Welcome to the Moment of Truth, the thirst that is the drink.
Over twenty years ago, I started a project I’m still working on, documenting the life and work of an artist, Resh Shaprudhi, who used iconography around the god from the purana literature of what is now Hinduism, the god called Ganesh, or Ganapathi, or Vinayaka, or any number of other names, to explore the nature of oppression. Part of Resh Shaprudhi’s mythos is how and why Ganesh enters the events of the European genocide of WWII, often known as the Holocaust, and how through Ganesh’s intervention, the God of the Jews and the gods of the Hindus agree to bestow moksha upon the impoverished and oppressed. Moksha is the release of the soul from the cycle of metempsychosis, or reincarnation. It’s considered a good thing, to be released from that cycle.
If you’re not familiar with Ganesh, he’s the chunky god with the head of an elephant. He’s really easy to pick out of a crowd. A big part Resh Shaprudhi’s work involved syncretically assembling images, language, and symbols from Hinduism, Judaism, and the European genocide in World War II. So a lot of the art created by Shaprudhi involves Ganesh appearing in scenes of Nazi labor and death camps.
Coincidentally, about a decade-and-a-half after I started working on the Resh Shaprudhi project, an Australian play was touring the world called, “Ganesh Versus the Third Reich,” created by Back to Back theater company. The conceit was this: a theater company is in the process of putting together a stage play about Ganesh coming to Earth to recapture the swastika from the Nazis, who’d misappropriated it. I’m not sure if I was ever in a position to see this work. 2013, the year it toured, was also the year I was in India on the set of a movie, and after the shoot traveling through India, Thailand, and Laos.
Recently I decided to go back into the project, and encountered some clippings on the Back to Back play. I was barely familiar with the company’s esthetic, which is political, experimental, and purposely provocative. The theater company to which I claim membership, Theater Oobleck, boasted a similar esthetic back then. It may still, I don’t know. I know we considered art to be less interesting if it didn’t in some way transgress the everyday.
Back to Back is a company the majority of whose membership are disabled, “intellectually disabled” to quote from a New York Times review of the Ganesh play, the reviewer himself quoting from the script. Far be it from me to tell people how to refer to themselves, but having explored their website, I personally don’t see them as intellectually disabled at all. I might argue they’re behaviorally disabled, in that they evince artifacts of behavior outside the norms of what we consider businesslike society.
The genius of what they’ve done throughout their years of work is create situations, albeit theatrical situations, in which their disabilities are integral to the behavior expected or required. They are excellent actors, incidentally. They know their lines. They inhabit the emotions their characters are meant to be experiencing. They are highly skilled.
Now, I know many people, including myself, upon hearing that someone is an actor, immediately assume they suffer from an intellectual disability. It would seem to be in the job description.
Even as a sometimes-actor myself, I’ve made this assumption. I think this is more a symptom of our faulty definitions of intellectual ability. Just this week, I had coffee with a man who is without a doubt a certified accomplished intellectual, and I can say with almost perfect certainty that few have been as disabled by their intellectualism as he has. Everyone around us overheard his opinions, arrived at through careful study and analysis, and had we been armed with cream pies that man would have drowned within the hour.
I’ve always had a love-hate relationship with political activism, political discourse, and political thinking. I’ve had more of a love-love relationship with political theater, though not an unconditional love-love. What I love about the politics of Back to Back is that only in art can they display both their disabilities and abilities while opening for examination the drama of discrimination and oppression people labeled “disabled” experience.
I once used to think quite highly of myself as a theater-maker. Now I’m much more comfortable questioning my reasons for making a public display of myself, my beliefs, and my abilities. As I watch the entire world waving their dicks and tits and asses around in their TikToks and such, my former behavior makes me a little sick. But I’m able to cut myself some slack, give myself the benefit of the doubt, in retrospect. Back to Back seems only to have time for doubt insofar as it represents an aspect of life to be explored, not as an activity in which to indulge.
One member of the Back to Back company, Scott Price, conducted a series of interviews on art and provocation over the year 2016. The interviews are online on YouTube, also accessible at the Back to Back website, and are entertaining and edifying to watch. The whole site is well worth exploring. Some of it is mind-blowing:
They’ve made a thirty-minute movie called “Oddlands” that I would be keen to see, if anyone gets word of it being screened or streamed anywhere.
Back to Back answers so many of my questions about why making art of any kind is an important pursuit, even in the current period where everyone and their auntie is bidding for a place in the spectacle. I’m impressed that they continue to produce work. I’m impressed that Australia, on the surface merely a factory for drunken fascism and venomous wildlife, could have incubated, birthed, and sustained a troupe of artists such as this. I don’t want to say it gives me hope for the future. We’re in the future now, so we all know better than to rely on hope.
This has been the Moment of Truth. Good day!