Arthur Jafa: Message Received

 

 

November 25, 2017 I saw Arthur Jafa’s Love is the Message, the Message Is Death (2016) at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington DC. At the time I was struck, wordless, unable to formulate a coherent thought about the video. Three weeks later I returned to the Hirshhorn and sat in the gallery for a long while, watching the seven minute video over and over. The gallery was a black cube – dark, with a few benches set back from the wall-sized screen.

The video was second-to-last in the Hirshhorn’s “The Message: New Media Works” exhibition, and when I eventually stood up and walked out I wished it were last. I wished there were a decompress room, a fainting couch, a net on which to fall and be caught for a moment – Kanye’s lyrics still echoing in my head, the tear-streaked face of a little black boy practicing putting his arms up for the cops burned onto my eyes like the sun flare image interspliced in the video.

But there was no pause except for a breath before the video started again.

Just like real life.

That day, when I had sat stationary and let the video play on loop before me, I found that even though it was the same artwork, I noticed different parts. It was like some clips had been taken out and others added – a trick of my mind as I noticed different things and tried to absorb as much of the content as I could. Before my eyes flashed images of love and dancing and pain and comedy and power and destruction and kids and icons… Joy and violence alternated, my processing was truncated.  I was breathless. I had chills. Time warped within the video, becoming syncopated with the rhythms of the song. Time warped between the videos, as other sound from the artworks before and after – separated by thin walls – bled into the room, seeping in under doorways like gas. Multiple voices rang out, then silence. Pause. Movement. A change of viewers around me – the group of men who had been standing in the corner left, the person who had been sitting next to me was replaced with another, a guard from the exhibition eagerly ushered in visitors and hurriedly told them about what he thought of the artwork. Play.

Jafa has been in the news a lot recently, from exhibition reviews to articles about his work and background to interviews in sources like artnews and Frieze (that one was my favorite). Each time one of these popped up over the months following my experience at the Hirshhorn I would sit down and think about writing something about the object, about Jafa, about anything even tangentially related to this gorgeous artwork. Every time I felt like my computer was staring at me rather than the other way around. The memory of the object would play in my mind, still catching me off guard and unprepared to say something. I looked and looked for the video online or in museum collections, but it doesn’t currently exist in the public domain; for now only shooting around the gallery and museum circuit like some kind of anti-morphine: amplifying, challenging, making you feel everything harder. Yet somehow still comforting.

Now, listening to “Ultralight Beam” on repeat as I write, I’m still not really sure what I have to say. With this piece, I don’t know if I’ll ever be. This one might be more about the feeling – the goose bumps racing up arms and down legs; the flash of images threatening to drive you into overload as they flash in a dark room; Kanye’s rich voice unsettling you like seasickness or love; other bodies scattered in the gallery, faceless but full to the brim with humanity, engaged with seven minutes of knife-sharp clarity.

 

The Message: New Media Works is on view at the Hirshhorn in Washington DC through September 30, 2018

Arthur Jafa: Love is the Message, the Message Is Death runs June 27 – September 30, 2018 at the Institute of Contemporary Art Boston

A review of the Jafa artwork (and more) on view at the MCA Denver through May 13.

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90 Minutes at the MFA

“The important thing is first of all to have a real love of the visible world that lies outside ourselves as well as to know the deep secret of what goes on within ourselves. For the visible world in combination with our inner selves provides the realm where we may seek infinitely for the individuality of our own souls. In the best art this has always existed. It has been, strictly speaking, a search for something abstract.” – Max Beckmann (translated by Q. Beckmann and P.T. Rathbone) from Letter to a Woman Painter (1948)

I am not often caught without a notebook and pen. They are comparable to an appendage – naturally just there. This proximity enables frequent use. On my recent visit to the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, I challenged myself to not pull out my notebook, to just look. I was unsuccessful – Renoir shattered what little determination I may have had to stick to the challenge. For me, apparently, looking – soul-seeking – necessitates writing.

One may not immediately think of energy when they think of museums. Perhaps they think of white walls and long hallways and people speaking in too-long words and too-quiet voices. But, without a doubt, museums are full of energy – charged with it. Visitors are constantly in it – perhaps little stray sparks are what draw us toward one piece or another. They send out little invitations: Here, they say, walk through this doorway. Pause. Turn, slowly. Survey. Find the one that catches your eye and let it pull you into its undeniable gravity – there’s no point in fighting, something will draw you in and you will obey, observe, enjoy. Take it in one piece at a time: after all, you can’t see the world in 90 minutes.

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Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Dance at Bougival (1883)

Pause. You are struck by the light, the color, the movement. You are caught mid-twirl with the woman. You can imagine heavy skirts, taste the smoky setting. Trees bend in the wind – or maybe not the wind, but the breeze of the twisting dress fabric. There is music and conversation. The air is thick with excitement – a woman tips forward on her stool.

The man (looking suspiciously like van Gogh) cannot take his eyes off of the fresh-faced, coy girl. The pair is on their toes. Their mid-step is forever captured in oil. The maybe, want-to-be, almost-and-forever lovers hold each other close. It certainly isn’t the worst way to spend an eternity: safely suspended, together. The painting waits for people to sit on the nearby bench and watch. It, too, sends out an invitation: imagine the inhale that comes at the end of the twirl, imagine the smiling eyes beneath the brim of the man’s hat, imagine fingertips on fingertips.

Imagine: eventually, in a foggy someday, the woman’s stool settles safely back onto the dusty ground.

Scratch, scratch, pencil on paper, canvas to hand to sketchbook – carefully copied. The noise guides you through the massive galleries, drawing you from one space to the next – one painting and sculpture and subject and place and feeling and thought and not-quite-time-machine to another…

All the way to Pollock.

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Jackson Pollock, Number 10 (1949)

Here’s a challenge: trace it. Pick a drip, isolate it, follow it. Don’t get dizzy – don’t get too close. Don’t get ahead of yourself. Relax – it’s all in the flick of the wrist, flick of the paint can, flick of the eye following frantic motion frantically. Take a step back so you can see the whole image, all the way to the edges. Feel it out. Feel it. Can you decipher this drip-calligraphy? It is an unlimited, although not always easily-accessible, language. Try to learn it. Become bilingual – say you can speak energy disguised as paint on canvas.

Nearby, a few Picassos are mislabeled. There has to be some metaphor there, right? Something about the superiority of the image? Some condemnation of the crutch of a label?

Remember following that Pollock paint drip? Did it have a name? Did it need one to have a soul?

Voicemail

There is something about voicemail that is so collected.

The measured beeping-ringing of the phone stops, and out of the audio void comes a voice. Default and robotic, maybe. Impersonal. Predictable. Or a recording – the person you are trying to reach can’t get to the phone right now, they’re busy, they’re on vacation, they are in some way absent. But leave a message – a name, number, a stumbling one-sided sentence that is missing its counterpart.

Those recordings can trick you. The warm hello can feel bodily – a hand must be holding a device to a mouth which must be uttering a greeting to you now. Then a “Hi” in response is cut off by the recorded command for later communication. You fall into an unnecessarily embarrassed quiet on your end (now revealed to be the only end) of the line.

Or maybe you were hoping for voicemail. Hoping to avoid interactions separated by one degree of technology. Maybe all you wanted was that recorded hello. Warm – for everyone. But this time all for you. Maybe you’ll ignore the invitation for a left-behind word or two – a bit of news or an inquiry – and instead hang up at the end of the speech which acts as the gatekeeper to the inbox.

Regardless, people want a voice in response. We need it.

The Art of Communication

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“The limits of my language are the limits of my mind. All I know is what I have words for.” ~Ludwig Wittgenstein

Communication is like painting. Sometimes a person may come up with a masterpiece of an idea, and put it forth into the world clear and fully formed, saturated with color on a scale which others may digest comfortably. Other times a sentence may morph into a Pollock, becoming more and more layered until the starting point is all but unidentifiable. Yet other times there is a middle ground – a place of nuance. In those moments a person may have a thought to share, but release it in parts, or in phrases with subtlety. Some ideas come out clearly while others are fuzzy to the receiver. Here, communication becomes impressionistic: forming a whole a scene, a whole feeling, with well-placed brushstrokes and smart colors.

All of these ways of communicating are limited by what an artist can imagine, or what a speaker can name. Yes, we may be able to identify a feeling without being able to fully describe it, but because we lack the precision to completely talk about it, it is never fully comprehensible and communicable.

When I don’t know what something is, I default to calling it the infinitely descriptive “thingy.” This does nothing for someone to whom I am trying to communicate. We are all limited by what we can describe. As such, we are all limited by what we can control. So, really, I have no power over that “thingy”.

But what happens when that thingy which you have no name for suddenly becomes important?

Well, then there is no choice but to become a Degas or Kahlo or Pollock or Picasso or Monet and put some paint on a canvas – put some words into the Universe – and expand the limits of your language and thus the limits of your mind.

 

Image: Impression: Soleil Levant – Claude Monet, 1872  <https://www.ibiblio.org/wm/paint/auth/monet/first/impression/impression.jpg