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Column: Anthea Moys vs Grahamstown

First appeared
Thursday, 04 July 2013


By the time you read this, Anthea Moys will, inevitably, have lost her fifth and penultimate contest with the people of Grahamstown.

Things started in warlike fashion last week as, hopelessly outnumbered, Moys took on SABRE (South African Battle Re-enactments) to depict a 1745 Scottish rebellion. Then she danced alone against Ballroom and Latin teams, before trying to match two choirs note for note. Chess and soccer bouts followed. Tomorrow, she will be beaten up by members of East Cape Shotokan-Ryu Karate. 

Moys excels in none of these disciplines. She has been training diligently for three months, often under the instruction of her more skilled adversaries, and for brief moments has impressed aficionados with her newly-acquired talents. But in each case, she has entered the fray knowing she will struggle to compete and certainly cannot hope to win.

Why, you may ask, has the recipient of the 2013 Standard Bank Young Artist Award for Performance Art – a new category in these prestigious Awards – undertaken such an ambitious, ludicrous, admirable, pitiable quest? It is a question that has been posed by many of those attending Moys’ events at this year’s National Arts Festival.

To attempt an answer, we have to go back a few years. I first encountered Moys’ work through another Anthea: curator, researcher and critic Anthea Buys. I was putting together a book called Sport versus Art, a collection of essays exploring the symmetries and tensions (sometimes productive, sometimes destructive) between sport and the arts. Buys’ contribution was an assessment of Moys’ sporting “interventions”, with a title quoting the artist’s assertion that “Playing to win is not really playing”.

Moys had turned herself into a human rugby ball; she had set up a stationary exercise bike along the route of the 94.7 Cycle Challenge; she had decorated a boxing ring with flowers. “Fun,” Buys notes, “ is supposed to be the reason one takes up a sport in the first instance, and pressure to win easily eclipses this ... The seriousness with which sport is played and watched in South Africa makes a mockery of the words ‘game’ and ‘players’.”

Moys’ early sports experiments were not merely intended to critique competitive sport or to mock sportspeople. Rather, as Buys observes, the artist’s interruption of a sporting code – testing the boundaries, “inserting a bit of chaos into that structure” – becomes an opportunity to create something original and shared and liberating: “When the rules of a game shift in response to an obstacle, a new game, potentially one with fewer pressures and restrictions, replaces the old.”

This openness to learning from others, to mutual creative fun, is at the heart of Anthea Moys vs. The City of Grahamstown. If one of the chief considerations in any work of performance art is its locale, Moys has found a way of engaging with the widest possible variety of “locals”; to put it in demographic terms, her opponent-collaborators cross all categories of age, race, sex and class.

What she wants to facilitate is the “special kind of magic that happens when strangers, from completely different circumstances and backgrounds, get together and write their own rules of engagement”. But she is also aware of the likelihood of failure – those moments in which “magic” is replaced by absurdity. This, too, has value. Like a clown, Buys invites us to laugh at her and with her, even as we sympathise with her lonely heroism and appreciate “the poetry, spectacle and pathos of defeat”.

The risk with performance art, however, is that – precisely because the artist chooses to surrender “control” of the happening – the concepts driving its planning and execution can be lost. When, for example, Moys was comprehensively out-sung by the wonderful Victoria Girls High School Choir, each of the strands discussed above was on display. Yet the lack of an overarching “message” led to a different kind of failure altogether: miscommunication between artist and audience.

Moys had applied herself earnestly to renditions of Ave Maria and Qongqothwane, although her voice clearly wasn’t up to the task. As we left the hall, my wife overheard one puzzled audience member ask a friend: “Was she supposed to be singing so badly? I thought she was an award-winning artist?”



Comments (1)

  • Paddy
    05 July 2013 at 16:21 |

    While I don't entirely disagree with the idea that "playing to win is not really playing", I'd like to suggest that if you're not playing to win, you're not really playing either.

    In any sport, the rules are put in place so that we can judge who the winner is. As long as you abide by those rules you must, by definition, be playing to win.

    Even when Anthea goes onto the soccer field and is one against eleven, she must still recognise the rules of the game. She must acknowledge that her ultimate aim is to score goals while trying to stop her opponents from doing the same. Even if her attempt is futile, she must still be trying to do that. If she wasn't, then what she is doing is not playing soccer.

    All the "contests" she has set up run along the same lines. If she is really competing against the girls' choir, then she must acknowledge that she is trying to sing better than they are. She is playing to win, no matter how futile her attempt. If she's not really trying to sing better than they are, then she's not really involved in a contest and the premise of her exercise falls flat.

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