The Art of Performance is a monthly column written by Dave Mann, an editor and award-winning arts journalist.
Cities are inspiring spaces and they are complex spaces. Often, they can be very difficult spaces, too. It’s not surprising, then, that they inspire so many unique artworks. I was born in one seaside city – Durban. I grew up in another – Cape Town. Trips to Joburg came by way of December visits to my grandparents who, back in the early 2000s, stayed out in the static suburbs of Constantia Kloof. It was only when I arrived in Joburg to begin living and working here that I experienced the frantic nature of a sprawling city. And it’s a typically Cape Town thing to move up to Joburg and complain about the lack of greenery and the breakneck pace of things, I know. I love Joburg city, but it exhausts me. I’m also completely fascinated by the way the city moves, and this stems from what I write about in this magazine every month – performance. Because to exist in the city and to move through it and with it every day is a performative act. Each day involves navigating bustling bodies and cramped trains or buses, rush hour traffic, busy streets filled with busier people. When night falls and the city assumes its electric glow, it is with renewed vigour. In this way, Joburg by night can almost seem like a movie or an epic play, carried out on the many stages that run through the city centre and out again. It’s a scene that I doubt will ever lose its wonder.
There are a number of artists who’ve taken inspiration from the city to create great work. They are photographers, painters, musicians and more, and all of them, to me at least, capture the many wonderful and chaotic parts of the city. Gareth Jones, better known as Jumping Back Slash, is a UK-born, South African-residing DJ and producer. His music, most often characterised by hard drum lines and sharp, moody synthesisers, perfectly communicates the energy and movement of fast cars, busy streets, and endless stretches of metal and concrete. Considering he lives with his wife and two kids in the green hills of Knysna, this can seem a little odd. Still, I’ve yet to find a sound that speaks to the city as much as his. When it comes to photography, there are many artists who focus their lenses on built structures. There is Shalom Mushwana who casts his gaze upwards towards the endless heights of skyscrapers from the streets of the CBD, and then there is Elsa Bleda who rose to fame after her shots of the city by night – dusky, neon-lit and densely populated – took the world by storm. The writer Lidudumalingani is also well-known for his film photographs that capture whole sweeping portraits of the city in a single frame.
But it’s the work of artist Leon Krige that will always stay with me when discussing the many lives of the city. Krige’s work in the Joburg CBD is all produced at night and from strategic spots atop high-rise buildings and flat, open rooftops. His images announce themselves in seemingly overwhelming landscapes – a series of sharp, still images that have been stitched together to create one long and extensive photograph. In these photographs, you will see stacks of buildings all jostling for space. You will see rows upon rows of windows, some with the curtains drawn, others with people inside of them going about their evening rituals. You will see clusters of satellite dishes, worn paint, night-time hues, precarious balconies, and all of it will exist in a single image. They are views from an angle you may not have seen before, but they are views that you are familiar with, in one way or another. When it comes to painters, the work of Daniel Mark Nel has always fascinated me. By making use of minimal colour and calculated line-work, Nel paints scenes of a built world – equal parts industrial and whimsical. Looking at these paintings long enough, it’s almost as if the artist is painting an x-ray of the built environment. You can trace the upward progression of a skyscraper or the slow slant of an escalator and, in following these lines, be led to areas behind, beyond, and beneath their initial make-up. In this way, they put forward a degree of curiosity and wonder that can change the way you view a city, entirely.
When it comes to sculpted works, Francois Knoetze’s Cape Mongo, in particular, is a powerful body of work. Comprising life-sized sculptures of ‘trash monsters’ made from plastic, scrap metal and more, the work speaks to our effect on the city and its ongoing deterioration through the waste we pour into it. Ultimately, this human-made waste becomes a part of the city and our way of existing within it. There are more artists who speak to, or from, cities in this way – too many to mention here. I make a habit of revisiting these works as often as I can. Whether they are pieces of music, writing, painted or photographic works, I like to keep them as close to my experience of the city as possible. After all, there are so many elements to cities, and so many ways of existing, exploring and performing in them. Sometimes it’s only through the varying mediums of art that these ways can be explained.