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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Wood, Metal, Paper: Danh Vo at the Guggenheim

In an exhibition whose title highlights breath, I found myself drawn to the concept of touch. Not simply touch as a sense, but as a concept, because of the implications of such a thing: the pressure of stone on wood, the force of a pen tip scarring paper, the impact one life has on another.

Danh Vo (born in Vietnam and now working between Berlin and Mexico City) appropriates, alters, and re-purposes found materials and objects to create new meaning, often merging the personal and the political with a deft hand. His artwork, while on the surface sparse and approachable, sits with you the more you sit with it.

With a light touch, a case containing a watch, lighter, and ring becomes a meditation on perceived masculinity, ownership, and inheritance. These objects – once belonging to Vo’s father – are at once minuscule and monolithic. Touch: a metal clock against soft skin.

The Unabomber’s typewriter is dethroned, sitting innocently on the floor, small and unassuming – non-mythical without a label shoving away the subtlety. Fingerprints on letter keys, one tapping against the other.

Further along, Beauty Queen is unassuming on the floor – a 400 year old wooden torso of crucified Jesus, separated from the rest of the body, placed in a box to the perfect fit. Above, dismembered pieces of a copy Statue of Liberty (We The People) strewn across the floor – a thumb as big as a child; the curve of a wrist large enough that I could tuck myself into it; a sheen on the horizon becoming a shine against the white of a gallery floor. People step among the story of Vo’s connection to immigration, and the repeating motif of “an iconoclastic approach” (as described in one of the exhibition’s labels); these ideas are simultaneously evident and nuanced – like the light reflecting off of the installation.

Vo’s work is dense, but it never feels too heavy.

In an exhibition filled with mighty materials, stone, wood, and metal aged to earthy musty richness and worn nostalgic metallics, I was most drawn to the delicacy and intimacy of paper.

2.2.1861 – one in an ongoing series of letters – is understated among the range of materials and physical dimensionality of the other works in the exhibition. Where other objects are gold and brown and slick and woody, this one is smooth and quiet. Phung Vo, Danh Vo’s father, has copied this letter numerous times over the past nine years. Each time, it is the same – a correspondence from Théophane Vénard to his father before his decapitation in 1861; each time it is different, featuring nuances of the hand at work – a letter with a slightly steeper slant, a bolder dot where pen first met paper before skimming off into a looping letter turning word. The letter is in French – a language that Phung does not know – and he copies it in a beautiful, swooping calligraphic script that he has mastered. He can touch and sculpt the words, but cannot feel the language. The letter echoes – father to son/ father to son, copy/ copy/ copy/ copy, ink flowing from pen tip, border crossings between writer and artist and receiver.

danh vo

2.2.1861 (2009- ongoing)

When I returned home from the exhibition, I wrote a postcard to my family, not thinking about my purple marker or the crispness of my penmanship – and not writing about an impending decapitation. As I wrote, my pen made little scratching noises against the fiber of the paper, pressing ink and color against the substrate.

To emboss is to stamp or carve onto a surface so that the pressed portions become raised. If you look at it that way, while of course the letter coincides with Vo’s conceptual oeuvre, it also feels like a tactile companion to the other works. If you were to draw that link in the air between each artwork, what would it feel like to touch?

 

Danh Vo: Take My Breath Away is on view at the Guggenheim in New York City through May 9, 2018. 

 

Not-Glass

Once I broke a plate

and glass shattered everywhere.

And by that I mean

that it broke into two pieces –

one large, and one smaller

(a crescent moon and its other). But

 

tiny little particles,

atoms of not-glass that, when combined with other atoms of not-glass, make glass-glass,

took this chance to escape.

They shook themselves off of the

surprisingly clean

edges

and vibrated away into corners and up walls, bouncing against floorboards.

 

 

Once I broke a plate and it cried when it hit the floor.

And by that I mean

that it sounded like lightning posing as thunder,

sharp and loud and booming all at once

and then over.

 

Once

I broke a plate and caused a sand storm.

And by that

I mean that brown rice spilled across the floor,

grain by grain on the grain of the wood

in lost heaps.

 

When you’re little

and you brake a plate

someone comes and tells you to

Stand Still.

while they clean up all of the little landmines

waiting to go off in your foot.

When you grow up

and you brake a plate

(like I did)

you have to clean it up yourself,

so it’s nice when it only brakes into a moon and an other.

(In any case,

all of the not-glass is probably still around

somewhere.)

Coconut Almond Fudge Swirl

There is something very innocent about ice cream in July: the way the heat and sunshine slowly melt the round scoops; the way a quick turn-lick tidies up the sweet, dripping confection

Ice cream makes sense. Summertime, wandering down the sidewalk, hoping not to sweat-drip as your ice cream melt-drips, sculpting it back into submission against the heat. It’s easy.

There is a childlike joy that comes when you miss a drip and it races down the side of the cone – trying not to disappear into the waffle texture on the way down. It marks your fingers, implicating you in the not-quite mess. Now your skin smells like sunscreen and tastes like sugary warm days.

You work your way through the treat – it becomes a game: twist the cone as you bite it down, try to keep too much from melting over the edge, eat your way to the bottom point of the cone (the best bite).

When you later wash the last bit of creamy stickiness off your fingers (finding that licking it off is ineffective) there is a moment of passage – as fast as that drop slipping down the side of the unwrapped cone – from childhood back to reality, back to the heat of a July afternoon.

Happy National Ice Cream Day!

Aftershocks and Art

The Whitney currently has a portrait show on view in its expansive sixth and seventh floor galleries. The show features all types of portraiture: from the iconic pop works of Andy Warhol such as Ethel Scull 36 Times, to Howard Kanovitz’s very Mad-Men-feeling New Yorkers I. Even the artists themselves are featured, as in Alice Neel’s Andy Warhol. The show also includes less conventional portraits (ie those not featuring a face). One of my favorites – “unconventional” or otherwise – was Saul Leiter’s Shoe of the Shoeshine Boy, which was a photo of exactly what it sounds like. Lovely.

Yet despite all of the beautiful and strange and vibrant things around me, I was captured by a different piece altogether.

Four large faces stared out from the white wall, looking over the other pieces occupying space in the gallery. Four young men of Robert Beck’s Thirteen Shooters.

Three years ago a shooting resulting in two deaths took place in the district where I went to school. I was under lock down for three hours, hoping for the safety of my friends and neighbors and doing my best to stay composed. And continuing to do my best to stay composed. Only in the past year have I really come to terms with the fact that I am allowed to feel it – allowed to have experienced fear in the moment and pain and loss and confusion afterward – even though I wasn’t in the same building.

Even though I wasn’t there I felt the initial aftershock. And the aftershock of the first time the PA system came on after, with a reassurance that it was just standard announcements and everything was okay… And the aftershock of an emergency alarm… And the aftershock of shooter in the area text…

And the aftershock of a piece of art.

Art makes you feel. It forces you to confront life, even the hard parts. Art stirs you up and wrings you out. Standing in front of those over-sized portraits (none of which I could describe now, their traits replaced with feelings), I felt. I remembered. And it was hard and it hurt but I am grateful for it nonetheless.

Art shocks us and keeps us human.

It reminds us that underneath all of our strength, we are terribly, wonderfully, deeply fragile humans.

 

Human Interest: Portraits from the Whitney’s Collection is on view until February 12, 2017