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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Making Connections

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Light string by Felix Gonzalez-Torres at David Zwirner Gallery in Chelsea

Art is about connection. Connecting ideas and stories and people and more art. These connections can happen serendipitously.

For example, at the Whitney Biennial – among all of the clamor over VR violence and questionable portraiture – stood a quiet alcove. Across from the gaping mouth of Anicka Yi’s video room was a classic white box gallery space containing six brightly colored canvases. These paintings by Shara Hughes were vibrant, abstract, and full of life. They made me stop and sit for a moment on a bench in the center of the space. I paused. The next day, I stumbled across another Shara Hughes show at Rachel Uffiner Gallery in the Lower East Side. Engagement, then a second, unexpected opportunity.

Visual art is, of course, associated with the eyes. But it can connect to all of the senses.

Sound was also featured in the Biennial, in various ways. There was the awful sound of skull on concrete in Jordan Wolfson’s Real Violence , on the other hand there was the calm voice of the narrator in Anicka Yi’s The Taste Genome. Plus the glorious hum of museum goers, quietly discussing, debating, dissecting.

Taste. Following the Biennial, I went to David Zwirner, where a new Felix Gonzalez-Torres show was up after the recent change in representation. It is undoubtedly the best gallery show I have ever experienced. Experienced – not seen – because I did not simply exist in the space, I participated. I bent down and plucked a sweet, minty candy from the pile of Ross in the corner of the upstairs gallery space. It was hard and real on my tongue. Substance from substance.

And touch. In that same show I walked through a curtain of beads. I heard them click against each other and I felt their weight shift around me and over me as my body disrupted the solid but shifting barrier. There were blue curtains, too. Light and thin and airy, they covered the windows in a long room upstairs. I could imagine them flowing in the breeze if the windows were open. I could imagine the fabric – smooth on my fingers.

My pen was blue, too, that day as I wrote what I saw. I touched it. I felt it.

Smell is tricky. I wasn’t knocked out by Pope L.’s bologna at the Biennial – it was disappointing, in a way. But today I spent all my time among art and people that love it. Young museum professionals, as we connected in museums. Together we looked, and then we smelled through time – experiencing Ancient Rome through six bottles (like Hughes’s six paintings those few weeks ago) containing ghosts – from flowers to fish sauce. Along the way we talked and listened, too.  We touched – with a handshake our connections expanded. All of our senses worked today.

Feeling needs to be distinguished too. It is different from touch. Feeling is the most important sense in connecting with visual art. Maybe feeling is a well-placed bit of dismembered metal on a wall – a Trigger, left by Puppies Puppies as subtly as a landmine. Or maybe it’s those curtains – beads and fabric – blue and blue. Maybe it’s the way color can get wrapped up with a person, so blue becomes love. Maybe it’s taking that moment on that bench in the center of that white room broken by Shara Hughes’s fantasy environments.

Art is about more than eyes. Eyes are a part of a larger body – your larger body. And it is made of so many connections.

 

Shara Hughes “Same Space Different Day” at Rachel Uffiner runs until June 25, 2017.

Felix Gonzalez-Torres at David Zwirner runs until July 14, 2017.

Puzzle Pieces & Thread

“Let’s face it. We’re undone by each other. And if we’re not, we’re missing something.”

~Judith Butler “Violence, Mourning, Politics”

Life is made up of a series of collisions. We all constantly interact with each other – bumping into and out of lives, intersecting, taking and leaving things as we go , marking a path in the form of memories left behind. Someone has an adventure, which becomes a story that fades into memory, only to be retold – tugged to the forefront of the mind, or bobbing, buoy-like, at the surface.

Along the way we tie ourselves to each other. We become entangled in the threads we stretch out between ourselves and others. They can become so loose we have to tend to them. Some lines have to be cut. Sometimes they are so hectic that all you want to do is retreat, because any movement could result in strangulation, for you have become the prey caught up in the center of the web. But they hold us up, too.

They are tested. The lines wear and tug and tear. Sometimes they are woven into a well-loved sweater – warm and cozy; while others make up an ill-fitting mess. When things change, when our connections shift, sometimes a line is drawn so tightly that in the process of breaking it takes a piece of you with it. Then you look for a new tie to fix yourself.

Though these pieces can also be given willingly.

Each time you say “I love you,” you give up a piece. And each time you hear it, you gain one. An exchange takes place and slowly we open ourselves up, receiving elements of those we love and who love us. We make ourselves, using not only our own basic form, but also bits of those we come into contact with – of those with whom we collide, and who we emulate in the aftermath of those collisions, when parts are hastily put back together, when we unknowingly adopt elements of those around us and make them our own.

The process of undoing is simultaneously an act of loss, and of creation and re-creation. It lets us find ourselves in others; lets us add the missing parts that feel like home, that are as natural as though they were there all along.

We are always mid-undoing and mid-creation. Always hoping to find another tie, another piece – always hoping to be better, despite the potential snares and tangles an loss involved in the process.

In the end, we should all be a lovely mess of thread and puzzle pieces.

Candles

Some days fill me up.

All of the movements of the world – steps, brushes, touches, thoughts, words leaving lips, objects changing hands – heat up the energy all around. These particles, which have been waiting to ignite, burst into a buzzing existence.

I can feel it between the fabric of my clothes and my skin, between the space of breath and touch and breath. I can feel it charging me from the bottom up: in my steps, the swing of my hands, the slope of my smile, the way my eyes are so open.

I become full of all the people around me. Full of the things they give and the way they do so lovingly.

I am full. Of heat. Of motion. Of light – wick to soul.

I overflow.

Aubude: The Finite Love Poem

Aubade: a poem in which dissatisfaction is expressed that the night is over and the dawn has come – signaling the end of the subject’s time with their lover

The cliche of poetry is that it is all about love and beauty. Ode to this and sonnet for that… There is no doubt about it: poetry is romantic.

And why shouldn’t it be?

People love love. We are obsessed with it. We crave it, looking around corners and checking over our shoulders until we find it. And then we let it fill us up completely – because people love the idea of love.

And we can love other things too, like light. I love warm, clear light coming through the windows while I read or write. I like the feeling of it brushing my cheek in the morning to tell me that it’s time to face the day.

So when I was introduced to the aubade genre of poetry, of course my reaction was positive since it combines light and love – with a twist.

The thing about aubade is that is not necessarily a cheery “rise and shine” poem, but rather the type that invites readers to hit the snooze button one more time. Here light means that your time with your lover has come to an end, but this type of poem resits that end with full force.

It captures a beautiful contradiction. On the one hand: how wonderful to wake up with someone who you love and who you know loves you back. But something else creeps in too: the realization that time is not infinite – even in a happy bubble. The day will go on and its gravity will pull you in, despite admirable efforts to stay snuggled up.

Aubade captures this paradox between love and time. Aubade – quietly, romantically, and with a melancholy sigh – reminds us that even in the most infinite-feeling moments there is an underlying recognition of the finite (a fact which many other types of love literature ignore).

So even though sheets and comforters are strong enough materials with which new worlds can be built, the sunlight still manages to sneak in; draping itself over you until you have no choice but to acknowledge the interruption of the third presence in the bed. You get up. And wait for the sun to be off duty once more. And do it all over again. And again. And again.

Because people love love.