Hall of Lame
Editor’s Not: This is a rather candid, no-holds-barred response by Mohsin Sayeed that was first published as a Facebook post. We are re-publishing it for it, despite the irreverent tone, raises some key questions. We are posting it without prejudice and the views expressed are that of the author’s alone.
Last Saturday, I had the privilege of attending a Performance Art show called ‘A Mix Tape’. I felt as if I was touring a Buddroohon ka Pagal Khana (mental asylum of the dead evil spirits). It was scary yet very entertaining like a horror or freak show. It was fascinating. And I have never seen so many attendees at art show in my entire life. The gallery was oozing with people. Interestingly, Millenials and post-Millenials were in overwhelming majority. The usual art show visitors were far and few.
But the dedication and unwavering focus of those ‘performance artists’ performing their innane, seemingly stupid pieces were simply admirable. For sure it takes a certain kind of madness to keep stitching initials on Bakray ke Tattay for hours. Yes, you read it right. One girl was embroidering initials on goat testicle. And why not if they can be a culinary delicacy, why can’t they be an object of contemporary arts?
Then this girl was eating little crouched children seemingly made of chocolate ad nauseam. To me, they appeared like the dead Syrian refugee child found on the beach. Full marks to her as she didn’t vomit even after three hours.
On the entrance of Canvas Gallery, a sari clad girl with a big foot fetish (yes, she had three-foot long feet made of cushions on) was telling recipes and making respective concoctions on how to have small feel, break back and other such totkay. No prizes for guessing whom she was mocking. In another corner a girl sitting in a chair was droning some gibberish about Karachi Biennale. There was a TV screen on the side showing glimpses of KB. Noise pollution went many notches up in Pakistan that evening. A bare Amin Gulgee was lying on his back on the floor and there was a sign above him inviting people to ‘Paint Me’. And people were painting him, not red but black and white.
A narrow corridor in front of the powder room presented the scene of a cluttered room/walk in closet with clothes hanging, dolls stacked up on shelves and what not. It looked like Chucky the Doll’s rest room with the victim of Chucky’s emotional abuse hiding under the hung clothes who got scared when viewers focused on her. Without uttering any words, she was screaming ‘Maen Pagal Naheen Hoon’.
Colonialism and its effects also crept into the show. Dressed in a British Tommy red coat, one girl was roller-brush painting digitally projected images of sexist posters on the wall with her partner sitting in a beggars cart rearing up a cloth. Apparently, according to the two ‘performing artists’, this was a piece deconstructing, or something equally high sounding, Colonialism. Go figure. Mirchi Ali was dressed in black body suit playing an adjustable mannequin. He was being moved, adjusted, felt up, harassed, by viewers as I saw someone touching his bum. Then there was a girl who was performing a strange blend of all sorts of floor acrobatics, jumps, self-torture, bending, zumba, dumba, exercises. Turned out she was a famous trainer of Karachi expressing her feelings, self-harm experiences through her bodyscape.
Another girl was sitting in a corner with a clutter of cosmetics and flowers, smiling, trying to convince people to let her put lipstick on them, offering flowers.
She was beautifying. Okay. One boy was writing pyar ke taweez and offering them to viewers with water in paperclips.
Momin Zafar was performing New Dance. With knee immobilisers on, he was limping up the double storey stairs. At the top of the stairs he would drop coins and limping down with a stiff leg he would collect all the dropped coins back. Then up. Then down.
Following Monday, curator of the show kept a talk with all ‘performance artists’ and Amin and I as panellists. I opened the session by asking why those ‘performance artists’ who were graduates of NCA or IVS, did that shit. Got to listen to clichés as replies. To my question why ‘performance art’, no clear reply. Rephrased the question why ‘performance art’ when we already have performing arts, also threw in another bit to define performance art. Because every definition of theirs had at least an element of performing arts genre. Replies reminded me of Justice Munir’s comment in 1953 when he asked over 100 so called ‘Ulama-e-Deen’ to define a Muslim. No two replies were same or even similar. I was called uninformed, which I admitted as I asked to help me learn and understand performance art. Some people walked out in the middle. I got screamed at by Sameera. Hats off to Amin Gulgee and Sara Pagganwala who not only defended me but also appreciated my curious questions.
I left the gallery with a vague sense that — as according to all those participating ‘performance artists’ –every action can be/is ‘performance art’. Aghast, I asked if, by that definition, our talk, anyone walking in the street, the waiter serving beverages, gatekeeper minding the gate could be classified as performance art. The only reply they all unanimously agreed on was an emphatic ‘Yes’. That leaves me wondering by that token–and unanimously agreed definition– rape, paedophilia, gang rape, murder, genocide, so called war crimes, colonialism, cannibalism, acts of misogyny, bigotry … All can be termed as Performance Art then. So much freedom and liberty in sanctioning everything as Performance Art is not only troublesome but highly dangerous, too. In Black Mirror, Turner Prize winner artist Carter Bloom coerced the PM to have sex with pig live on TV which was watched by 1.2 billion viewers and a critic called it the greatest work of art of the 21st century. By all definitions I heard, that was also Performance art. So where does it stop? Where are the thick, bold, black lines that separate Performance Art from stupidity, harm, crime, sin?
My head is exploding.
PS: for two days I tried to post videos of show that I recorded for you to see but Facebook didn’t accept. I eventually took video grabs for pictorial proofs.