The bumblebee, fly and the mosquito
“The body is the physical agent of the structures of everyday experience. It is the producer of dreams, the transmitter and receiver of cultural messages, a creature of habits, a desiring machine, a repository of memories, an actor in the theater of power, a tissue of affects and feelings. Because the body is at the boundary between biology and society, between drives and discourse, between the sexual and its categorization in terms of power, biography and history, it is the site par excellence for transgressing the constraints of meaning or what social discourse prescribes as normal.”
Moussa Sarr says of his own work: ‘I regularly play with my image; it is about becoming the picture to put an end to clichés.’ As a performance and video artist his work questions the intrinsic notions of human nature often through his impersonation of characters from the animal kingdom. His body forms the content of his work. The focus and engagement with the audience in its entirety is all about him – his body, his face, his attitude – but in exploring and questioning his identity there is a global and communal resonance. The issues he is communicating through his own image connect with every person displaced from their origins and trying to acclimatise in a different country, through language, rituals and customs.
The canny portrayal of animals and insects is humourous and at the same time unnerving as he scratches beneath the skin to address issues of race and identity, challenging perceptions of gender, class and ethnic stereotypes. There is a persistence and sometimes aggression with which he plays each character that is confrontational and unforgiving, thereby forcing the viewer to take a stand or retreat into the safe corner that nature and nurture has designated ‘the comfort zone’.
The three main characters in this installation – the bumblebee, the dung fly and the mosquito – buzz around the gallery space, each fighting to be the centre of attention and attain the higher power. There is a continual and underlying threat of danger from all three adversaries. As the sole protagonist, Sarr conveys and constructs himself in the public realm as animal or insect – his modes of communication are through animal sounds and direct eye contact to the camera. He projects his self-image as simulation but like many performance artists before him there are elements of activism and commodification. The mimicry of each character portrayed is precise and the allusion to metamorphosis cannot be disregarded. He has studied, researched and rehearsed their sounds, behaviourial traits and attitude in depth. In these works nothing is left to chance. Sarr is a highly trained impersonator giving a convincing portrayal of each subject.
Walking through to the second room in this installation, the mood changes to one of calm contemplation. L’appel, part of the Point of View series was created in Tetouan, Morocco on an artist residency. The location is a picture postcard Moroccan village, white-washed houses nestled between hills. The work was filmed on the roof of the residency close to the Great Mosque of the Medina (an old fortified city). Sarr was inspired by the hens and roosters that can be found there. He bought a rooster that he called Staffi and who soon became the mascot of the house. He soon realised that when someone imitates a rooster, the roosters living close by answer the call. After a few days in the residence, Staffi started crowing at the same time as the call for prayer, the muezzin. Sarr combined the two calls in his work.
As a French Corsican based in Paris, Sarr is playing with the symbolism of France. The Gallic rooster or le coq gaulois is an unofficial symbol of France as a nation – as opposed to Marianne representing France as a State – and its Republican values. Unlike his other animal and insect pieces, this work was much more spontaneous and unrehearsed, dependent in large part on the roosters of the town reciprocating his call and a chance camera crew arriving to make a documentary on the residency programme that day. The call of the roosters is juxtaposed with the call to prayer – whichever call we identify with most defines us: the call signifying a new day or the call of Allah. As human beings we choose which calls we respond to in choosing how we live our life, and like Sarr’s work the persistence and repetition of these calls make them impossible to ignore.
Setting aside the humour and satire in Sarr’s work, his practice is rooted in art history and performance art by using his physical presence to communicate cultural and political messages, captured on film, directly to camera. His work lies somewhere between performance art and photographic self-portraiture. As performance art, it is theatrical, choreographed, narrative-based, staged, provocative, challenging and thought-provoking. In terms of self-portraiture the self is insistently objectified – the process of identification is exaggerated and cannot be overlooked. The existence of these performances in short films which can continually repeat in the gallery space gives emphasis to the issues he is raising without allowing the audience to discount his direct and confrontational stance. Unlike artists before him who used their self-image as canvas, for example, Hannah Wilke, Cindy Sherman and Gillian Wearing, Sarr does nothing to disguise or manipulate his physical appearance. Instead, the accuracy with which he mimics his cast of animal characters allows him to dispense with elaborate costumes, make-up and props, yet he chooses his wardrobe carefully for each performance, adding slight and subtle hints to his message. For example, the red, white and blue of the French flag around the collar of his shirt brands his nationality in Mosquito.
Moussa Sarr plays with stereotypes and challenges clichés but the core of his practice is rooted the history of performance art which has traditionally been used to challenge the conventions of established art forms. Sarr uses his performances to challenge discrimination, social and power structures and question how we perceive and respond to each other as human beings. The fact that his work exists in film format and is not as such ‘live art’ goes further to reinforce the messages he is communicating. He is an extraordinary actor and impersonator. Experiencing his installations will make you leave unnerved and questioning, but with a smile on your face, because his tone is never authoritative, it remains playful and self-derisive.
Sanna Moore, September 2015