Table Manners: Bush Tales #1

Table Manners: Bush Tales #1 
(2018)

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Above and Below: Installation view from Art Basel Miami 2018

Table Manners: Bush Tales #1  is a meditation on the power of folktales on our collective psyche and on how we metabolise morals and ideas. The work is a continuation of the Table Manners series of works that addresses issues of land, ritual, ownership and geography through recorded video eating performances. The first series saw 8 eaters consuming a prepared meal with their hands. Table Manners cites the name of the eater and the place in which the eating performance occurred and we have a sense that the food that is being consumed has a human hand and mind over it. It is a specially-prepared, human-authored meal. In Bush Tales there is no such specificity. The eater is not named and not clothed, he is only man. The tortoise he consumes is not part of a prepared dish. Although cooked it is just a tortoise. Not part of a soup and not part of a man-made, inspired dish featuring other elements. It is the meeting of man and animal. Bush Tales moves away from specific cultural readings and matters geographical and rather focuses on the cosmological. The eating performance in this case does something else. It acts as a meditation on ecopsychologies and the psychic relationship between man and beast.

Tortoises have an important role in mythologies around the world, and are often implicated in creation myths regarding the origin of the Earth. If the first Table Manners series is about land this next one is about cosmos and our psychic place in the world. Spiritual geography. The mythological idea of the world supported on the back of a tortoise which is itself standing on the back of a tortoise which is also on the back of another tortoise and so on (turtles all the way down or infinite regress, the unknowability of the origins of the earth) appears all over the world. This idea is alluded to in the structure of this installation: three monitors stacked on top of one another. Time plays out mysteriously in each monitor. Simultaneity at some moments moving undetected into non-regimented performances across the three screens. Time is at once constant and inconstant. The integrity of the body and the self also comes into question in parts of this video. In the “second Act” we see surrealist influences at play suggesting a self that plays out differently across different realms and dimensions. Do simultaneous realms co-exist with our own? Do they ever interact? How does time move in these realms? Who are we in these dimensions?

Where Table Manners invites viewers to be seated and participate in the consumption of the meal, there is no invitation apparent in the tiered tortoise installation which requires a little distance to view it in its entirety. Indeed there is a sense of transgression in the consumption of the tortoise. This may be, in part, to do with the fact that in many parts of the world tortoises have completely receded from the modern culinary lexicon and are viewed as pets or, in the case of sea turtles, endangered species. In Ogoniland the tortoise occupies a very important place in traditional folklore and tortoises are, for the most part, left alone and are not harmed. So across cultures this piece may be viewed as transgressive. However, tortoises have been and in some instances continue to be consumed in the United States, Asia, all around the world. Turtles only dropped off as a popular menu item because of dwindling stocks of tortoises due to its popularity in the mid 20th century (at least in America) and the length of time it takes for turtle populations to replenish. In the Niger Delta too it is becoming rarer to find them in the wild. But you can occasionally find tortoises for consumption in small corners of market places. However, like a lot of “bush meat” it is not eaten frequently as it is expensive and, as mentioned, not customarily eaten – at least not by Ogoni people.

The tortoise is a figure that comes up consistently in Ogoni, Nigerian and West African folk tales. In fact it is safe to say that most folk tales revolve around the tortoise. Globally, turtles are frequently depicted in popular culture as easygoing, patient and wise creatures. Due to their long lifespan, slow movement, sturdiness, and wrinkled appearance, they are an emblem of longevity, stability, steadfastness and tranquility. But Nigerians see something else: the tortoise is a trickster. The tortoise appears nimble and agile. Wily. A wise but devious creature. He is cunning. He is never satisfied. In the stories we find him frequently complaining, securing assistance from a hapless fellow animal to solve a problem, then cheating those who have assisted him. He sometimes gets away with his crime. Sometimes he does not. The tortoise trickster has been problematic and of great fascination to Zina Saro-Wiwa. She states: “I’ve long struggled with tortoise trickster stories. Reading them, dealing with the jagged, discomfiting, disjointed, morally ambiguous nature of them. They are at once unsophisticated and altogether much too sophisticated. They collide adulthood and childhood. Animal and man. Justice and injustice. They marginalize women. What does it that mean that this animal is imbued with these characteristics in this culture? Why did we pick up on these characteristics? What does it mean to have such unforgiving stories at ones core? Are these core stories impacting the way we metabolize and deal with corruption? Does it affect gender relations in some silent way?”

The ritualistic enactment of this eating taboo is Saro-Wiwa’s way of staging an intervention into the power of tortoise myths. Saro-Wiwa’s work often challenges rituals especially patriarchal ones. The tortoise is a trickster that many times gets away with murder, rape or theft. By eating and apparently disappearing the tortoise, the animal looms larger than ever before. Living on within the eater and the mind of the viewer. Not just physical but also psychic transfer. In Ogoni folktales, the tortoise is talked of as if he were a man. When reading the stories there is a kind of shapeshifting going on as the tortoise takes on physically human capabilities then the very next moment is at the mercy of his tortoise physiology. They swap characteristics and embody one another. Man is tortoise, tortoise is man. This video piece responds to this aspect of existential transmogrification in folkloric storytelling.

The text that appears in the video are intended to be ingested also. They are core ideas and tropes that emerge from multiple Ogoni folktales. The ecopsychology of the tortoise is of great importance to Saro-Wiwa and fits into her investigation into the relationship between self and environment as well as emotional landscapes. Emotion is addressed in the text, reflecting the varied emotional states demonstrated by the animals in the folktales and the complex feelings Zina had when making this piece. Bush Tales is of the Table Manners family but is a more emotional piece than the original series. In many ways Bush Tales is a work about grief. Grief at storytelling. Grief at death. Grief at impunity. It is about the lack of mercy in the world. It is an act of mourning.

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