Photography by Motlatsi Khosi

Bringing the blood, guts and “come” back to performance art: In discussion with Emma Tollman

Who is Emma Tollman? 

The reason you should be taking notice of this Johannesburg based artist and entrepreneur are due to her big plans for the often misunderstood and inaccessible genre of performance art. Her work, she explains, is located in the “avant-garde and hyper visual arts”.  She explores the “deep metaphorical states such as love and how the stars fall”, so to speak. This is achieved through her focus on the “plurality of what is pure and what is the corrupt and how such manifests itself as life on earth”.

Such plurality is also featured strongly in her career path as Emma is the co founder of the V Company. This start up targets and encourages partnerships between the arts and business.  It aims to create a platform to help young art professionals gain access to contract work. She describes it as a “tinder for the arts and business”.

Yet I would find most captivating about her work are the influences from Hollywood  and how they have been allowed to permeate her work in the avant-garde.  She comments on how “Hollywood influences may seem to push against her work format but they actually do work in the end”.

This is no threat on her part. As an audience I could see this paradox at play in her latest work presented at the Basha Uhuru Freedom festival, titillatingly

Entitled, “Meat, Purge, Lust”.  The work was performed at the men’s prison at the Constitution Hill Museum in Johannesburg.  We are greeted by the work, bodies draped on the wall, scantily clad, exposed to the cold evening. As the audience we are guided to the cold stone setting. The weather seemed to warn the viewer of what to expect, the icy chill of death and violence would have to keep the audience warm for the remainder of the piece.

The lighting was striking, set low it cast giant shadows of the performers over its viewers as if to show us that giants would walk among us during this piece. The performer’s movements are erratic at first. Bodies contorted, primal sounds gushing from jerking bodies. A woman scantly clad in bubble wrap and sneakers moves slowly across the crisp cold lawn with a wash bucket filled with what looks like red pieces of fleshy clothing. She slowly tears at the soaked pieces of cloth and hangs them on a flimsy washing line. There seems to be much confusion over what is going on from the audience and there is much laughter from the crowd as performers cut through the crowd demanding their attention.

For me the first hint of the familiar would be found in the music. From a single powerful speaker blasted what sounded to like a movie soundtrack. The violin screaming from the speakers reminds the viewer of the dramatic tension to be found within the performance. Viewing this spectacle my thoughts would move on to how the big-screen music worked against this intimate piece of movement-theatre.  I was not happy in this confusion but would be patient to see where Emma would be leading her performance to.

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The method of madness

Yet the source of this piece’s veracity lay in its method of contradiction or rather its unsettling method that her performers are thrown into. For Emma the real pleasure lies in her ‘sadomasochist’ enjoyment in the struggles experienced by her performers as they try to make sense of her work. She enjoys the “conflicting and automated language [of movement] in which her performers inhabit and sees this as being the source of the surreal mental states that result from this confusion”.  It is this state that we see the breaking of their artistic boundaries.

In order to achieve this methodological destruction she prefers to work with non-dancers. For Meat, Purge Lust they would come from different career backgrounds: a ballet dancer, a body-tech personal trainer and a Kundalini yoga instructor. She sees their panic, fear, their reality, their strong criticism to her works and self reflection as leading from the rehearsal process, continuing to the final moment of performance. It is such moments of confusion that lead to panicked states of the performers that forms the basis of her work.

Her very artistic practice is born out of a misplaced identity crisis of being a philosophy student practicing art. Unable to fit into a specific portfolio she has managed to create her very own niche. For her the post-university experience has been the exciting journey of finding a place in the arts.  She describes herself as “Not making theatre and not making static art”. Her field is that of “work[ing] with bodies work[ing] with movement”. She inhabits a space that aims to work with “broken bodies” and dance as a “means in which to dismantle the static structures found within our dance styles.”

Even within the creation of the basic element of plot the process is constantly changing for Emma and her crew. For her the script would ironically consist of detailed instruction describing every movement, expression and tone for each of the scenes. Yet the script itself is in constant re-write going through as many as 7 to 11 draft before opening night! She describes her method as ‘iterating’, “a reactive style where as a result of confusion the performer will receive their script”. This explains the constant need for the re-write and is a symptom of the continuous stages of confusion within the rehearsal process. Yet for Emma “the confusion is what keeps me up at night. It is the catastrophe of not knowing what is to be at opening night that makes it performance art”.

She celebrates the element of surprise and uses it to guide performers through the pieces twists and turns. Even through the performance she and her “dancers” would be dealt with various performance set backs. The crowd was unexpectedly large for the venue and they were unable to see each other for their cues, having to rely on the music and instinct. I argue that this would translate to the viewer as being the feeling of constant (inter)action throughout the different performance spaces.

One scene would start with the setting of another. It had the feeling of being inside the movie where even after viewing a crucial plot scene you would need to move to the next but the previous character would continue being themselves. There was beautiful confusion in the faces of the audiences as they were left deciding which gyrating body they would choose to follow. For me the choice would be decided on which crowd had the best viewing angle and the shortest bodies in which to look over.

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Experience the madness

Emma is forced to guide the performer in the rehearsal as well as the audience. During the piece ushers would sometimes point at the direction of the action to be seen. One of my favourite moments of the piece was when I did not heed their instruction to move down the steps and decided to move to the scene up stage. I found performers in their positions but one was also being dressed by the stagehands. They were battling to get her shoes on for the next scene and she had to break out of character and instruct them. Chaos can result in the breaking of the fourth wall but its end result can mean something captivating for both viewer and performer. I found this moment comical in its intimacy. There is nothing more humanising than a beautiful actress unable to put her damn shoes on!

Yet even Emma has had her reminders that she is doing something right in her work. “I have been called crazy and have been asked if I was okay and whether I needed to ‘take 5’. But at the end that same performer came to me and said that the experience was unbelievable and they would do it again with me any time.”

For her the process has to be collaborative for it to work.  She works interactively and is deeply active in the intellectual process throughout the rehearsal process. This also translates into the design and composition or the ‘world she creates within the audio.’  Through the highly conceptual ideas she uses basic tropes in order to deliver the message. Using the imagery found in popular culture of stock characters and dabbling in the visually shocking the body becomes the living embodiment of the idea.

Her work features the tropes of a Black Jesus performed by Sthe Khali wearing an Aluminium crown of thorns. He fornicates with a black mother resulting in what I believe to be the most beautifully intimate presentation of a sex scene. Both receive moments of unbridled bliss at the peak of their ecstasy. He kisses her on the forehead as if in gratitude to her, then leaves her in foetal pool of sensual despair.

The Black “Mary Mgandela” trope (performed by Tembela Mgandela) is introduced to us through her domestic work of hanging the blood soaked sheets. Soon after her intimacy she falls pregnant and gives birth to a black goat’s head. This imagery is powerful considering how the head can be traced to pagan and satanic iconography, the sort of dark practices considered the antithesis of Christian belief and the immaculate conception.

We are also given the comfort of death in the image of a Hijab clad, sword wielding angel of life and angel of death performed by Imaan Latif.  She watches over the performers throughout the play as warning of their eventual demise. We are also finally given the image of the seductive blonde who wields her sexuality as her weapon. She is played by Ricci Lee Kalish as the Butcher’s wife who would also fall victim to the stereotype of blond screaming for her life in dark forbidden places.

All must die in this story as the characters represent a sense of potentiality in the pervasive ability of human kind of agency within one’s own limitations. From sheer ecstasy of movement must come the finality of death as all bright lights eventually are extinguished.

Our ‘killer’, performed by Emma herself plays the The Butcher,  the one who fucks our blonde haired vixen in a violent lesbian sex scene so well performed in its mimicry that it left various audience members uncomfortable and the young viewer snickering. Her agency as Female-fatale becomes literal as our Butcher murders all in her path by taking on the masculine position in the play and, I would dare say, also within her spectacular sex scene. Female is distorted to masculine destruction, a warning to the viewer to destructive effect of unbridled power.  Her acts are followed by the defining screams of her victims in the crucifixion of our Jesus. Her final pose is one where her butcher knife, the household cleaver, becomes the phallus between her thighs as she revels in the ecstasy of her carnage.

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The experience of the viewer

With such works you cannot exclude the experience of the viewer as part of the performance. Within the high end theatre and stuffy gallery space the viewer is expected  to remain the silent spectator except through the act of clapping in appreciation or the polite laugh. In such moments the audience’s can only contribute by invitation of the actor.

After the show I overheard one of the performers discussed in utter anger how she had been ‘cat-called’ by the audience members during her performance. She in her bubble wrap and bra costume had been reminded that no matter how “high” her art form was she still lived within a space of every day patriarchy where the short skirts and such are seen as an invitation. She was somewhat distraught by the experience and I would argue that this was caused by the performers being denied the protection of the artistic fourth wall that established the behaviour of the audience.

This fourth wall or the gallery space offers a sense of comfort to the performer that their work can be separated from those of sex workers as they present themselves in compromising situations. The performer is given a consolation that even though she may present herself as a sex object her intentions of her artistic merit will be made clear within the “gallery space”.

Yet this very safe space is only made possible through the privilege that comes with navigating an elite space that is mostly white and male. In this context it functions to protect the white female body where her acts are not seen as an infringement on their dignity. This ensures that the artists themselves are not touched in the interrogation and the experience of their works.  It is an industry that would ignore the artists’ “transgressions” for the sake of their message but ironically would see the increase in value of their works when they are dead. Yet in the business world people have lost their jobs over racist twitter rants or indecent exposure but in the art world your work can increase exponentially in value if you resort to racist iconography.

In “Meat, Purge, Lust” the performers would loose some of this “fourth wall” safety net as their bodies are viewed as sex objects and they were given direct proof of such.  I ask Emma to comment on such destruction. “I embrace and celebrate that that happened. The work of a performance lies in you being left in the conscious space of the unknown. I make work that is PG 13 and we experienced a very unusual set of audience members where the front lines of the audience were made up of teenage boys”.

I see Emma’s work as a reaction to this false sense of elite security or at least an attempt moving away from the safety of elite spaces. She adds “what I celebrate about Basha Uhuru is that it is free and accessible due to its location and it being an annual festival so it is very well known”. Her work would be taken out side of the usual space of where avant-garde performance where it would easily be politely accepted or at least not out-rightly criticized.

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The unacceptable accepted

For Emma her task is to make the performance accessible. She does so by using the cinematic styles characteristic of a Quinton Tarantino film in his glorification of violence and its homage to exploitation films.

The final scene of “Meat, Purge, lust” pays homage to such as our angel of death becomes our angel of mercy.  She is stripped bare in white cloth and entreats death to all the characters. No one is left alive as the stage is bathed in the blinding white light. A guitar solo typical to an Ennio Morricone soundtrack guitar solo soundtrack offered tender support to the whimpering lyrics of melancholic Zulu ballad marked the Pieces’ climax.

Our sin is that of our need as viewers of being enchanted by the very spectacle of violence and sex. Emma is giving us what we crave. “So much of performance are is seen as inaccessible. I aimed to create a block buster that filled seats, packed punch in a medium that has not seen a block buster”.

In her quest to fill the seats she has fed our hunger to be entertained though much to the audiences discomfort. Blood flows freely from the characters as they  are sacrificed to feed our voyeuristic appetite. In the end Jesus and Mary were resurrected, their bodies living but with no movement. They are statues pinned down by their sins against the blaring wind of regret. The crucifixion of Black Jesus was not enough to save the damned souls of the characters as well as the audience that still remained. More blood had to flow, but there was simply not enough. Maybe, only the power of a white savour can save us all from state of habitual contradiction.

Emma’s next performance will be at the opening night of the 5th Internet A MAZE gaming festival on the 31st of August.

You can also follow her like her Facebook page or on her instagram.

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