There’s nothing polite or subtle about performance artist Gavin Krastin‘s work. Last year at the National Arts Festival he invited us into an icy chapel to feast off a banquet laid out on his body. He’s vacuum sealed himself in plastic, been paraded through the streets of Grahamstown strapped to a back-bending contraption hitched behind a donkey cart, he’s donned heal-less thigh-high pleather bondage boots, worn wigs, makeup, feathers, a deflated plastic dolphin skin, and most often nothing at all. Gavin’s interests lie in the permeability and politics of boundaries – of the body and how it is represented, of theatre conventions, gender, and space – within the larger South African socio-political context.
In his new work, On Seeing Red which premiered at the Dance Umbrella last night, Gavin continues to explore the extremes of the macro and the micro. On seeing red presents a view of the dystopian world we have created for ourselves – of excess, insanity and insecurity. As in all his pieces, a strong aesthetic defines the work. In this instance it’s IRL Tumblr on crack, with the set comprised of plastic inflatable toy objects with glitter everything and rainbow-coloured lights. We spoke to Gavin prior to the show to find out more about this new work.
Does your new work at Dance Umbrella 2015, On seeing red, continue on from previous works or take off in a new direction?
The work certainly continues to look at rituals, cultural performance and myth-making/demonstrating, which I think is common in my work. In particular, themes surrounding dystopian existence are overriding factors in the work, as with “Discharge” (2012) (in collaboration with Alan Parker and Rat Western). Also in this work are images strongly associated with celebration and the marking of particular times, which is a theme that was explored in my work last year “#omnomnom”. All of these works as well as “Rough Musick” (2013) were inspired by a questioning of land, ownership, displacement and colonisation and On seeing red most definitely continues on this sort of thought trajectory, as these issues reach boiling point in our socio-political climate. But stylistically I am also playing with something different with regards to theatre and performance.
The body has always figured prominently in your work. What interests you in the body, and your body as a performer, as site?
The body is both time and space (it lives and occupies), it is also incredibly fragile yet absolutely resilient, so as an artist operating in a time-based medium it is really the ultimate choice of instrument for me. It is also irreplaceable and its productions ephemeral when present in live performance. I think the body is relatable and yet contentious and highly politicised and to be in a body is an incredibly treacherous feat to endure. My own body is also often a starting point or point of departure in my work – being conscious and critical of my body as white, male, androgynous, homosexual, and ‘other’.
How is the body implicated in On seeing red?
The work is performed in and with and through the body. It is implicated in many ways, through challenging its representation, emphasising its presence, playing with its transformation, and constructing its inevitable demise.
In this work you interrogate the tension between form and consequent limitation. Can you please tell us more about this?
Art forms are often bound by their making. Cabaret, for example, is the product of a particular time, and a particular context and in a way serves a specific function. Transgressing the boundaries of an art form exposes these limitations and through its destruction the ‘traditional’ form becomes something else and does something else. On seeing red looks a lot at fantasy and art/performance forms such as cabaret, burlesque, surrealism, drag and fairy tales (Disney) and how in turning to fantasy these forms distract from the reality from which they have arisen. In deconstructing these forms, this escapist tendency is highlighted and the dystopian realities that these fantasies work to conceal are made visible.
You also play with notions of ‘staging’. How does this relate to the broader themes of this work?
Yeah, the idea of staging and demarcating a place of pretend is a theme in the work. We see bodies constantly trying to create a place of play and fantasy and make-believe, a staged space where imagination manifests into physicality, but a staged space that cannot hold out to imminent disaster and so the two bodies continually attempt to create a refuge of fantasy but also continually fail. In the work, space and the creation of a stage, taking into account the aforementioned forays into cabaret, aims to sort of shroud the dystopian authentic with utopian artifice (like cabaret, burlesque and surrealism did and fantasy does). Staging, in regards to the work, is perhaps an exercise in blissful ignorance and a denial of reality.
How does your work engage with broader social and political experiences, if at all?
For me at the heart of the work is contention surrounding land, war (historical and present), the unfair disenfranchising of human rights to those deemed other and the absolutely absurd dick-measuring contest the powers of the world seem to have descended into as we continuously harm and destroy our fellow citizens in order to fly our flag the highest. It is a statement of anger and rage emerging from my existing in an oppressive war-mongering system that I have no desire to be a part of yet am inherently complicit in.
Your work has a strong visual aesthetic to it – what influences this?
I also operate as a designer and scenographer for performance and so the visual does play an important part. However, I have no reverence for objects – body and object must merge to form a hybrid of something that occupies time and space. I think the aesthetics of performance have a great ability to speak a subtext or subvert a statement that gesture and performance might not necessarily be able to – It has to do with proximity and relational aesthetics of real body and design factors. We exist in an incredibly visual culture, a constant visual onslaught, and one has to acknowledge that people are visual organisms and that audiences relate to signs and images (so much so that we even ‘read’ bodies as objects instead of living flesh with histories). Strong visual aesthetics can often provide an initial ‘hook’ or entry point into an otherwise complex or corporeal performance.
What references or intentions have informed your movement vocabulary in On seeing red?
Although the work is at the Dance Umbrella, it is certainly not ‘dance’ (in the conventional sense) as there is very little (actual) dance in it. It is strongly movement driven, with an emphasis on presence and transformation (of body and space), but there is very little codified dance. Movement languages that were researched and were drawn from include burlesque and striptease, and the watered-down glitter-embalmed bubblegum-pop trash that plagues the sort of generic music videos we see today. Strangely enough the movement language actually began by learning the Haka (indigenous war dance of New Zealand) and the physicalities of izikothane (the crews in the township that burn money and waste food), although the movement language has subsequently morphed into something unrecognisable from these initial starting points.
What do you hope or intend for audience members to take from this piece?
A sense of introspection, questions and hopefully a laugh at my expense. I aim to generate curiosity and an adventure of meaning-making and deciphering for the audience – a journey of points to connect and interpret in a supportive and productive environment.
Please tell us a little about your creation/choreographic process – do you work collaboratively, with improvisation, off a set idea, etc.?
Works often begin with a single vision, with just a very simple image or statement in mind. It is then through interfacing with other artists, collaborating and improvising that things are fleshed out and material is developed. And it is through repeating this process and constantly changing the composition of the action or space that the structure emerges. It really is through trial and error, and the repetition and re-creation thereof, and working through the failure, that a work comes to be. It is very important to surround oneself with a strong team that is open to working collaboratively and supportively.
On Seeing Red is showing tonight, Friday 6th March 2015, at 8:30pm at the Barney Simon Theatre in Newtown Johannesburg as part of the Dance Umbrella programme.