by Maureen de Jager
Frustrated by the bureaucracy impeding her South Korean residency, 2010 Spier Award-winner Lindi Arbi threw her materials down the stairs. Picture it: 40kg of expanding polyurethane bubbling and puffing, filling out the negative spaces like an abject Rachel Whiteread. Then she took this inverted staircase to the beach for her altogether uncanny performance, Last One Standing. In the resulting video – a collaboration between Arbi and Korean film-maker, Junebum Park – we see Arbi and her assistants tethering and securing the ominous wrapped staircase. The tide comes in and the parcel is adrift. The tide goes out and the parcel is beached in glutinous mud.
In this context, I introduce Last One Standing to reflect on the status of real dirt in a glib technocracy – the kind of dirt so dirty that it resists being sampled and streamlined into the synthetic. How does technology cope with excessive materiality, I ask, and what happens to the dirt on our hands when its matter is mediated and dematerialised? In response, my investigation unpacks the relationship between Arbi’s performance (as an embodied, corporeal engagement with the material world) and its afterlife as video (as a spectral projection distilled from 20 hours of footage).
What is immediately notable about Last One Standing is its exploration of materiality, and as such the work is not without precedent. Arbi’s entry to Spier – for which she was awarded the residency – bears witness to a similar fascination with matter, process and excess. It began as a self-portrait cast over a 1960s shop mannequin, which was then buried twice: firstly, in a cumbersome block of flesh-like expanding polyurethane, from which it was partially excavated; and then, secondly, in a muddy grave on the outskirts of the Grahamstown New Cemetery at Waainek.
Together with a number of other works made for her Rhodes MFA, Arbi’s self portrait lay interred in its grave for a full eighteen months, before being carefully exhumed. During this time, the earth had worked its way into crevices and cracks leaving an unlikely patina of dirt; in places, plant life had tentatively taken root. Besides engaging Arbi’s predilection for processes beyond her control, the literal burial and unearthing of her sculptures enacted a poignant narrative of personal loss, related to the unexpected loss of Arbi’s husband in February 2000.
In Last One Standing, motifs of burial, excavation and loss resurface, although the catalyst here was Arbi’s unearthing of a buried history surrounding the Gyeonggi Creation Centre (GCC) on Daebu Island that housed her during her residency. According to the GCC website, ‘In 1941, when Imperial Japan was facing its demise, hundreds of vagrant children from around the nation were committed to this facility’. Many children were ‘sent out to the front line as human shields’; in the orphanage itself they were subjected to ‘ruthless restrictions’, ‘inhumane labor’ and ‘starvation’. As a result, attempted escapes were frequent – the children tried to reach the mainland by building rafts or swimming, and countless lost their lives in the process.
Arbi (2011) elaborates:
Mainland Korea appears deceptively close when viewed from these buildings … Children caught attempting to escape … were stripped of their clothing, thrown down the stairs leading to the basement and tortured. This torture took place in the same building where artists-in-residence now stay in freshly refurbished apartments and studios.
Ironically, says Arbi, GCC’s disturbing history was uncovered only after ‘extensive “digging” by artists who were prompted by a pervasively dark and unhealthy atmosphere in the space’. When she began her residency in September 2010 there was no published or on-line information available on GCC’s history, and members of the administration countered inquiries into the buildings’ history with ‘overpoweringly counter-productive bureaucratic negativity’. Their reluctant admission – and subsequent amendments to the GCC website – followed only after a group of artists confronted them with irrefutable proof. For Arbi (2011), it is ‘a triumph of collective creative energy that GCC have published this information on their government-owned website’. ‘Relative to my experience around making art at GCC,’ she claims, ‘they would have preferred not to acknowledge its existence’.
In light of the above, Last One Standing may be seen as itself an acknowledgement of existence; it pays homage to the unearthed history of GCC’s lost and disavowed orphans. The staircase cast made by Arbi and used in her performance is of the very staircase leading to the basement where foiled escapees were detained and tortured. The beach where Arbi’s performance takes place is the same beach where the escapees’ makeshift rafts would launch, and where the children’s drowned bodies would sometimes wash ashore.
But Last One Standing also exemplifies the very process of wrestling with buried history, of dredging up the past through the sediment of repression, and of grappling with the reluctance of the keepers of history to ‘come clean’. In effect, it stages a struggle with unwieldy matter – death, loss, denial, a history forcibly kept under wraps (much like the staircase sculpture itself), the heft and weight of dirty secrets covered over and laid bare in the ebb and flow of a muddy sea.
As such, it seems apt that Arbi and her performers often found themselves stuck in the mud, quite literally, and at the mercy of a visceral and hostile environment. Says Arbi, ‘The wind was howling, the temperature was zero, the mud was dangerous and it was impossible to communicate effectively’. Once ‘plunged into the performance’, Arbi and her performers were completely overwhelmed by the raw and unpredictable materiality of their context.
Arbi et al’s corporeal tussle with matter is a fitting metaphor for their struggle with an unwieldy history; and prompts a passing comparison with such early performances as Shiraga Kazuo’s Challenging Mud. Produced in 1955 under the auspices of the Japanese collective Gutai, Challenging Mud exemplifies Gutai’s ambition to ‘engage a radically physical relationship to the material world and the production of cultural work’ (LaBelle 2006:37). Lying in a thick pool of mud, Shiraga wrestles against its viscosity: ‘What remains are pockets and impressions left in the mud’s surface as indexes of struggle or marks of physical expenditure’.
But the comparison between the two performances extends beyond this immediate similitude. Like Last One Standing, Shiraga’s ‘radically physical’ engagement with matter endures, paradoxically, in a rather mediated and dematerialised form (in this case, as a series of photographs, many of which are available on the internet). To be specific, Shiraga’s performance survives as a visual representation of the act of ‘challenging mud’ which – for all of its photographic fidelity to the properties of muddiness – is comparatively rather clean.
Similarly, Arbi and Park’s video may be regarded as a visually ‘clean’ recording of a distinctly messy performance. We can see that the terrain is muddy, the tethered sculpture is muddy, even the palette seems a dull, muddy grey. But because the performance was recorded in high definition, we can also (somewhat ironically) see these things very clearly. In effect, we can see mess and its antithesis all at once, for the scene may be muddy but the picture is crystal clear.
In the case of both performances, the surviving records thus seem to present us with a markedly sanitised version of events. This paradox attests to the uncomfortable relationship between actual dirt and (the mechanics of) its representation, which is further underscored in a still image isolated from the performance of Last One Standing: it shows the legs of a camera tripod, positioned in the muddy mise-en-scène, with plastic-bag ‘socks’ to protect it from the mire. The prophylactic measure of ‘tripod socks’ mirrors the position of Shiraga’s documenter who, for all of his eagerness to get in on the action, must nonetheless endeavour to keep the camera equipment aloft, at a slight remove from Shiraga’s unfettered immersion.
By extension, it may be argued that the recorded image – the visual representation – positions us, as viewers, at a similar remove: voyeuristically close to the action but not quite in it. Like Damien Hirst’s notorious box of flies (a decidedly ‘indoor’ work titled Let’s Eat Outdoors Today, 1990-1991), visual representations pretend to grant us access to the grittiness of real matter whilst sparing us the embarrassment of actually having to pluck flies from our hair. They make the material world seem incredibly close, almost immersive, and yet distant enough not to unsettle our perceived ‘boundaries of singularity’ (LaBelle 2006:245).
This is partly because, in the words of Brandon LaBelle (2006:230), ‘the eye apprehends, through frontal perception, the world and its objects as sights to be registered within a total field of vision that is always out there, outside my own body’. So even when looking is self-conscious and self-reflexive, it still presupposes a ‘looking at’, where the subject of my gaze is outside me. Given the ‘fact’ of frontal perception, we look at the world as if behind glass – even and especially when the images of that world appear mimetically transparent and complicit in ‘a narrative of immediacy’ (Reason 2006:77).
In the case of Last One Standing, I would argue that the critical ‘challenge’ to such sanitising mediation resides in the video’s soundtrack. For the clarity of what we see is distinctly at odds with the deafening, distorted crackle that we hear: a ‘bad’ recording of the gusting wind which drowns out almost everything else. In effect, the soundtrack captures the wind not as a sound but as a presence: as a series of waves which assault the recording equipment and then, in turn, assault our ears. Being a register of impact, this ‘dirty’ sound ruptures the sanitising screen of the synthetic: it reaches us materially.
For LaBelle (2006:230), the capacity of sound to violate borders is precisely what gives the acoustical an incisive edge: ‘the ear experiences, through an immersive “all around” perception, the world and its temporal aural movements as sounds to be understood within a total field of hearing that is immediately here and there, out and in my own body’. Whereas sights are always, to some extent, ‘out there’, sounds necessarily transgress the inside/outside divide. They leak out of us, they leak into us; ‘break[ing] apart the shell of the subject’ (LaBelle 2006:245).
As a trace of its environment, the sound in Last One Standing can thus be seen to approximate the hands-on, dirty matter of corporeal engagement – it escapes from the screen and registers ‘in the vibratory waves of tactile experience’ (LaBelle 2006:xv). Being able to violate borders, the sound is also a vital portal from now into then; from Grahamstown to South Korea. It resonates across timespans and continents, carrying with it the weight of history as intrinsically active, open and dynamic. For sound is always both a spatial and a social event: continuously shaped and reshaped by the materiality of contexts and the presence of other bodies.
In its elusiveness, sound is also boundless and enduring, quite possibly the ‘last one standing’ in a showdown with the visual. According to performance artist and writer Matthew Goulish (2000:63), ‘Marconi, inventor of the telegraph, came to believe at the end of his life that once a sound has been generated it doesn’t die, but simply grows fainter and fainter, and given a sensitive enough ear and the right place to listen, one could hear it forever’.
Maureen De Jager is a senior lecturer in sculpture in the Fine Art Department, Rhodes University
Arbi, L. 2011. Interview by author. [Transcript]. 5 April. Grahamstown.
Azito: Online Gallery of Japanese Contemporary Art. Shiraga Kazuo, Challenging Mud, 1955. [O] Available:
Accessed 5 April 2011.
Black, J. 2002. The reality effect: Film culture and the graphic imperative. New York: Routledge.
Goulish, M. 2000. Microlectures in proximity and performance. London: Routledge.
Gyeonggi Creation Center. [O]. Available: http://gyeonggicreationcenter.org/GCC_Page/en/local/island/island_04.html
Accessed 5 April 2011.
LaBelle, B. 2006. Background noise: Perspectives on sound art. New York: Continuum.
Phelan, P. 1993. Unmarked: The politics of performance. London: Routledge.
Reason, M. 2006. Documentation, disappearance and the representation of live performances. Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan.
|In a somewhat questionable marketing endeavour, the Eastern Cape Region has been sign posted, ‘Frontier Country’ and indeed this is what it is. Historically it is the site of the 9 Frontier Wars and much brutal conflict and living here presently can still seem the edge of nowhere by comparison to many major South African metropols. With Grahamstown at the heart of it, it is also a cosmopolitan space not without vestiges of past pain but - like many colonial outposts in a post-colonial time - it is no longer a satellite to an absent motherland, a mere microcosm of elsewhere, but also a world unto itself.
A potential space of intellectual, debate rather than military conflict – geographically isolated from metropolitan trends – a melting pot of many places, a crucible. In more recent history, this frontier space has been a site of culture, of experiment. Home to an annual arts festival, how is it that Grahamstown with a population of just under 140 000 can command so much creative imagination in novels, plays, poetry and art? Frontier, Border, at the end of the world but not about to fall off – merely at a vantage point to observe a view to come.
- Rat Western