Walk into any environment. Engage with strangers. What are the basic signifiers that enable you to do so? For one thing, language. For another, gender. An understanding of whether someone is a girl or a boy fundamentally affects how you respond to them. Call it upbringing. Call it social context. Call it psychology.
But what happens in a situation in which the very pronouns that you have been using all your life, are revealed as tainted? As potentially offensive to one to whom they do not apply. Everything, but everything, gets cast into disarray, and you are threatened with a kind of paralysis in expressing yourself.
Dean Hutton’s debut performance in The Cradle dismantles your sense of comfort in the world in a way that leaves you unsure who you are when you leave the space – and even unsure as to who you had been from the outset.
This is not to say that it messes directly with your own sexuality, but rather, it presents such a rich conundrum of being that it can shake you to your very foundations. On the exhibition’s opening night, an environment, a sense of mystique was created, and as you entered the space, your every sense was subtly seduced with tactile richness that made it difficult to be in the space for a long period of time because it was so intense.
From the fact that you were instructed, at the outset, to either take off your shoes or don plastic shoe-protectors, to the smell and feel of the soil so richly blanketing the space, to the sound of the bell, both in the performance itself, and the videoed performance, a sound which was also punctuated with that of a water fountain in the exhibition space and that of thunder on the sound track, every element played together to embrace you.
People were shy to begin navigating the space. The sacrosanctity of it all was complete. The artist, in golden nakedness, stood amidst the soil, sweeping swaths of it clean: perhaps in the shape of a map of Africa? Either way, Hutton wore a large bell at the waist. It rang and rumbled as Hutton swept, dangling like a metallic scrotum.
There is a sublime subtlety which contains Hutton’s nakedness as it contains the images of Hutton’s dogs, Comet and Luca or the natural environment on film. Audiences do not laugh with characteristic embarrassment that you might anticipate from such a situation. Having conquered their shyness, they move into the space and respectfully interact with the artist, who responds to them, while sweeping and ringing bells.
Hutton’s work on The Cradle begs comparison with that of South African-born performance artist Steven Cohen, who is currently based in Lille, France, given the use of performance, of nakedness, of environment. Hutton’s aesthetic, however, digresses vehemently from the invasiveness of Cohen’s persona. There’s less of a sense of adornment here, and more of a critical self-exploratory nakedness. The work is unsettling in a different way.
A low point in this extraordinary piece, was the positioning of Alberta Whittle in her role as Mummywatter. Playing with the ancient myths surrounding the Mami Wata, which ties the notion of the mermaid with that of fertility, Whittle performed the piece adorned in flowers and an impenetrable blueness. She sat in a plastic bath, making origami of money and distributing pieces of paper which reflected on the sangoma flyers that are handed out sporadically in urban South African traffic. A powerful performance in her own right, embracing enormous mystique, Whittle was positioned against the far wall of the gallery.
You were so swept away by Hutton’s presence and performance that it became easy to overlook what Whittle looked like, or was doing. This element of The Cradle should have been more confrontational, posing different challenges to the visitor.
Hutton’s debut as a performance artist is a gesture that cannot exist without follow up: a new character has emerged into South Africa’s performance art litany. What happens next?
- The Cradle, an exhibition of new work by Dean Hutton in collaboration with Alberta Whittle and Anna Christina Lorenzen is at GoetheonMain, at Maboneng downtown Johannesburg, until October 25.