3 July 2012

South Africa: Interrogating Oppression

Photo: Cue
Student sharp-shooters

Steven Cohen has made a name for himself in the South African art world largely through his shock tactics, which involve all manner of objects being inserted into his rectum, as well as a variety of other antics that quite literally took the world by storm.

However when one takes the time to critically consider the archive of his work, one finds a far deeper, more insightful take on the South African condition, both pre- and post-apartheid. Beneath the veneer of his blitzkrieg tactics there is a provocation that addresses all the gnawing questions about what it is to be South African, together with all the historical ironies and tensions that it brings.

As the years have gone by it seems these existential questions have found themselves distilled, enlarged and focused; they have also added wrinkles to Cohen's body.

In his latest theatrical contribution, The Cradle of Humankind, Cohen has sought the assistance of another set of wrinkles - those of his childhood nanny Nomsa Dhlamini (now 92) to help him through the narrative

The action takes place over two mediums; a video projection and the stage, which the performers move between with a geriatric deftness.

Beside the at times elusive subject matter, this pace, whilst holding the performance together, is agonisingly meditative. But this is what Cradle is about; stopping to consider the origins of who we are and where we have come from. In such a way this triggers the very ontological core of the production, with Dhlamini acting as a cipher for that compulsive obsession with the other that nevertheless is so deeply a part of ourselves.

As this unlikely pair, Cohen, dressed in a pair of dangerous looking heels and a corset and Dhlamini in an illuminated tutu, trundle around the stage, the gentle chatter heard, like a vague reassurance guiding Dhlamini through her fragility.

The performance, in true Cohen style, has a conceptual density issued in his use of props; a stuffed monkey serves as his partner in a macabre ballet that is agonisingly lyrical. In the archeological scenes on the projector that are somewhat reminiscent of a David Lynch film, Cohen and Dhlamini have a subterranean encounter that is other-worldly.

It is in this universe that the performance finds its place, in the distant realms of the audience's imagination that resist the elocution of normal day to day existence.

This is not strictly art, nor is it strictly theatre, certainly it is not physical theatre; rather it's an interrogation into what makes those three things and the ground beneath their surfaces tick. It is an experience of violence and frailty which is seemingly inescapable, yet unavoidable.

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