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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Magnetic Fields

Magnetic FieldsMildred Thompson 1990, oil on canvas, 70.5 x 150” (triptych)

Magnet: something which can repel or attract. An object which enacts a force. Gravity, pull, push. Order. Field: openness, nature, space. Breath.

Magnetic Fields: tension.

The title object for Magnetic Fields, a large painting by Mildred Thomas, is unabashed. Color and energy force viewing. Look! Look at me! I am red and yellow and sunlight and confetti. I am energy trapped in a medium that will never truly dry. I am heat. Attracting. Come closer – feel it? Look into my vortex and see how light looks to its source. This is a brilliant blanket, hung on a wall, wrapping you up.

Color to color. Red becomes purple. A tornado of dashes becomes a performance on canvas. Graffiti has peeled itself off walls and run away. Movement upon movement – brushstrokes meet squiggles meet loops meet drips that would impress Jack the Dripper himself. Despite the chaos and the frothing noise of the painting – the composition threatening to whirl itself into oblivion (attracting, repelling) – there is an undoubtedly elegant element to the work of art.

Whirlwind Dancer, Shinique Smith, 2014-2017, Acrylic, ink, fabric, and collage on canvas over wood panel, 96 x 96 x 3″ (diptych)

This is what it would look like to give a paint bucket to a ballerina in full costume, and let the paint and the tutu and makeup and the hair accessories and all of the love work itself up into a twirl and a launch and a landing, all with haphazard grace. The canvas can always be trusted to lift and catch its partner.

Pointed and pressured toes lead to feet on fire. Then not a fire, but only whispering embers. Near by a canvas sputters and steams. A bucket of water has been thrown on a neon fire. Multicolored sparks ignore gravity, repelling, and escape into the breath of the viewer, attracting. Ash and light and time are suspended as the paint bleeds and blossoms. Here we have the the definitive record of a dying gasp – systematic and explosive all at once. Study it.

Are you attracted or repelled?

YARDGUARD, Brenna Youngblood, 2015, Mixed media on canvas, 72 × 60″

Downstairs, beneath the push and pull and color of Magnetic Fields, Fanny Sanín’s geometric abstractions are so clean and sharp that you could cut yourself on them.

 

“Magnetic Fields: Expanding American Abstraction 1960s to Today” is on view at the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington DC until January 21, 2018.