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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Rothko at RISD

“If you are only moved by color relationships, then you miss the point. I’m interested in expressing the big emotions – tragedy, ecstasy, doom.” ~Mark Rothko

Sitting on the floor (yes, the floor – despite the guard offering me a stool), looking up at the painting, it is imposing, but not overly so. There is energy here: an orange soul and white light. It is centered, but not balanced – a sickly greenish hue sneaks its way in, keeping the painting from being too powerful. It, too, is mortal.

But monolithic.

There is variation. A clear human hand. Finger prints (or maybe just pigment imperfections) mark the orange zone. Human. Touch.

Above, the white is a cloud. Frothy. Under the gallery lights, the pigment glistens.

The piece is fire and smoke. The red is an aura; it is embers: quivering, imperfect, uneven, clinging to life. Everything is fuzzy around the edges – like looking into heat. The white-red-orange feeling of the painting is dreamy, but in a desperate way; like waking up sweaty, clutching the receding half-memory of a running dream.

Brushstrokes run up and down and sideways. Indecisive, but with a clear mood.

The piece has a whole section of the gallery to itself: a rounded-corner space that draws you in – asking floor-sitters like myself to scoot closer. The reason for intrigue and contemplation of the work is clear. It is arresting. It burns with a crackling fever and gravity and gravitas.

Rothko isn’t usually my style, but today I couldn’t leave him alone.

RISDM 71-091

Mark Rothko 
Untitled, 1954 
Oil on canvas 
238.1 x 143.2 x 4.5 cm (93 3/4 x 56 3/8 x 1 3/4 inches)

Image and info from: http://risdmuseum.org/pages/channel_71091

 

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.

Nick Cave “Until” at MASS MoCA

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Nick Cave “Until” is on view at MASS MoCA through August 2017 (massmoca.org/event/nick-cave-until/)

The first time I viewed Nick Cave’s work was at the Denver Art Museum in the fall of 2013. The show, “Sojourn,” featured perhaps Cave’s most well-known work: the Soundsuits. These large creations are built to envelope a person and turn them into something or someone else. They create protection and anonymity, but they are heavy and imposing – made of anything from sticks (as Cave’s first suit was) to stuffed animals or buttons. That show featured the suits on raised platforms so one could marvel at them  walk around them. Then you entered a room where there were videos playing of the Soundsuits in action – people dancing in them, or moving frantically and seemingly without order. If you  put on the accompanying headphones, you were assaulted with the sounds the suits made when they moved.

“Until”at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art was decidedly different. It is immediately apparent in the titles: Sojourn – a temporary stay; Until – also temporary, but suspended, waiting, liminal.

This apparent lack of definition continued in the experience of “Until.” Unlike “Sojourn,” this show was more immersive – truly an experience, not just a viewing. To see the work you had to get inside of it, unlike the Soundsuits at the DAM.

Viewers enter the space through sets of double doors and immediately see the warehouse-sized room that houses the installation. First there is color and light. Then there are questions: What are those things? What does it mean? As you step forward, down the stairs and onto the floor, onto the path between the hanging pieces, you are within the suspension, as though walking in a scene on pause. As you are in the space, you see that the hanging pieces are metal spinners – hundreds of them looking far more impressive than the usual one or two that one may see hanging over a patio. They move and rotate with the movement of air in the room, including the breath of the people that walk between them. Breath that moves the bullets and guns at the center of each spinner – making you a part of Cave’s consideration of violence and race. For a few minutes, as you wander along the path, you are covered and exposed. There is no real protection in there – unlike the full-body Soundsuits – yet from the outside it is difficult to distinguish viewers from the light and color and movement that makes up the rest of the sculpture. Cave puts you in the art, forcing you to see and pay attention, even if only so that you don’t step off the path, drawing attention to what you are able to see, both from between the gaps in the forest of spinners, and in the reflections of the metallic work itself.

Upon exiting the forest you come to the rest of the work: a raised garden that you have to climb a ladder to reach, underneath which hangs sparkling chandeliers; a huge, beaded net draped over half the room; a room with video projections of the Soundsuits layered and mixed so it becomes a kaleidoscope, and again you are inside of it, as the projections cover all the walls and the floor; and upstairs a wall of metallic, fringy, plastic being blown from behind by a fan – inviting you closer and closer.

Everything about this installation pulls you toward it and forces you to exist within it if you want to see the entire show. You become a part of the spinners until you climb up to the garden until you are caught within the net until you are off-balance among the videos until you come face-to-fringe until you look out over the show and witness it. Until you leave. Until it finally gets out of your head. Until a few years from now when Cave’s work will certainly resurface somewhere else for me.

Until then.