Dance Umbrella 2015 Barney Simon Theatre at The Market, Johannesburg 05 March 2015 On Seeing Red choreographed and performed by Gavin Krastin with Alan Parker and sound composition by Shaun Acker. Photograph: John Hogg (c.)

Gavin Krastin’s work grates. Most artists would deem this a compliment; art is supposed to get you hot under the collar – particularly performance art, which is a live art form disabused of the function to entertain. Thing is, Krastin’s On Seeing Red has you seeing red for the wrong reasons, that turn out to be right in the end – well, sort of. Let me explain.

Krastin attempts to push our buttons in the most clichéd manner. Think condoms and tampons strewn across the floor of the “stage” at the opening of the work. Is this supposed to be subversive or make us uncomfortable? Krastin is in a leather corset, lace top and hot-pants with fishnet stockings and is singing, what else, Cabaret, that classic song performed by Liza Minnelli that become an anthem for gay men prancing about in women’s clothing.

At the first iteration of this performance at the Dance Umbrella in February, the audience exchanged glances of dismay at this point – could it get any worse? It was staged at the Market Theatre, so the theatrical vocabulary made sense, but it wasn’t theatre, theatre. It felt like bad theatre, which isn’t always a bad thing when it comes to performance art, which riffs on live performances and our expectations.

Krastin and Alan Parker make use of all the conventions of theatre. There are costumes, lighting, music and a stage, on which a giant blow-up palm tree is placed. However, the audience were gathered on the floor and Krastin and Parker weaved in and out between us in the beginning, offering us beers and premade cocktails. They were inviting us to relax and attempting to keep that pervasive fourth wall less fixed, though I’m not sure why – the piece did not rely on it and they couldn’t maintain the connection with us once they got into the thick of the action.

You can’t forget that Krastin is still exploring performance art and given the dearth of established performance artists in this country, and the way in which art or drama schools are unable to properly support studies in this area, it is not surprising that young performance artists are forced to experiment with us, their audience.

On Seeing Red, however, is not an experimental piece – it is non-experimental in the sense that almost every visual device, from the costumes, props, actions, activities are an amalgamation of familiar things – so familiar, in fact, that the work grates. It does so because we feel like we have seen it already. Krastin may well have been looking for an opportunity to sing that classic song in a leather corset, but all of these hackneyed devices have a purpose; he wants to steep us in a plastic world. He wants to irritate us enough that we want to leave this hyper-artificial world.

This is the world of theatre, musicals and popular culture, but also our realities – we inhabit a plastic universe where almost everything is manufactured. Our fun is even manufactured – like the cocktails. We reproduce everything and Krastin wants to confront us with the cost of this existence without showing us the price.

Despite appearances this work is not about gender but a world where even gender is manufactured. Nothing is real, perhaps the only thing that remains constant is our greed – this is demonstrated via a childlike game of King of the Castle where Krastin and Parker fight over a jumping castle. It’s a game that gets uglier as the players become more powerful

Is this a radical work? No. It’s an anti-radical work. Krastin and Parker recognise that even radical is dull – blood, tampons. We, the audience can’t be rattled anymore, we can only be irritated. And irritated is what you feel throughout this work. Does it make it a bad work? No. Being novel is overrated and virtually impossible. Will audiences in Grahamstown get this, given most theatre here is theatre, theatre? Performance art occupies an odd space at this festival – this year there are only two works under this banner; who knows what audiences expect when they book to see one of these works. Certainly, Krastin will kill them with familiar comforts.

 

• On Seeing Red and Other Fantasies shows July 7 to 11 at 6pm at the Crown Hall, Grahamstown National Arts festival.