Gavin Krastin’s performance art piece, #omnomnom, is one of the most talked about pieces of the 2014 National Arts Festival. Of course there are some people who think it is a wonderful work and others who think it is absolute pretentious rubbish. I go along with the former view. I found it to be highly intelligent with lots of food for thought. (Pardon the little bit of “food” wordplay there, but yes, that was deliberate).
I was invited by the artist some time ahead of the festival to come and see his work and to engage with him before the festival for interviews. That impressed me. In an age where communication methods are rapidly changing it is necessary for artists to be innovative in their approaches to the media – or to pay a publicist to do it for them. Gavin Krastin did his own homework.
We are asked to sign an indemnity. I signed. I am not certain of the purpose of the indemnity. Eat food to which you are allergic? I think not. Most people aren’t quite that stupid. Red tape? Possibly. Engagement with the work? Certainly we are going into an event which requires participation, not merely passive viewing.
The venue for the work is important. The Alan Webb Dining Hall is evocative of a medieval monastic refectory, complete with medieval saints on the wall. The beautiful wood panelled venue has a gallery all round. It is almost a sacred space and the Gregorian chant with which the work commences enhances the hallowed sound.
The Grahamstown winter weather is nasty. The cold seeps into the body despite several layers of warm clothing. The air in the dining hall is nippy. The nearly naked body of a young man is spread over a gurney. The effect is much like that in the Romeo and Juliet crypt. A woman puts on latex gloves and begins a “post mortem” wipe of the body with lemon juice and then application of sushi over the body of the young man.
He was shivering noticeably. My basic life support medic (and simple human) instincts wanted to cover him with a blanket. My audience and intellectual training told me that he was suffering for his art and that the best thing I could do was to leave him be. I was there as a member of the audience so I obeyed the latter academic command over my instinct.
The music changed from Gregorian Chant to Marilyn Monroe’s rendition of “Happy Birthday Mr President”.
The whole principle of a human food platter, “nantaimori” for male platters, was discussed in South Africa at some length with Kenny Kunene’s notorious naked sushi party some years back. Conspicuous consumerism, overpriced, sexist, racist, stereotypical and obscene were and are words bandied about in this context. A half grapefruit decorated the boy bits. No one went there on the night I was present. If the grapefruit had been sectioned it may have been easier to tempt people into the violation of privacy.
The audience were surprisingly willing to eat sushi off Gavin Krastin’s body and to drink the (red) wine provided. If people were making links to the body and blood of Holy Communion it wasn’t obvious to me at the time, although the entire ritualistic endeavour was rich in my mind. I took my pieces along with the others. The gentle, genteel part of the “ceremony” drew to a close. I could have done with more sushi. This was an exotic, rarefied, decadent experience.
The next level found sticky ribs being placed over the ribs of Gavin Krastin. We were moving from the ceremonial to the crude – images of cannibalism reigning over the earthier peasant food. Samp, beans and meat applied to his legs were simply too hot and had to be placed along side. Krastin was still shivering noticeably. I took a chicken leg and ate that. This was a basic experience, common to most, homely, indigenous and that curious mix between comfortably familiar and a tad crass.
The music changed to pop. I don’t access the music, but the mood is undeniable. The next level has begun. Two hamburgers placed over Krastin’s nipples and a bucket of KFC in his crotch crudely represented popular and youth culture. The androgynous result was there for the world to admire or revile. This was that mix between alluringly easy and downright vulgar – fast food is something which brings its own guilty pleasure.
I was disappointed that there was no “cherry on the top”, ice cream or chocolates or strawberries and whipped cream to be licked off the body by the bold. The work stopped short of total debauchery. The #omnomnom was incomplete in his humiliation of the audience, in the violation of its subject.
The process of layering the food was slow and not very slick – initially clumsy rather than clinical, cute rather than crude in the last scene.
The audience were the performers. I have been privileged to attend a naked sushi party before, one where the diners were primed to deal with the social niceties of nyotaimori (the platter there was female) – the body is neither touched nor commented upon. It was thus with horror that I saw someone tickle Krastin’s feet. The barbarous act, however, was fitting for the level of depravity to which this feast had degenerated.
Krastin’s shivering had stopped. Hypothermia had set in. I was actively unhappy about his state and I wanted to deal with him as a human rather than as an artist. It was an act of restraint on my part to not rush up to him and wrap him in the towel provided for our hand washing.
The work is multi-layered and brought to the table, literally and figuratively, many of our cultural issues around religion, sex and food. I loved it!
The work won a Standard Bank Silver Ovation, confirming the quality of work that Gavin Krastin is producing. Well done!