There is a naked man writhing and hissing in a dirty puddle on the concrete floor beneath a barbed wire mesh ceiling. The gathered crowd watch rapt, cell phones raised like votive candles. His red underpants are tangled around his ankles. He lies face-down, holding his breath, counting one-crocodile-two-crocodile-three crocodile-ten.
This is all my fault. Sort of.
I was thrilled when my publisher, Jacana, emailed to tell me that eight student curators at Wits were putting together a Zoo City-themed exhibition. I’d done cool collaborations around the book before; an official soundtrack from African Dope, and limited edition art toy Bares customised by local designers, in some way inspired by the novel and auctioned off for a children’s refugee charity. But those were projects I personally put together. This was entirely independent and entirely out of my control.
Shadow-self absorption (study no.1), 2001
A few years ago a minor scandal erupted at the Franschhoek Literary Festival over a digital artwork piece by Stacy Hardy and Francois Naudé, dis.grace, which matched every word in JM Coetzee’s novel Disgrace to the top ranking result in a Google image search, creating a new book “rewritten through the eyes of global digital culture”. It was playful and intriguing, a snapshot of the time. One search came up with lots of Iraq war imagery. Another was heavily pornographic.
The audience was divided down the middle, reacting with admiring coos of “Oh, cool” from one camp and gasps of outrage from those horrified at the disrespectful violation of authorial intent.
As Stephen King points out in his memoir/how-to guide On Writing, writing is a kind of telepathy. By putting some squiggly symbols on a page, I can conjure a very specific image in your brain. But the thing with brains is that they have different ways of imagining and when you let a book out into the world, it inhabits other minds and it is no longer yours alone. Authorial intent counts but every interpretation is valid. I was definitely in the oh-cool camp that day, and also frantically jealous.
Rory Bester, art historian and course convener who set Zoo City as a “curatorial problem”, says that artistic adaptations of books are still rare and relatively new. Iterations include David Knut’s First Chapter series and artist Kathryn Smith’s work with crime novelist Margie Orford. He assigned Zoo City because it was a book fundamentally about Johannesburg with space to play.
It was fascinating — and gratifying — to see what themes the eight curators picked up from the novel. Some explored African identity, Afrophobia, amakwerekwere and Hillbrow’s migrant communities, like Oupa Nkosi’s candid, moving photographs of immigrants and Pearl Mamathumba’s foreign-looking South Africans, or Abdulrazaq Awofeso’s rough hewn pallet men, like toy soldiers colonising the rooms — numerous and also vulnerable.
Cross Border Trading, 2008
Others were interested in the hidden things that lurk in the depths of Suburbia, as one piece was dubbed, or Johannesburg’s undertow in a thundercloud of balloons pregnant with menace in Tarryn Lee’s Float and Follow.
In an interactive session the audience was asked to write down their lost things (contributions included “Waldo” and the “feeling of being loved”). Others explored crime, segregation and feelings of alienation in the surveillance-style photographs by Patrick Dineen, or the dark side of consumerism and fetish in Michael MacGarry’s twisted bronze, Historical Materialism.
Untitled 2, 2011
And, in the case of performance artist Murray Kruger (aka the naked guy in the puddle) an examination of the shadow psyche in Shadow-self absorption (study no.1) — commissioned especially for the exhibition by Tiffany Mentoor — explored how guilt might drown you in “a disturbing ritual of the removal of the conscience”.
Surprisingly, animals were in short supply and the curators eschewed more obvious works, like Pieter Hugo’s Hyena Men, which I’ve written about as an influence on the novel, in favour of showcasing (mostly) new talent.
Fragments from the City, 2011
Of course, there are difficulties in achieving concord. Eight curators picking their resonances means, sometimes they don’t resonate with each other.
The one thing they did agree on was removing the exhibition from the sterile gallery space to the Mess Hall of the Old Fort prison whose inmates included everyone from Nongoloza to Nelson Mandela. The venue is haunted by its own past and echoes the “subterranean squalor” of my book, according to curator Alex Horsler.
His colleague Prue Mutumi says the historical significance of the space covers “oppression, repression and segregation”. But it’s also about reinvention, reclamation and finding a new way of being in spite of your dark and traumatic past — just like the novel.
As Murray Kruger completes his act of absolution in the dirty puddle by rolling over onto his back, cupping his genitals, standing up and shuffling into the corner, the audience applauds, warily. The performance was disturbing, disconcerting. It made me re-evaluate things. And isn’t that what art — and fiction — are supposed to do?