Featured photo courtesy Theertha Performance Platform

The beautiful Fenya of Greek decent asks me with a humble smile if I know the Sinhala word that gives meaning to ‘shame’. Having received ‘yes’ for an answer she sits on the floor, with a tiny bottle of green body paint in her hand and offers a meticulously carved glass pen to me. ‘Can you write that word on my leg in bold letters? This is for my performance’’

The next time I see her, in a street surrounded by people, she breathes heavily almost as if she is in a conversation with herself, in a silent trance, ripping off the traces of the green paint off her legs with steel wool till it bleeds. She removes traces of shame in shame in an apparent flux of emotions. This leaves the crowd with a spontaneous eruption of questions and skepticism. Such is the art of performance. And the aforementioned illustration is one of personal experiences during the three continuous days spent at the Theertha Performance Platform (TPP) 2019 from the 15th -18th of March at Theertha International Artists Collective, Borella hosting artists from over 12 countries across the globe.

If someone who has never seen the Theertha artist’s gallery before, comes to the place within the duration of the festival he/she will witness the walls of gallery turning in to an apparatus of expression, floor preparing itself to bear acceptance and its residents changing themselves in to facilitators of allowing art to take center stage.

But also unknowingly, the preparation happens perhaps unconsciously elsewhere. The Borella market, which is perhaps not more than five hundred meters away from the gallery, is crowded as expected of it. Rest assured, that is all the preparation it needs. A few unsuspecting mice appear from the underpass where a few performances are scheduled to happen, as requested by the forever mystique artists. The first day of the public performance in the first tunnel attracts hostility and amusement at the same time.  The tunnel reeks of raw meat and has very little humidity. The annual performance routine does not seem unwelcome but reluctantly anticipated.

As was noted by Jagath Weerasinghe and Godwin Constantine during the inaugural conference for the TPP, there is a fundamental question regarding the degree of intervention a performance artist can make in to the public space as opposed to the private space.  And this question arises with the direct confrontation of the artist and the public. Is it a space that is invaded by the artist, or in completely opposite terms space equaled by them?

This is not to say that the public is entirely unfamiliar with visual and performing art. Bandu Manamperi comments that they assume most of the performances to be part of cinema or theatre at first. The degree of acknowledgment depends on the concept, relevance, or the degree of comfort of association. Depending on these and more, the public responds with varied actions such as willful ignorance, humiliation or curiosity. Acceptance or the denial of it by the public cannot be predicted unless the work is fairly predictable. Sometimes there is no involvement of a concept at all. The involvement of the public goes even beyond that, as Jeetin Rangher says.  The concept is irrelevant to the reaction of the public. But something is sustained in the mind of the people. There is participation the moment the onlooker is disturbed in his mind. ‘Something happens in the performance…in an abstract way’, adds he. It is then not wrong to say that performance art is an instantaneous inter subjective experience.

Whether the artist performs his/herself through a poem chanting words repeatedly in a vacuum of air to an audience, or if an artist simply shakes her head in frenzied movements with a bottle of water with turmeric in it the performance artist makes herself the work of art. The constant presence of the author and the manifestation of the performance happens simultaneously. Using the body as part of the performance, the artist tolerates the possible risks and accredits him/herself with the satisfaction of realisation of the projection of the expression. This inseparable connection with one’s subjectivity is given to the audience without severing the essential bond with the self. The performance contains certain knowledge. The knowledge that there is something certainly unknowable and that it will be knowable to the performer only.

Without so much as a word, Nopawan Sirivejkul standing on a block of concrete drops soft glass balls into a considerably large wine glass with red wine in to it and develops the movement in to  an uninterrupted rhythm.  Momentum increases.  Wine spills. Wine splashes. Mess of wine. Wine everywhere. Till one tiny glass ball makes the crack. The glass shatters. The unexplainable activity leaves a feeling I have felt before but cannot locate. Loss? Separation? Or something wholly other? To those who are familiar to performance art, this does not seem entirely surprising.

The seemingly irrational activity deemed to be considered utterly absurd in the eyes of the society can only exist as part of cinema, theatre or any other visual creation but not as a synthesis of body, mind and the space where it occurs at the same time. What is considered absurd only comes closer to their imagination as that which is absurd. People are generally conditioned by their experiences or the lack thereof.  It has to be noted that to be a performance artist, there is no prerequisite to unnecessarily stir traditional layers and norms of society. But there must be the ability to extract from a seemingly meaningless performance the  different possibilities of existence and to create and produce something new  which  necessitates its presence alongside what is referred to as normal by the society.

Theertha as an institute has been a space that harbors different views and ideas of life, especially by being the home of arguably the most striking philosophy project in the country where questions of existence strike almost every day. In its wake, Theertha Performance Platform as an event provides space for the most challenging of art forms, ‘performance art’, to be theorised. Not only in terms of performance but in every other calling in life. It calls for resurgence in cinema, politics, poetry, art and corners of existence of human capacity where irrationality is accepted as part of being and within being.

As Bandu Manamperi covers his head with a roughly built wooden box and is hauled and dragged like a corpse, the crowd does not need a language to know that he has given up control of his body. He already was entrapped in his mind and not inside the wooden box. The absurdity lied in what the people could not relate to. They could not reconcile with it. They couldn’t come to terms with what is different than what they have seen yesterday and what they hope to see tomorrow.

At the wake of dawn, a white clad Indian from Bihar, Ajay walks to the Borella junction to write the word ‘peace’ using grains of rice. He attempts to forget his past by continuing to remember it and linking our common history of war through loss and peace by merging differences in a common space. He has prepared for this. The preparation for which a whole group has worked months for. A performance after which his fellow artists shall perform similarly, standing for what they believe in, with genuine passion and interest in αἰσθητικός (aesthetics). A whole community, a collective work, gathering for a justified purpose.