On a bare grey painted wall in Hong Kong’s Lehmann Maupin gallery, Robin Rhode draws a simple crude outline of a car with a white piece of chalk. With audience participation, he proceeds to wash and polish it, until there is no longer a chalk drawing, just dark smudges of car polish and soapy water dripping down the wall and onto the gallery’s concrete floor. It is a tongue-in-cheek poke at the city’s fetishisation and obsessive consumption of luxury cars.
The performance, Car Wash (2014), perfectly encapsulates the nature of Rhode’s work; it activates the urban environment, and occasionally the museum and gallery space, to create opportunities for engagement with the audience, and to change the concept of what art is and how it can function. ‘It’s important to me that the show generates a dialogue around art,’ says the 38-year-old from Cape Town.
Operating beyond the confines of traditional art genres, Rhode opens up the drawing field to encourage viewer participation. The artist initiates a narrative and audience members become participants in the development of an idea. ‘I want to challenge the role of the audience in the gallery or museum, to allow them to be active participants in art,’ he explains. ‘Suddenly audience members are not only voyeurs, but also participants.’
According to Hong Kong-based arts patron Mimi Brown, founder of non-profit art space Spring Workshop, part of the appeal for audiences of performance art like Rhode’s is that ‘it lives outside the usual silos of the arts. If you can't easily call it dance, theatre, film or music, and you can't hang it on the wall, then you aren't able to bring the set of expectations you usually rely upon in those domains to the work the performance artist has created,’ she says. ‘I think audiences enjoy the challenge and freshness of being put in this position.’
This may go some way in explaining the current trend for performance art, which is increasingly making its presence felt at biennales, museums, galleries and art fairs the world over. This year Frieze even created a new section for it at the fair, Frieze Live, inviting six galleries to produce artworks inserted into the fair.
For 16 years, Rhodes has been creating works of art on walls and pavements. Tapping into the traditions of street art, be began with hastily scrawled drawings in the urban environment of Johannesburg, then on the walls of his adopted hometown of Berlin. Now it is also to be found on the walls of museums and galleries walls the world over, as well as on those belonging to private collectors.
The chalk drawings and performances themselves are impermanent, of course, but the stop-motion photographs that document and bear witness to art that is ephemeral in nature have been shown in galleries, and as part of his Lehmann Maupin exhibition, Having been there. The photographs bring static fragments of the physical performance from the urban environment into the gallery setting, opening up the possibility of seemingly non-commercial performance work being able to exist in a commercial setting.
In works like S (2014) and Fountain (2014), action unfolds like an Eadweard Muybridge photo series, with choreographed movement and a vaudevillian performance, sometimes acted out by Rhode himself, at others times by his ‘doppelganger’. The photos play with ideas of perception, perspective and movement, but they are merely memories of the original performance.
Using the urban environment as his canvas, Rhode transforms simple shapes into elements of narrative, bringing them to life through physical interaction. It’s a process that has its genesis in his school days where he says new students were made to draw an object, like a bike, on the toilet wall with chalk and interact with their drawings as part of a hazing ritual.
‘We used the walls as the surface of our creative expression. There wasn’t any art education in high school,’ explains Rhode. Years later, the bike became the starting point of his practice: Classic Bike (1998) saw the artist attempting to mount, push and steal the chalked bike.
As one of the first members of the post-apartheid generation of South African artists, Rhode’s artistic language was formed on the streets, drawing from the urban landscape, politics and the history of Johannesburg. In his photo series, Piano Chair (2002), a black piano chair is drawn on a white wall beside a chalk drawn piano. The chair stands witness to murder; the protagonist in the performance stones, stabs, and petrol bombs the piano, before finally lynching it. It is a work loaded with politics: ‘It’s the murder of the past and is symbolic of a society where people were burnt alive and people were stoned,’ Rhode says. ‘I try to convey harsh realities in a very dark but playful way.’
There is a stripped back simplicity to Rhode’s work. Often the artist uses everyday lo-fi objects, such as paper clips, light bulbs and wire to generate his ‘high definitive works of art’. This simplicity serves to bring order to his experience of urban chaos. ‘In a politically charged and complex system like South Africa there was this desire to strive for minimalism, this aesthetic purity and experience,’ he explains.
Although Rhode claims much of his work was formed by experiences, rather than being informed by theories and art histories in art school, influences started filtering through into his practice from movements such as Bauhaus and de Stijl, and the early action work of Marcel Duchamp, as well as the performance works of American artists Vito Acconci, and Dennis Oppenheim. From this confluence of influences, Rhode developed a fluid language free of rules and conventions, a unique hybrid of performance, drawing, and photography, engaging in a dialogue between Berlin and Johannesburg, high art and popular culture, structure and spontaneity, the gallery and the street.
But it is the idea of performance that remains at the core of his work, and it’s what Rhode prefers to keep doing. ‘There is greater social interaction which has an influence on the working process,’ he states. ‘When you have an audience it has an impact on the speed of your work and the physicality of the choreography, and the line.’
For the art world-weary, the promise of a shared communal experience, of active viewer participation, and of the unexpected that performance work like Rhode’s promises may just be the panacea that’s required.