Within the philosophy of the arts, the ontology of the object of art has for ages been arguable and undecided. When viewing a work of art, what precisely is being appreciated or critiqued?
Within the traditional delineation of art disciplines, certain criteria for appreciation have been assumed relevant. When we view a typical opera or sculpture, we appear to understand what makes these phenomena art and our appreciation is guided by such prescriptions.
But in a postmodern world, where delineations have been blurred, a sense of haphazardness has cluttered our neat demarcations and turned our clinical understanding of art on its head.
The only necessary condition for that which constitutes “art”, remains for it to be an object of expression, this being a result of creative intent.
That being said, the object of art can be anything, depending on the manner in which one views it. An object, such as a lawnmower, may be viewed purely pragmatically as an instrument with which to mow lawn; but it can also be viewed aesthetically as a found sculpture when exhibited in a gallery.
The same goes for actions. Found movement, such as mowing lawn, can have a profoundly different meaning when placed within an expressive context, such as giving society a close shave.
Performance art, an art form that combines visual art with dramatic performance, has proven itself to be the rogue of aesthetic confusion. Within its frequent controversy, it has nonetheless established itself as a medium that elicits vivid and though-provoking artistic expression, often being intensely inciting, confrontational and perplexing, yet at the same time captivating and fascinating.
Next month Dance Umbrella will be hosting the work of two of South Africa’s most prolific performance artists, Steven Cohen and Robyn Orlin, both now living abroad. Cohen’s Put Your Heart Under Your Feet And Walk! will be performed on March 8 and 9 at the Wits Theatre. Orlin’s And So You See Our Honourable Blue Sky And Ever-Enduring Sun Can Only Be Consumed Slice By Slice can be seen on March 13 and 14 at Dance Factory.
Cohen prefers to think of his work only as art. He says that Put Your Heart Under Your Feet ... And Walk! was nominated by Le Monde as one of the five best dance works of 2017 in France because it premiered at a dance festival. But it also manifests as a visual art exhibition. When he interacts with the installation, the work is defined as a performance work.
Cohen says that there is a constant debate about which works belong in which boxes. He explains that there are no boxes, “only puddles of work which splash into one another”.
He insists that his performances are not acting. They are real.
“When I make work, I do the work. I do not designate. I don’t employ interpreters. The work is so difficult that I can only ask it of myself to do it,” he says.
Cohen explains that he is only interested in making original, boundary breaking, necessary art: “I have no interest in being popular or successful or entertaining. This is work I have to make, not work I want to make. It is terrifying.”
Cohen says that the work he will be presenting at Dance Umbrella is the most onerous work he has ever made, the simplest and the most impossible.
“I suppose the work is completely illegal, but it is also completely ethical.
“I take full responsibility for any consequences, for punishments or estrangements. I care nothing for critical reactions. It is a work which must be done and it is made to hurt no one.
“If it is a crime then it is a crime without a victim,” he says.
Cohen feels that the work reconstitutes what theatre originally was, a temple for the enacting of meaningful rituals. He believes this is an important work as it gives meaning to how theatre can still be relevant, critical and crucial.
This work is a tribute to Cohen’s life partner of 20 years, South African-born choreographer and performance artist Elu, with whom Cohen frequently worked.
“Elu will always be my one and only true love and life partner, and I owe it to Elu to make a work which risks everything,” he explains.
“Elu never compromised,” Cohen says. “In carrying out this work, neither will I. This is a work about how to survive the loss of love and how to bear that cruel suffering privilege. Yes, this is an ultimate homage to Elu, but it is not a work about Elu. For that I need time and strength - that is my next work, maybe my life’s work,” Cohen concludes.
Dance Umbrella 2018 happens from March 6 to 18. Bookings through www.webtickets.co.za.
For programme details, visit www.danceforumsouthafrica.co.za.