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.

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.)

Concert for Yoko Ono, Washington, and The World

(The first thing that you need to know is that performance art is a social event. The success of the experience depends not only on the strength of the piece and of the artist, but of the willingness of the audience – the experiencers  – to commit…)

“IMAGINE PEACE” Yoko Ono’s voice rings out over the crowd, recorded but potent. “Imagine peace. Imagine peace…” A command. Are you ready to commit?

Imagine Peace (or perhaps: Imagine Piece) is an invitation to collaborate. Imagine, listen, feel. Cast yourself out into this audience and to the stage and to the space. Go.

Arising sets the stage with a haunting. Carnal and guttural and rhythmic, Ono’s voice screeches; viewers are uncomfortable with the contract they have signed by staying put. Now you are a bystander – no longer imagining, but witnessing.

Behind the screen you see one bright red dot (an orphan of the flames on the screen) pulsing as an inhale-exhale teases the cigarette in the dark.

This ember turns into a heartbeat. Next to you in the crowd near the stage someone puts two fingers to their wrist, searching for a pulse as their ears ring with one. Or: people hold their hands against their ears – against the sound of the too-loud life forcing itself through their chests. People hold each other in the dark. It is synthy and vibey and it passes over you like the sound of waves coming out of the speakers. Sound-gulls swoop in, coming to pluck the relaxed yawn from your mouth. Poetry echoes into a time machine – back to 1866 or 1953 or now elsewhere. Words fade, pause. Feedback turns musical.

Are you still there? Still committed to this art?

Break – a silent film plays. A match slowly burns itself out of existence. Who knew that your ears breathe when they aren’t clogged up with sound? Slowly the noise and the fire and the video burn out among the other silver screen stars.

Then frantic, uncontrolled, hair-whipping energy. “Why?!” over and over – whywhywhywhywhywhywhywhy – until it not a word but a noise. Her voice on stage oscillates between orgasmic and painful. Behind walls of cymbal-symbols and a cart of incantations she is possessed with the spirit of the music noise light atmosphere of here and now and the crowd watches and nods – signs the dotted line.

Pause. Blink the confusion out of your eyes. No, slowly. Let your eye-lid-windshield-wipers restore the glimmer of eager amazement you have at experiencing this Happening. Do it even more slowly. This blink will take you five minutes to complete – think of it as a staring contest.

Now your nose fills with the smell of cigarette smoke as words swirl in your ears, over and over – “What about the dreamers?/ I got dropped off at the wrong fashion show./ What’s he gonna do next?/ The world’s turning, I hope I don’t turn away./ I got dropped off at the wrong fashion show./ What’s he gonna do next?/ What about the dreamers?…” It is a dropped and cracked music box, though it retains it’s hypnotic powers: watch the dancer spin, listen to the words chase each other in the microphone…

Then scream against the sky! PROJECT without thought. Ears open, eyes open, hearts open, minds open, ears blown, minds blown. Again and once more – break this atmosphere with the force of your human lungs.

Lean in to this. Further and further until you are on the edge – about to fall into the guitar noise and be cradled in the bend of her knee supporting the sound waves. You have entered a rippling, breathy, dissonant Nirvana – marked by the circles her finger makes in the air between strums on the always vibrating strings.

In the middle of this circle you will find the concept of gravity. Excitement draws everyone tighter – still stitched together by the commitment to this night. This text-turned-voice is a promise of what comes next, a promise of a man and a guitar and a blanket carrying shards of glass or memory or future or everything at once.

Pressing bodies are fast and harsh and unwavering. Imagine Peace! Bend into the crowd, hold your place but be flexible. Reach and touch and feel the cool vase that has become hundreds of little promises. Feel its rough edges and how small it is. One in hundreds but each totally unique. Imagine peace. This crowd is a jigsaw puzzle marked by shards of glass in pockets.

Commit to returning. This is a social event, after all, and now it is shattered and will be spread. Commit to returning ten years from now with your peace/ piece and rebuild and build better because now this piece of glass is not just white and blue and ceramic and broken: it is a story.

This is exactly what you signed up for.

 

Concert for Yoko Ono, Washington, and The World took place on Sunday September 17, 2017 from 7 to 10 pm at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington D.C. It featured some of Ono’s video art, as well as performers Camae Ayewa (Moor Mother), Lizzi Bougatsos, and Kim Gordon, who performed selected Yoko Ono works from Grapefruit (including Collecting Piece and Overtones), as well as their own work inspired by Yoko Ono. 

A Night Walk Home in the Rain

First

there is sound.

drip drop drip drip

Water hits ground,

water hits water on ground.

 

Then light.

The black asphalt

reflects light

(light)

broken

(light)

by raindrops.

 

Above,

it is a dark purple-grey

as though

the dusting of the night-violet sky-dome

has been neglected too long.

 

The skeletal trees

reach

out from black trunks

going into shadow

grounds,

and up

to everything.

 

Feet on asphalt.

Head in night-violet-grey-in-between-sky.

 

The hood of my raincoat

keeps me

dry.