happened before. As we often say, public memory is very short. But art historical memory, considering the recent events, is shorter. While we hail Nikhil Chopra’s very daring performances, we fail to mention Manjunath Kamat’s performances. Manjunath was one of the first artists in India who did a real take on Andy Warhol’s ‘Sleep’ by literally showing his own sleeping face on a tilted black and white television monitor, in between opening his eyes to watch the people watching him sleeping. While we mention Inder salim, we fail to acknowledge Murali Cheeroth and his performances.

(Manjunath Kamath)

(Murali Cheeroth)

I was shocked to see how history is blackened out or erased to create space for certain monopolistic moves in the field of performance art, when I went to see Inder Salim Tikku’s workshop at the Kiran Nadar Museum. While it is completely appreciable that a private museum is taking interest in performance art and facilitating a workshop on the same art form, I found Inder Salim’s idea of being and ‘becoming ‘ a performance ‘guru’ quite appalling. He had forgotten that performance art cannot be taught! He was telling the young people (me excluded from this young category) who came to attend that in Lahore there was a college that taught performance art.

(inder Salim Tikku's performance at KNMA)

I strongly believe that while performing arts could be taught, performance art is out of all pedagogic clutches. Taking a workshop is one thing and misguiding youngsters with ‘structures’ of performance is another thing. The serious danger that I find in this whole process is that the ‘new’ performance artists’ performances are not registered beyond a few photographs and facebook appearances. Instead, all these workshops and acts are credited to our ‘Guru’s account. Isn’t it necessary that each performance should be analyzed and contextualised for keeping this aspect of art at least unconventional and non-conformist? The moment it is hailed as a Inder Salim’s workshop (call it Harkat or anything), a school is slowly formed. Then it would not be different from Udayshankar’s Ballet Troup or PC Sircar’s Magic Company.

Joseph Beuys was a great performance artist. He did not become a Guru. He said he was a shaman. But he did not create a Beuysian school of performance. Let me tell you, pedagogic intervention of performance art is possible only when the performances are individually analysed, studied, contextualised and interpreted as per the needs of academic and cultural discourse.

(From 'Migrant Art Critics Eating Bananas Performance)

Seen against that backdrop, ‘Migrant Critics Eating Bananas’ is a very conscious attempt to create a context for a series of individual and group performances. My idea is to construct a discourse around a series of performances ‘performed’ by a variety of artists/people irrespective of their educational background. Their individual take will be recorded along with possible interpretations (I can see people telling me, ‘that’s what we too do’) and place it for public interventions in a discursive realm. I don’t intend to invite too many people to attend these performances. There could be no audience for a performance!

(Premjish Achari)

‘Migrant Critics Eating Bananas’ was a simple performance with no cynicism intended. But the act itself became cynical in its outcome and the strong homo-erotic connections became quite evident. That is a beauty of performances. The performance that we were planning to do was totally a different one and we did that too. The first one, which was titled ‘Blow Job- A Tribute to Andy Warhol’ was discussed between Premish Achari, Anurag Sharma and myself for almost a week, we watched the youtube version of the original ‘Blow Job’, prepared ourselves to do the act and even found a similar backdrop in my office at Chattarpur, New Delhi.

(Anurag Sharma)

We did act out ‘Blow Job’ performance, which was in a way scripted. But once that performance was done and we were relaxing, we thought of this second one, ‘Migrant Critics Eating Bananas’. The issue of migrants came as Premjish wished to get himself photographed amongst the migrant labourers in Delhi, especially in and around the new ‘aero-city’ coming up near the T-3 Terminal, New Delhi. Also, Anurag was discussing his pet theme of having people over the studio/office with their favourite undergarments in their hands. Somehow the idea of migrant art critics eating bananas triggered in me. And in no time with the consent of all three we decided to do this performance. We are still negotiating whether we should release our ‘Blow Job- Tribute to Andy Warhol’ or not.


Sabrina Osborne said...

It was a pleasure reading this blog.It is so nice that you credited all these artists with their pictures for their contributions.I am going for Tino Sehgal's workshop at Tate Modern for four days.I am really looking forward to it,as I have started feeling a bit disillusioned with material art ..creating objects of art.I will keep you posted as I have some performances planned.-Sabrina

PREMJISH said...


~bani said...
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