About This Site

This website was built on the occasion of the exhibition Fragments of a Crucifixion at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, May 25–November 3, 2019, organized by Marjorie Susman Curatorial Fellow Chanon Kenji Praepipatmongkol and presented in the McCormick Tribune Orientation Gallery on the museum’s second floor. It brings together new scholarship exploring the themes of the exhibition.

Introduction: The Medium of the Cross

Chanon Kenji Praepipatmongkol

First, consider the crosshairs. Consider this contemporary sign of the cross that unremittingly frames black lives in the United States.

Figure 1

Adrian Piper, Imagine [Trayvon Martin], 2013. Digital PNG formatted image; 10 4/5 × 10 2/5 in. (27.3 × 26.5 cm), 300 dpi. Available for free using the following link: http://adrianpiper.de/art/Piper2013Imagine[TrayvonMartin].zip
Collection of the Adrian Piper Research Archive Foundation Berlin, © Adrian Piper Research Archive Foundation Berlin

Then, consider Imagine [Trayvon Martin], a work Adrian Piper created in 2013. From behind the red crosshairs peers a faded black-and-white image of Trayvon Martin, the 17-year-old African American teenager who was shot and killed in 2012 by neighborhood watchman George Zimmerman. Distributed freely online by Piper and subsequently exhibited in museums, Imagine [Trayvon Martin] provokes intense reactions, particularly from those who feel implicated by its message: “Imagine what it was like to be me.”

What is so striking about the work’s demand on viewers is that it forces self-identification in stark terms. “For some,” Larissa Pham writes, “it’s all too easy to imagine what it would like to be Trayvon; for others, it’s a forced self-examination, a posthumous exercise in empathy.”[1] James Hannaham goes further, pronouncing that the work “seemed directed toward people who don’t spend as much time identifying with Trayvon Martin as I do.”[2] To Nico Wheadon, Piper seems cruel in making this “injurious provocation,” when just beyond the museum awaits, in her words, the precarious reality of “my very black, American life.”[3]

But Piper is more than a producer of mnemonic devices and empathic tools. For decades she has exploited the uneasy distance between the privileged world of institutionalized art and the social reality of black lives outside its walls.[4] Perhaps this is what the artist wants viewers to do: to mind the interval between the frames. While Martin’s visage initially appears as the singular target of attention, a longer look reveals that things are slightly askew. Piper placed the crosshairs off-center, with the four cardinal points set at asymmetric and unequal intervals to the border. It is this black band around the edge of the image that provides a sense of space and a measure of distance—that implies there exists a vantage point outside the circumscribed view of the police’s crosshairs. The black border holds space for a perspective in which whiteness is neither the center nor the frame.[5]

Fragments of a Crucifixion attempts to make room for another perspective, one that displaces the view through the crosshairs with a consideration of life and death through a religious lens. We need not look far for signs of faith. No one was as vocal about the spiritual significance of Martin’s life and death as his mother, Sybrina Fulton.[6] Over the course of Zimmerman’s highly publicized trial in 2013, Fulton shared her Christian testimony with the world every day, as she tweeted prayers and passages from the Bible alongside photos of her child. On day 12 she wrote, “When Christ is the center of your focus, all else will come into proper perspective.”[7] For Fulton, it is through the intermediary sign of Jesus’s cross that Christianity’s most gripping promise is born: that violence can be changed by faith into suffering that is not in vain.

In bringing voices of faith to bear on artworks, Fragments of a Crucifixion proposes that contemporary art is not so secular a realm that religious and spiritual narratives cannot penetrate it. Centered on works in the MCA’s collection, the exhibition gathers a number of works that may appear to have more to do with race than religion. But the exhibition’s interpretive materials—whether wall labels, public programs, or this publication—aim to reveal the often-invisible religious and spiritual currents that animate these works of art. Doing so connects contemporary artists in the show to a long line of artists who have used the crucifixion as a powerful symbol to address the experience of racial violence in the United States.[8] The exhibition explores the continuing relevance of the sign of the cross, for it is through this sign that contemporary artworks might come into focus as icons, emblems, and relics of public mourning today.

The idea for a digital publication to accompany the exhibition grew out of a desire to engage the heterodox language of faith that pervades recent responses to the violence inflicted on black people in this country. Since 2013, activists associated with the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement have shared texts, images, and symbols drawn from multiple faiths to hold a space of remembrance for those murdered, and to reclaim the sacredness of lost lives.[9] But in a departure from the rhetoric of the Civil Rights era, many of BLM’s most visible figures have presented the movement’s religious orientation as part of a broader set of queer and indigenous commitments.[10] This collection of essays was conceived in this spirit of inclusivity and intersectionality, with the hope of fostering public discussions around religion and race that are not defined by already-given subject positions (e.g., black versus non-black, Christian versus non-Christian).

The publication brings together artists and scholars committed to exploring the relationship between art, spirituality, and social justice. It features inquiries at once deeply personal and critical, and which traverse the terrain of art history, theology, moral philosophy, queer theory, and performance studies. Xiao Situ argues for the potential of contemporary art to make visible “what Christ’s activity might look like in the present day.” She uncovers in Titus Kaphar’s Ascension (2016) a resonance between the image of crucifixion, the legacy of lynching in America, and recent protests by athletes against police brutality. Phoebe Wolfskill’s conversation with artist Joyce J. Scott explores Scott’s often sardonic yet deeply religious approach to figuring black bodies—an approach that imbues histories of racial violence with unexpected levity and spiritual hopefulness. My interview with Paul Pfeiffer addresses the strange temporal loops and disjointed Biblical narratives in his video works as elements of an aesthetic that complicates the desire for resolution. Anni Pullagura and Josh Chambers-Letson present approaches to history that refuse the inevitability of origins and endings. They offer meditations on art’s capacity to hold space for the wayward passing of time—the delays, suspensions, and projections that allow for life to continue.

These authors place the matter of faith at the center of their discussions, yet elude clear distinctions between the religious and the secular. The compelling question then becomes not what set of beliefs we subscribe to, but rather why, how, and when we choose to believe that one interpretive frame edges out or invalidates another.

Footnotes

  1. Larissa Pham, “This MoMA Show Asks You to Confront Racism—Both in Strangers and Yourself,” Garage Magazine, April 3, 2018.
  2. James Hannaham, “Adrian Piper,” 4Columns, May 4, 2018.
  3. Nico Wheadon, “Adrian Piper: From Passing to Purple,” Brooklyn Rail, May 1, 2018.
  4. For resources on Piper’s artistic practice and career, see Adrian Piper: A Synthesis of Intuitions, 1965–2016 (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 2018) and Adrian Piper: A Reader (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 2018).
  5. On “holding space” through art, see Helen Molesworth, “Art is Medicine,” Artforum 56, no. 7 (March 2018).
  6. Elizabeth Dias, “The Christian Witness of Trayvon’s Mother,” Time, July 15, 2013.
  7. Sybina Fulton, Twitter, June 25, 2013, 11:02 am, twitter.com/sybrinafulton/status/349543220730015744.
  8. See James Romaine and Phoebe Wolfskill, eds., Beholding Christ and Christianity in African American Art (University Park: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2017); Edward J. Blum and Paul Harvey, The Color of Christ: The Son of God and the Saga of Race in America (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2012); and James Treat, Around the Sacred Fire: Native Religious Activism in the Red Power Era (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003).
  9. Vincent Lloyd, ed., “Religion, Secularism, and Black Lives Matter,” The Immanent Frame, September 22, 2016.
  10. Josef Sorett, “A Fantastic Church? Literature, Politics, and the Afterlives of Afro-Protestantism,” Public Culture 29, no. 1 (2017): 17–26.

Titus Kaphar's Ascension and Colin Kaepernick's Kneel

Xiao Situ

Text

Ascension (2016) by Titus Kaphar (b. 1976) is a larger-than-life-size painting that articulates a basketball player’s leap into the air before a crowd of spectators. At the same time—and perhaps jarringly—it also depicts a crucifixion and a lynching. It can take a few minutes to survey in this single work these three distinct scenarios: the outlines of the basketball player’s body mid-dunk, the suffering of Christ on the cross, and the emergent form of a person being lynched.

Situ Figure 1

A basketball player leaping toward the hoop as if to dunk looks as if their body is collaged with an image of Jesus Christ wearing a crown of thorns. A large audience looks on.
Titus Kaphar, Ascension, 2016. Oil on canvas with brass nails. 108 × 84 × 1 ½ in. Collection of Laura Lee Brown and Steve Wilson, 21c Museum Hotel
Image courtesy of the artist

Text

I am compelled to reflect on Kaphar’s Ascension because it sheds light on a phenomenon that has profoundly affected the way I think about kneeling. Colin Kaepernick (b. 1987), the former quarterback for the National Football League’s San Francisco 49ers, began kneeling instead of standing during the national anthem in the fall of 2016. He cited systemic racism and police brutality against minorities as the catalyst for this act of protest. As he continued to kneel at games, and as other collegiate and professional athletes joined him, a national debate ignited over race, sports, and politics.

Kaepernick’s kneel was, to me, a deeply spiritual move. When I saw images of him kneeling, I instinctively thought about prayer, mourning, respect, and vulnerability. I was reminded of Jesus washing his disciples’ feet as recounted in the Gospel of John, and of the many times the Psalmist sings of bowing down before God. As someone with a chronic illness that makes mobility slow and challenging, I am by necessity very economical and deliberate with my own gestures, and I frequently reflect on the symbolic meanings of even the most mundane movements. Kaepernick’s kneeling therefore captured my attention. As an art historian, as the sufferer of a chronic illness, and as a person with spiritual and religious inclinations, I discuss here how Kaphar’s Ascension situates Kaepernick’s kneel in a broader spiritual, cultural, and historical context.

Kaphar’s Ascension is an explicitly religious painting. The title not only describes the upward trajectory of the basketball player’s body as he rises through the air, but also references, by way of opposing correspondence, the downward movement of Christ’s body lifted off the cross after his crucifixion. In fact, the image of Christ that appears in the interior of the basketball player’s silhouette is a painted quotation of Rogier van der Weyden’s 1435 Descent from the Cross, one of the most famous depictions of the crucified Christ in Western art. Kaphar thus brings together two bodies and two opposing forces in one human figure. Jesus’s pale right arm and right leg slip into the contours of the basketball player’s left arm and left leg; Jesus’s downward-tilting head rests beneath the basketball player’s upward-looking profile. The artist yokes the two bodies together through pictorial, material, and performative means: by employing brass nails to anchor van der Weyden’s Christ to the athlete’s form, Kaphar at once recalls and evokes the act of Jesus’s crucifixion and the nails used to pin him to the cross.

Situ Figure 2 and Figure 3

Rogier van der Weyden, The Descent from the Cross, before 1443. Oil on panel; 204.5 × 261.5 cm
PLACEHOLDER, © Museo Nacional del Prado
Titus Kaphar, Ascension (detail), 2016
Image courtesy of the artist

Text

The silhouette comprises not only Christ and the basketball player, however, but also a third human form—that of a person being lynched. Christ’s crown of thorns encircles the basketball player’s neck as though a spiky noose. Red fabric from van der Weyden’s painting becomes a thick trail of downward-flowing blood. The athlete’s lifted right arm doubles as the taut vertical of a hangman’s knot. Simultaneously pulled up into the air and weighed down by his own body, the lynching victim suffers the forces of both ascension and descent.

There are haunting similarities between Christ’s crucifixion and the lynching of black people in the United States. In his 2011 book The Cross and the Lynching Tree, theologian James H. Cone reflects:

The cross and the lynching tree are separated by nearly 2,000 years. One is the universal symbol of Christian faith; the other is the quintessential symbol of black oppression in America. Though both are symbols of death, one represents a message of hope and salvation, while the other signifies the negation of that message by white supremacy. Despite the obvious similarities between Jesus’ death on a cross and the death of thousands of black men and women strung up to die on a lamppost or tree, relatively few people, apart from black poets, novelists, and other reality-seeing artists, have explored the symbolic connections.[1]

Kaphar is active as one of Cone’s reality-seeing artists. Ascension's merging of three figures in one invites echoes of the doctrine of the Trinity, calibrating the experience and value of each figure to a point of equality and mutual empathy with the other two. The basketball player, the crucified Christ, and the lynching victim share in each other’s suffering and victory. By featuring van der Weyden’s Christ in particular—which is a very white, Eurocentric-looking Jesus—Kaphar’s painting challenges the ubiquity of this portrayal of Jesus in Western art and confronts assumptions about both where and with whom Jesus’s identification and compassion lies. Kaphar has touched upon the presumed whiteness of Jesus in previous paintings, most notably in Holy Absence I (2012) and Holy Absence II (2014). The appearance of Christ in Ascension, however, frames the athlete’s and the lynching victim’s experience in a particularized black Christological narrative.

In religious studies, Christology is the branch of theology that examines the person and nature of Christ as he is depicted in the canonical Gospels. Black Christology, in particular, probes how Jesus’s life, suffering, and resurrection speak to the specific historical contexts, lived experiences, and ontological concerns of black persons and their communities. Following this line of theological analysis, Christ’s blackness is defined by his identification with and concern for black persons’ bodies, minds, and souls—not only with regard to historical and ongoing suffering and oppression, but also in terms of traditions and expressions of joy, resilience, and aspiration toward existential and spiritual liberation. The Jesus of black Christology is a Jesus born into a poor, marginalized, and oppressed minority group under the rule of the Roman Empire. Jesus’s care and ministry among the most vulnerable and neglected individuals in society earned him scorn, rebuke, and ultimately public execution from state authorities. The movement he instigated emerged out of a spirit of protest, calling for unconditional love and redemptive justice for the poorest and most powerless peoples in first-century Palestine.[2]

While the connection between crucifixion and lynching may therefore seem apparent in Kaphar’s painting, the basketball player’s relationship to these two figures may seem somewhat more oblique. First, I need to address my own assumption of the basketball player’s blackness. By presupposing the racial identity of Kaphar’s athlete, I am admittedly participating in racial profiling. The basketball player’s very form invites the potential for precisely this mechanism of generalization in that it is literally a profile—a silhouette comprised of outlines and contours. Nothing in the silhouette’s interior explicitly indicates the figure’s racial or ethnic identity, and yet my association between this particular physical stance and black athleticism in basketball has been powerfully shaped by popular visual discourse and the cultural perpetuation of stereotypes. More specifically, the shape of the basketball player’s body is strikingly reminiscent of the image of the Jumpman, Nike’s logo for the Air Jordan brand of sneakers and sportswear inspired by basketball legend Michael Jordan (b. 1963). For me, the correspondence between the iconic Jumpman logo and Jordan’s legacy as a paradigm of black athletic virtuosity is so ingrained that it invariably operates in Kaphar’s painting.

So what, then, is the relationship among this athlete and Christ and the lynching figure? In van der Weyden’s original painting, a man dressed in black and gold gently holds Jesus’s legs aloft as this man and others carry him down. In Kaphar’s canvas, however, these same two hands have the appearance of grabbing onto the athlete’s legs and dragging his body down. Considered through the context of history, this gesture might point toward the legacy of slavery and the forms of systemic racial oppression that emerged after Emancipation, when arbiters of white culture continued to exploit the emancipated black population as sources of labor, entertainment, and economic revenue by maintaining positions of power and influence in the institutions that oversaw and leveraged the productivity and performance of black bodies.

In his landmark 1969 book The Revolt of the Black Athlete, sociologist, former athlete, and civil rights activist Harry Edwards asserted that systemic racism has been built into the very heart of American collegiate and professional sports. The emergence of black athletics after Emancipation was an extension of black exploitation and commodification—especially that of bodily labor over intellectual pursuit. “From the perspective of many white coaches and athletic directors,” Edwards observed, “the world does not need black doctors, sociologists, chemists, dentists, mathematicians, computer operators, or biologists.”[3] White cultural prioritization of the black body over the black mind—and indeed, over black wholeness in general—extends to the athlete’s voicing of care and concern about the rights and wellness of black communities: “Whites may grudgingly admit a black man’s prowess as an athlete, but will not acknowledge his equality as a human being.”[4]

Edwards published The Revolt of the Black Athlete one year after sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised the Black Power salute during the US national anthem at the Olympics awards ceremony in Mexico City. Smith and Carlos raised their arms to protest the racism and injustice that they witnessed and experienced as black citizens in the United States. For their display of activism, Smith and Carlos received significant ostracism and career retribution from the US sports establishment in the years that followed. Like Jack Johnson, Paul Robeson, Jackie Robinson, Muhammad Ali, and many other black athletes who were politically outspoken, Smith and Carlos paid a steep price for publicly voicing their discontents.[5]

Kaphar’s Ascension seems to suggest that despite the fame, adulation, and financial reward black athletes may enjoy, institutional white hands still maintain a grip on their ankles. The silhouette of the basketball player contains within its interior the shadows of lynching and the suffering of Christ, and the athlete’s ascension is thus a compromised transcendence: any adoration and payment he receives might come at the price of certain other sacrifices that stem ontological wholeness and full humanity. (This athlete is, after all, shown in part and not in whole, appearing as a silhouette in profile rather than a fully depicted figure with specific, particularized, or individualized features.) In contemporary sports writing, the term “greenwashing” describes the suppression or silencing of an athlete’s black identity while idolizing their talent and profitability. While “greenwashing” is a term employed in the sectors of economics and environmentalism to describe the marketing of environmentally sustainable products and practices, in the context of racial politics in sports the word refers to the racial or cultural erasure that can occur when a sports authority or sponsoring company discourages a black athlete’s expression of black identity.[6] Although a predominantly white sports establishment and media might praise a black athlete for his physical performance, sports or team authorities might try to regulate or downplay his expressions of allegiance to or identification with black culture, heritage, or politics. In this light, the basketball player’s silhouette in Ascension differs from the Air Jordan Jumpman logo in one detail affecting full freedom of movement: while the Jumpman’s legs are splayed wide open to form an exuberant upside-down V, the two white hands grasping the left leg of Kaphar’s athlete seem to force his knees to bend uncomfortably.

Situ Figure 4

Titus Kaphar, Ascension (detail), 2016. Oil on canvas with brass nails; 108 × 84 × 1 ½ in. Collection of Laura Lee Brown and Steve Wilson, 21c Museum Hotels
Image courtesy of the artist

Text

When Colin Kaepernick began bending his left leg in order to kneel during the national anthem, his gesture seemed to bear a Christological dynamics of ascension and descent—a Gospel physics of crucifixion and resurrection. “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color,” Kaepernick said: “To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.”[7] Kaepernick was referring to the many black lives that were cut short by fatal police shootings in recent years: Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, Jordan Davis, Rekia Boyd, Michael Brown, and too many others. As author and NBA veteran Etan Thomas discusses in his interviews with NFL and NBA professionals, many athletes were deeply and personally affected whenever another police shooting had taken a black life or another police officer was acquitted after firing shots.[8] For some, these events reminded them of their own youthful experiences of being profiled or violently handled by members of law enforcement. For others, these fatalities provoked concerns for their own children who might be vulnerable to such treatment. For many of those whom Thomas interviewed, such incidents of police brutality forced them to reckon with the centuries of insidious anti-black sentiment that has shaped American institutional systems to criminalize black bodies. Although some of them wanted to address these racist systems through the platform of their high visibility as professional athletes, they were also concerned about possible career retributions should they voice their concerns or take actions of protest.

While many fans and observers who supported Kaepernick began kneeling, there were others who exerted a strong backlash. “Shut up and play!” became as fervent a mantra as “I’m with Kap.”[9] Regardless of the divided opinions among the American public, Kaepernick ultimately paid a heavy professional price for his continued activism. In the seasons following the end of his term with the San Francisco 49ers, not a single NFL team hired him despite his status as one of the best quarterbacks in the league. Whether or not NFL owners intentionally coordinated this effort, it was clear that the league had effectively shut Kaepernick out of professional football.

For protesting against systemic racial injustice, Kaepernick risked his career as a professional athlete. While he filed a grievance asserting that the NFL owners had colluded to shut him out of the league due to his protests, Kaepernick also leaned more deeply and purposefully into his work as an activist. He began wearing shirts that listed the names of victims of fatal police brutality. This act of visual and performative aesthetics of resurrection uses his living body to memorialize the once-living bodies of the victims. People who see the victims’ names on the shirts may then say their names, learn about how they lived and died, and bring into communal consciousness their memories. This activism of remembrance and memorialization enacts what some Christian liturgists might call “anamnesis.” Anamnesis is the Greek word for remembrance or memorial. In liturgy, anamnesis usually describes what happens during the Eucharist or communion, when bread and wine are blessed and administered as an act of remembering Jesus’s last words and actions at the Passover feast now commonly known as the Last Supper: “Here, eat, this is my body; here, drink, this is my blood. Do this in remembrance of me.” Anamnesis occurs when the eating and drinking are done and remembrance is made. Theologian M. Shawn Copeland expands this characterization of anamnesis in her 2010 book Enfleshing Freedom: Body, Race, and Being, describing anamnesis as the intentional remembering of the dead. It obliges those who inherit the stories of the victims to do what they can to end oppression in the present. It forges solidarity among people and affirms the interconnectedness between humanity and Christ.[10]

Kaepernick has made his works of activism intensely communal, focusing on solidarity and remembrance. He founded, organizes, and participates in the Know Your Rights Camp for young people: a teaching program adapted from a series of seminars designed by the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense in the 1960s. Although Kaepernick is known for being disarmingly quiet and soft-spoken, he regularly addresses his concerns about social justice issues in ways that draw exponential attention and action.[11] Kaepernick is, in effect, reshaping his public identity and personal purpose from athlete to activist, offering a transformed icon for his followers.

Kaepernick’s openness to embracing this new role as an activist is critical. His post-NFL identity is one of the most Christological aspects of his story, and many aspects about his biography bear well under the pressures of a Christological narrative. Tattooed on his arms are Psalm 18:39 (“You armed me with strength for battle; you made my adversaries bow at my feet”) and Psalm 27:3 (“Though an army besiege me, my heart will not fear though war break out against me, even then I will be confident”).[12] In an interview recorded for the Daily Sparks Tribune in 2013, Kaepernick credited his faith for helping him through challenges he faced throughout his football career:

I’d ask God what his plans are for me. What is God trying to do with me right now? For me, there were times where I’d wonder if I was in the right place and in the right situation, and you have to fall back on God in situations like that and trust him and know that his plan is perfect for you. . . . I think God guides me through every day and helps me take the right steps.[13]

This quote suggests that, for Kaepernick, his kneel may have felt like a matter of not only being in the right place and situation, but also intuiting that he was the right one to do it. In American football, “taking a knee” describes a technical strategy. During the last few seconds of a game, the winning team’s quarterback can kneel while cradling the ball until the play clock runs out. This move effectively halts further action that would unnecessarily disadvantage the winning team. While other players can also kneel at various moments throughout a game, “taking a knee” is so closely associated with the quarterback that the move has come to be known as the “quarterback kneel.”[14] Considering his position as quarterback, it seems appropriate—perhaps even fateful—that Kaepernick adopted kneeling as his form of protest. His kneeling was an extension, or rather, transformation, of a key move in his repertoire as a quarterback.[15]

Just as Kaphar’s art often collapses different periods in time to show more visibly the full nature of particular events and circumstances, Kaepernick’s story offers a chance to see what Christ’s activity might look like in the present day, as well as the places where Christ might reside and the people for whom Christ might work. In Cone’s landmark 1975 book on black Christology, the theologian points out the importance of holding together Jesus’s wasness and isness: “Truth is more than the retelling of the biblical story. Truth is the divine happening that invades our contemporary situation, revealing the meaning of the past for the present.”[16] Cone furthermore describes Jesus as one “whom me meet in our social existence,” and that for Christians, “our interest in Jesus’ past cannot be separated from one’s encounter with his presence in our contemporary existence.”[17] Theologian Kelly Brown Douglas adds an even more topical meaning to black Christology, singling out contemporary activism as perhaps the most inclusive and enduring embodiment of Christ’s activity today: “Christ can be incarnate wherever there is a movement to sustain and liberate oppressed people.”[18] This does not necessarily mean that Kaepernick is a new Jesus or like Jesus, but rather that the movement he initiated by kneeling carries the flicker and flow of the spirit—and that flow is where Jesus and God reside. Jesus abides in and rides on the dynamism of the downward and upward movement that occurs when people kneel; it takes many people moving together to body forth the spirit of God.

Along the lines of black Christological thought, recent events have unfolded such that the circumstances and activities of Kaepernick’s isness are suffused with Christ’s wasness. Kaepernick’s movement of generating care and concern for black lives honors Christ’s incarnation in each body and soul. For an artist like Kaphar who is fluent at juxtaposing time periods, suturing together wasness and isness, and engaging the past by scrutinizing the present in his art, the Christological nature of black athletes’ stories is something to be surfaced in works like Ascension. The realm of sports is not so secular or contemporary that history’s shadows and religious narratives cannot penetrate it. By compressing Michael Jordan’s Jumpman and a lynching victim with van der Weyden’s Christ—and beyond that, by bodying forth this Trinitarian portrait in the age of Kaepernick—Kaphar reveals why and how a simple act such as bending one’s knee might, in Kaepernick’s words, be “bigger than football.” Bending one’s knee is about insisting on the uncompromising worth of black lives—not as sources of labor, economic gain, or cultural consumption, but as fully human and fully divine incarnations of God’s ceaseless love and creativity.

Footnotes

  1. James H. Cone, The Cross and the Lynching Tree (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis, 2011), xiii.
  2. For introductions to black Christology, see James H. Cone, Black Theology and Black Power (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis, 1997); James H. Cone, The Cross and the Lynching Tree (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis, 2011); Kelly Brown Douglas, The Black Christ (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis, 1994); and Kelly Brown Douglas, Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis, 2015).
  3. Harry Edwards, The Revolt of the Black Athlete, rev. ed. (1969; repr., Champaign, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2017), 17.
  4. Edwards, Revolt, 6. For discussions about white cultural prioritization of the black body over the black mind in the history sports and education reform, see Howard Bryant, The Heritage: Black Athletes, a Divided America, and the Politics of Patriotism (Boston: Beacon Press, 2018), 25–31, 40–42, 70, 79, 133–34, 166, 192–99, and 228.
  5. For moments of black athlete activism and costs or punishments thereof, see Bryant, Heritage, xiii–xv, 3–6, 14–18, 4–53, 115, 216, and 221–29.
  6. For the greenwashing of sports heroes, see Bryant, Heritage, 82–85, 90, 94–97, and 220–21.
  7. Colin Kaepernick, quoted in Steve Wyche, “Colin Kaepernick Explains Why He Sat During National Anthem,” NFL Media, August 27, 2016; Christine Hauser, “Why Colin Kaepernick Didn’t Stand for the National Anthem," New York Times, August 27, 2018.
  8. See interviews in Etan Thomas, We Matter: Athletes and Activism, Edge of Sports (New York: Akashic Books, 2018).
  9. For the “shut up and play” response to Kaepernick’s kneel and other athlete protests, see Bryant, Heritage, 3–9, 10–13, 42–43, 173–76, 185, and 188.
  10. M. Shawn Copeland, Enfleshing Freedom: Body, Race, and Being (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2010), 100.
  11. Bryant, Heritage, 15 and 19.
  12. For Kaepernick’s spiritual and ethical awakening, see Angela Denker, “Colin Kaepernick and the Powerful, Religious Act of Kneeling,” Washington Post, September 24, 2017; and John Branch, “The Awakening of Colin Kaepernick,” New York Times, September 7, 2017.
  13. Damian Tromerhauser, “Faith Based: Former Nevada Standout Speaks at Local Church about Life, Athletics,” Daily Sparks Tribune, January 16, 2013.
  14. The “quarterback kneel” is described in the Official Playing Rules and Casebook of the National Football League, Rule 7, Section 2, Article 1 (c): “An official shall declare the ball dead and the down ended . . . when a quarterback immediately drops to his knee (or simulates dropping to his knee) behind the line of scrimmage.”
  15. Army veteran Nate Boyer played an important role in Kaepernick’s decision to kneel. See Billy Witz, “This Time, Colin Kaepernick Takes a Stand by Kneeling,” New York Times, September 1, 2016.
  16. James H. Cone, God of the Oppressed, rev. ed. (1975; Maryknoll, New York: Orbis, 1997), 99.
  17. Ibid., 102 and 111.
  18. Kelly Brown Douglas [Kelly Delanie Brown], “God Is as Christ Does: Toward a Womanist Theology,” The Journal of Religious Thought (1989): 16.

I Wish to Reveal: A Conversation with Joyce J. Scott

Phoebe Wolfskill

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Sculptor and MacArthur Fellow Joyce J. Scott uses the physical properties of her materials—which include beads, glass, fabric, and found objects—to speak to America’s brutal history of race relations. Scott’s embellished and magnified black bodies render physical violence palpable, allowing for visceral and intellectual responses that prompt greater awareness of our collective racial past and present. Her body of work is stunningly beautiful in its materiality yet simultaneously cutting in its sociopolitical critique, bridging the gap between aesthetic innovation and humanitarian activism. In contemplating the inhumanity of the historical treatment of the black body in America—and, indeed, bodies worldwide—her work pushes us to regain our humanity.

Fragments of a Crucifixion focuses on artists who obliquely reference the crucifixion of Jesus in their work as a symbol of racial oppression (among other forms of oppression), and Scott’s work fits squarely into this dialogue. While Scott’s work is not featured in the exhibition at the MCA, attention to her sculptures and wearable art augments the show’s focus on contemporary artists’ use of religious themes to address injustice. I’ve met and enjoyed multiple phone interviews with Scott in preparation for writing my article “‘Comedy, Pathos, Delight, and Horror’: Joyce J. Scott and the Racial Body,” which will be published in the forthcoming arts issue of Callaloo: A Journal of African Diaspora Arts and Letters. My article investigates Scott’s creation of distorted and hyperbolized bodies in works including Rodney King's Head Was Squashed Like a Watermelon (1991), Cuddly Black Dick #3 (1995), and Still Funny: Mammy/Penis (2011), with a particular attention to how Scott’s figuration and themes challenge both stereotypes of the black body and the propriety of the art object itself. The article foregrounds Scott’s use of satirical humor and caustic wordplay as a means of addressing difficult subjects. The conversation recorded below takes a new direction by focusing on religious and spiritual signifiers in Scott’s work. We discuss the artist’s religious background, her concerns about racial and other forms of violence, her interest in global religious practices, and her approach to “fragments” as a theme and aesthetic trope.

Wolfskill Figure 1

Joyce J. Scott, Catch a Nigger by His Toe, 1987. Beads, wire, and thread; 8 × 10 × 14 in. Collection of Oletha DeVane and Peter Kojar
Photo: Ken Ek

Phoebe Wolfskill

I want to start with a piece from 1987 that you titled Catch a Nigger by His Toe. This piece is rather small but eye-catching and beautiful in its application of different textures and sizes of beads. When you examine the depiction of the tree in this work, you notice that it has claw-like fingers and attached to them a black man hangs upside down, which immediately suggests lynching. He's upside down hanging by his foot, and the title references the nursery rhyme “Eeny meeny miny moe.” So there’s implied violence against black bodies on multiple levels. What motivated this work? How did it come to you, and how do you imagine your viewer responding to this piece?

Joyce J. Scott

I think it was very clear then and is very clear now how race and racism—how hatred among people of different ethnic groups—has saturated our culture. It'll take a very, very long time to dispel this, if we ever do. I don't have any reason to tiptoe around our horrendous behavior toward each other. We don't really give thought to taking someone’s life. We're ready to take the physical life or to kill the emotional life. That's just dastardly.

PW

And is that why you render this not just as a straightforward lynching but link it with the nursery rhyme, which is more psychological?

JJS

Yes. And that phrase is one that both black people and white people say. I grew up with it. So to me it is internally absorbed and repeated. As an artist I'm creating something that I want you to look at: the idea that someone's spirit can be so greatly disrupted. And remember that in all of these situations, everybody is injured as a result. There's an old saying about slavery that nobody is ever free. If you sit on somebody’s head, they can’t go anywhere, but neither can you.

PW

Right. So when I was growing up, I always knew “Catch a tiger by the toe.” But when my mom was growing up, which was the 1940s and fifties, she remembers—

JJS

“Catch a nigger by the toe.”

PW

Yes. She admitted this to me with some embarrassment a couple of years ago. She was a white girl growing up in New Orleans, and that’s what she learned.

JJS

That was a while back. But that we may still be doing very similar things is what I'm pissed about. We've had time to evolve out of certain behavior. Somebody wanted to be the boss or make other people subservient to them. I guess humans have been doing that for a long time. The idea, though, that we are now at a point when we don't have to do that and we're still doing it means it's something with us—that it's spiritual, or, you know, a soul problem. That can be another word for it. It's directly related to Western culture, although it’s not like every culture didn't have it. We just seem to have systemized it and held on to it in a different way. But we have the ability to change, and we need to change.

PW

I've read that you grew up in a Pentecostal church. What did that experience mean to you, and how does it inform your work?

JJS

Best thing ever. My parents were from North and South Carolina. The preacher at our storefront church was my godfather. When I became accepted into the congregation he preached with me in his arms. I did street ministry with them, and that was a great primer to being an actress. It is just surrounded and bathed in a kind of love that takes you outside of yourself. Something that delivers you—you're delivered into another place. Faith is an interesting thing. You have the crazy stuff for which you do not necessarily have a lot of proof. But you're still pursuing it. And that is really what church meant to me. It helped develop me as a person who believed in the future and faith. Because you know this is a storefront church led by people who didn't read and write very well. It was celebratory because it's the belief that you don't have to be locked into what you are—that you can change and you're not alone. Another thing about faith is that you're not alone.

PW

Are there particular crucifixion scenes in the history of art that have stood out to you or inspired you in some way?

JJS

I went to graduate school in Mexico and traveled around Central America. Actually, I have been blessed to travel the world. The crucifix is about really praising someone who's dying in front of you. But I recall the ones that are made by artisans in different places, where someone has hand carved a religious object or made it out of straw. I also have a couple of West African crucifixes that I’ve used in my work, and it's just the way that they so beautifully engaged with the wood. They allow the wood to speak in tone instead of painting it. Let the wood talk to me. That’s a very powerful work for me. And you know I love going into an Italian church! I mean, there are flowers around and then it's covering up his genitalia, but there's enough exposed so you could see his muscularity and all that other stuff. And the nails, darling, the nails!

PW

Are there certain biblical stories and images that particularly spoke to you as well? Because when I look at Catch a Nigger by the Toe, the man in the piece is hanging upside down, and what I thought of was The Crucifixion of St. Peter (1600), which was rendered by Caravaggio with Peter attached to a cross and being lifted upside down with his bare feet jutting crudely into the viewer’s space. Was that something you thought about when you made your own work?

Wolfskill Figure 2

Joyce J. Scott, Catch a Nigger by His Toe (detail), 1987. Beads, wire, and thread; 8 × 10 × 14 in. Collection of Oletha DeVane and Peter Kojar

JJS

Not that Caravaggio necessarily. I'm someone who went to a million years of art school. I studied a lot of European art and Asian art. In the old days we didn’t study a lot of African art or Native American art. That was my quest. So a person being hung upside down. That’s an old piece from 1987, and I don’t remember all of the exact details. But one finds that kind of thing throughout history and throughout images all over the world. So for me it is a kind of global approach to what it must be like to be tortured like that.

PW

I see. In your body of work more broadly there are numerous references to violent episodes from the Bible, like the crucifixion or the apocalypse. You reference these biblical themes many times, but through a translation into contemporary life. Do you see spiritual elements or possibilities for redemption—that there’s the reality of violence, but also the possibility of salvation?

JJS

Absolutely. That's why Buddha plays such a big part in my work. Because he wasn't a god. He was a human who worked very hard to evolve into this person who was in a state of not only reverence but also a kind of spiritual change that allowed him to be one with everything. And I believe that humans have the ability to evolve and change. I think we're very, very young. I think of the Earth as a squillion years old. If we're really young and pugnacious and hardheaded like kids, then we won't easily evolve and change to become more mature and do things right. You know we're always looking for voodoo and everything else to make that happen; we are self-medicating with drugs and everything else to find that place. I don't know if we know how to do it, but you know love is not an easy thing. Love is both the easiest and the hardest thing to attain. And empathy for others is the easiest and the hardest thing to do. So when you see a lot of my work, it's about just trying to find the route to that.

PW

I've seen global religions represented in your work: a focus on Shiva and Buddha, among others. So you’re looking to various cultures and how they take on these kinds of questions?

JJS

Well, it’s because we’re just human. This really is humanity to me. I wouldn't expect somebody in India to be doing Jesus Christ necessarily. It’s not that Christians aren’t there, but that's not the basic culture. I would expect them to go on that quest through their own cultural realm. It doesn’t mean, though, that I think less of it. It’s just like, “Oh, that person has six arms, I wonder why.” I'm always very hungry to find out how humans have dealt with these questions. It's also how I like many religions or thought processes in which there is something that's happening and something that isn't. Something that’s up and something that's down. How many cultures believe in the underworld being under the water, and how they do that? It's all very interesting to me.

PW

I also sense skepticism in your work. I'm wondering if you think your work is more about questioning one's beliefs than believing itself?

JJS

I don't know if I'm skeptical as much as I might be cynical. Sometimes. And I'm incredibly sarcastic and sardonic. I think that we are asses—we're really messed up in our inability to be wonderful to another human being. So I'm cynical sometimes. But you know love is the easiest and the hardest thing to do. You know it's easy to say, “Oh, I'm going to give something to a homeless person, but I don’t want them living next to me.” Or, “I believe that everybody should have their rights, but I don't want any black people in my neighborhood.” It's some kind of human thing. We don't seem to be able to work that out very well.

PW

I asked you in an earlier conversation—probably a couple of years back—about another work, Rodney King's Head Was Squashed Like a Watermelon. The color palette is black, green, red, and white, and I always assumed this choice of colors effectively conflated the head with the watermelon. But you mentioned to me that it was a reference to the four horsemen of the apocalypse. The idea of the apocalypse also appears in the later, related piece Three Graces Oblivious While Los Angeles Burns (1992), which features King's decapitated head at the top of it. Are there works about the apocalypse within the history of art that have particularly struck you? If you look at the history of Christian art, for example, there's so much artistic freedom in scenes of hell and the apocalypse, whereas images of the Christ child are often more standardized. There wasn't the same kind of iconographic freedom. So are there particular apocalyptic images that inspired you?

Wolfskill Figure 3

Joyce J. Scott, Rodney King’s Head Was Squashed Like a Watermelon, 1991. Beads and thread; 5 ½ × 12 ½ × 9 in. Philadelphia Museum of Art, purchased with funds contributed by The Women’s Committee and the Craft Show Committee of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1995, 1995-81-3

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JJS

Fire is very frightening to me. So reading about fire in the Bible is terrifying. And drowning in the Bible is terrifying. That we've been having tsunamis and things lately, in our world—it's pretty amazing to me. We're frailer than we think we are. And I don't know if we realize that when we talk about the end of the world, we're really not talking about the end of the world. We're talking about the end of us. The world will be just fine without us.

PW

Regarding the exhibition's focus on fragments—so much of your work presents a fragmented body. In both of the Rodney King pieces, for example, the figure of King is decapitated. Why do you think that's a prominent part of your work? What is it that motivates you to deal with the body as a set of fragments?

Wolfskill Figure 4

Joyce J. Scott, Three Graces Oblivious While Los Angeles Burns, 1992. Glass, beads, wire, and mixed media; 21 × 9 7/10 × 9 in. Collection of The Corning Museum of Glass, Corning, NY, 97.4.214

JJS

You know there's something frightening about a body that's in parts and not together. And there’s also the importance of the fragment. Maybe the arm is the most important part for that piece, let’s say, so that's what I'm working on. Although in the last show that I did, we had a lot of full figures. But there's still a lot of armless things. If I'm working with a gaffer—if we're doing glass—we'll get to a head and a torso. For me that opens it up to decide whether I'm going to put arms on, and then how to make the arms and what the arms can do. It is also about the idea that if someone doesn’t have arms, it means they cannot control things.

PW

So I'm thinking of these fragments: the heads, the detached phalluses. I've written about that in my other article on your work. There’s also the work that’s at Dartmouth College’s Hood Museum, Mammy Under Undue Influence (2007). The figure’s skin is almost like a garment that's come undone, and another body is underneath it. They're very tactile pieces, but disruptive because the skin or the body is torn apart.

Wolfskill Figure 5

Joyce J. Scott, Mammy Under Undue Influence, 2007. Blown, cast, and lampworked glass, and beadwork (peyote stitch); overall: 27 9/16 × 8 11/16 × 7 7/8 in. Hood Museum of Art, Dartmouth: Purchased through the Virginia and Preston T. Kelsey 1958 Fund; 2007.51

JJS

But see, you’ve just said it: they’re disruptive. They're meant to be disruptive. They're meant for you to see this beautifully crafted thing and come up and be shocked. Yes.

PW

There's a piece that you made for the 1991 Spoleto Festival in Charleston, South Carolina, titled Believe I've Been Sanctified. This was a large-scale, site-specific work in Charleston. I believe some 40 percent of the Africans that entered this country came through the port of Charleston.

Wolfskill Figure 6

Joyce J. Scott, Believe I’ve Been Sanctified, 1991. Beadwork and mixed media; 17 × 15 × 13 ft
Photo: John McWilliams

JJS

And my mom is from South Carolina.

PW

I'm from Columbia, South Carolina, actually. And you know, Charleston is a place that has yet to reckon with this history. In Believe I've Been Sanctified, you used existing columns from an old Charleston museum’s ruins, and then you attached beautiful-looking beads that recall weeping, like weeping willows, and then you've got a figure in the center hanging by its neck.

Wolfskill Figure 7

Joyce J. Scott, Believe I’ve Been Sanctified (detail), 1991. Beadwork and mixed media; 17 × 15 × 13 ft
Photo: John McWilliams

JJS

You know I can tell you about that piece—that was my first really giant work. It was maybe 15 or 17 feet tall. And it was when someone said, “Okay, you can do it. Okay, we'll pay for it. Oh, okay, you're going to do what? How many yards of beads—you’re gonna what?” At the bottom of it there is a funeral pyre. This person—or this entity—is being lynched. Also the tree is upside down. It's over a pyre that was lit in the night like an opera stage. I actually intended to come and sing there at night. But it was vandalized immediately.

PW

How did people respond to this? What happened after it was vandalized?

JJS

Well, the only thing that was rigged was the light, so everything else was good. I was told there was a homeless man living under the building. There was an opening under it, and he was angry about the light. I'd taken over his space. And he broke it. Another thing I heard was that they used that site for weddings, and somebody was upset because they wanted their wedding there. For all I know a bunch of artists didn’t like it and they went and broke it. What do I know? It was vandalized.

PW

What inspired the title Believe I've Been Sanctified? Rather ironic, it seems. Can you talk about that?

JJS

I think it has a lot to do with burning—burning candles, people being burned in effigy, people actually being burned as a punishment. That's what I think with all of those things.

PW

Wow. And what are the very bold colored pieces underneath that make up the pyre? The burning pieces?

JJS

Wood. They were done for me by a college student. I said that I wanted a bunch of wood and that I wanted this color. They got it for me when I got there.

PW

What were some of the other responses to the work? This is a loaded geographical space, it's a huge piece, and it's in the public.

JJS

While I was installing it, I never said it was a lynching. People would come up, and I'd say, “I'm still working on it,” because I thought that if I said it was a lynching I might not get it through to the opening. People were really enamored by its size and use of beadwork. They may see beads all the time, but beads hanging from trees at the top of an old building is different.

PW

You've made necklaces throughout your career—these very elaborate art pieces that can be worn. Back in 1981 you had a lynching necklace.

JJS

And some are about women being killed. Some are about overt racism.

Wolfskill Figure 8

Joyce J. Scott, Lynching Necklace, 1998. Glass beads and thread; 11 × 6 in
Courtesy of Goya Contemporary Gallery, Baltimore

PW

Right. These figures are often fragmented or violated in some way. Thinking about lynching and the noose around the neck that figures elsewhere in your work, one wonders if these necklaces are heavy objects. Is the work to some extent a literal reminder of the narrative taking place? I’m thinking of the weight of the noose as a physical presence that you feel as you move around.

JJS

Well you have to make an emotional and physical commitment to wear work like that.

PW

I'm sure.

JJS

But beads are surprising how? Because they are made out of glass. If you have enough of them, they do tend to have weight to them. They also have a temperature to them. They are something that can be two-sided, as in life. If they're really beautiful and filled with commentary, then you're going to have people who are going to come up and engage you. And that's the whole thing about whether or not you can actually be engaged by others. Because if you're wearing something about lynching, then are you ready to be ass whipped? Are you ready to be engaged with people in that manner? So for the wearer, it's a stand with both of your feet on the ground. That's why some buyers really love them but will never wear them. I say, “I made it to be worn.” They’re like, “Yeah but I don't have the chutzpah for that.”

PW

But you wear them.

JJS

Absolutely.

PW

Do you get questions or comments from strangers?

JJS

Sure. One of the things is that people sometimes want to buy something off me. Because they know it's a commodity. Sometimes I think it's because I'm black, and that's another image for people. It's also people wanting to be disruptive, and I don't get too upset about that. But it is running right into your personal space, right up where your titties are.

PW

Yes, it's very personal.

JJS

Now that's a certain power I have. Because people forget. And then they ask, “Is this the one who was just killed?” referring to one of many recent black deaths. Yes, this is a necklace about it.

PW

A more recent piece is the Lynched Tree (2011–15) for Prospect.2 in New Orleans, where the sculpture was actually positioned in the tree. I saw it in the MOCA Cleveland show, where it was positioned differently because it was in a gallery space. But it's a nude female figure with glass and other materials spilling out.

Wolfskill Figure 9

Joyce J. Scott, Lynched Tree, 2011. Plastic beads, glass beads, blown glass, thread, wire, and mixed media; install dimensions variable, approx. 106 × 42 × 15 in
Courtesy of Goya Contemporary Gallery, Baltimore

JJS

The figure is a haint, which is a ghost in the South. You know what a haint is? The haint was placed up in a tree for that installation.

PW

So is that what she is? A ghost?

JJS

Or she is many things. She's a chameleon, and she becomes that kind of thing. She's a ghost. In the piece at Tulane she was in the tree and falling from her neck with glass branches. And I don't even know what that was about. So instead of her being lynched, she lynched the tree. She really has been this portal. She has things pouring from her body, but she also relates to prayer, perhaps.

Wolfskill Figure 10

Joyce J. Scott, Lynched Tree (detail), 2011. Plastic beads, glass beads, blown glass, thread, wire, and mixed media; install dimensions variable, approx. 106 × 42 × 15 in
Courtesy of Goya Contemporary Gallery, Baltimore

PW

That's really interesting. I read her more as a violated figure, perhaps because of the title and because of what I saw.

JJS

I certainly think that's part of it. But you know when I look at these—when I look at what I do and know what I do—they're not only of the moment. If there's a human there, then that human had an entire life before that. But I like that it could be whatever it is for that person. If they are mollified. If they are frightened. If they define beauty. Or if they wonder how the hell I did it. Whatever comes to them is what I want them to have.

PW

Yes, well I found this interesting because of her scale but also because she’s a pink female, and that seems to be less common in your work. So I guess she's to be read as white. Was it the operation of the haint that made you choose that color?

JJS

I think it's because you can't tell me what to do. You can't tell me I can't make white people.

PW

Absolutely.

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JJS

I believe in my work. I believe that I should be able to stand up for it. And so I will take images and do imagery that is frightening even to me when I'm making it, but it doesn't mean that I'm going to back off from it.

PW

Regarding larger themes of the violence of humankind—not just in terms of specific races and genders, but more broadly based in relationships of power and control—does it sometimes become too difficult to address these themes? Does it become too overwhelming?

JJS

Usually I work on more than one piece at a time, so I'm not just dwelling in one work like that. I have my own kind of therapeutic methods that help me get around it, but I am an African American woman who lives in Baltimore in the inner city. There's no way I can squirm out of that. I need to be consistently on the cusp of creating something and really forcing my head to work at optimum speed, in ways that we're told we can't do. To be in command of yourself and try to go beyond what's usually expected of you, and then to have the ability and the context to do it—that's the amazing place to be. I feel incredibly blessed to be an artist in that way. I don't believe that artists are the only ones with it. But I think we're the ones who command the space, and we're the ones who stand up and take it as our life force.

PW

Do you see art as a spiritual practice?

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JJS

Absolutely. Or I'd be dead, or I'd be a mass murderer or something. I have a really great sense of humor. I make money off of it as well. Many times it allows me to get anger out, and humor out, and things out. There are all kinds of things you don't want to say to another person, and you need another vehicle. Art is that. It's so great for that.

PW

Does your art preach? But maybe that’s the wrong word. I mean, obviously you're making ethical points and pushing self-evaluation. But do you seek to convert in a way?

JJS

That's out of my power, and what would I be converting someone to? I don't necessarily have any answers right. But I wish to educate. I wish to reveal. Because my best voice is as an artist. I use my ability to say, “Did you see it this way? Have you ever thought about it that way?” That's what I wish to do.

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In Conversation with Paul Pfeiffer

Chanon Kenji Praepipatmongkol

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Paul Pfeiffer is one of the most visible artists who emerged at the turn of the millennium. With his mesmerizing digitally manipulated video works, Pfeiffer won the Whitney Museum’s Bucksbaum Award in 2000, the largest private art prize in the world at the time. Through cutting and retouching found footage, he grapples with the viewer’s relationship to an ever-accelerating deluge of images circulating around the globe through mass media. While Pfeiffer’s critical engagement with media representations of race and gender has been the subject of numerous interviews, less attention has been paid to religion’s relevance to his exploration of body politics. Indeed, the relationship among spectacle, celebrity, and religion figures prominently in Pfeiffer’s work, whether in comparisons of sports stars and biblical personages (Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, 2000) or fans of Justin Bieber and followers of megachurches (Incarnator, 2018).

The conversation below takes its departure from Pfeiffer’s work Fragment of a Crucifixion (after Francis Bacon) (1999), a centerpiece of the MCA exhibition Fragments of a Crucifixion and the inspiration for its title. The second part of the interview delves into Pfeiffer’s relationship with religion, which is at turns art historical, ethnographic, and deeply personal. Exhibition curator Chanon Kenji Praepipatmongkol and the artist discuss a range of projects spanning Pfeiffer’s career, beginning with his participation in Asian American art shows of the early 1990s and ending with his recent research into histories of slavery at the University of Georgia.

Pfeiffer Figure 1

Paul Pfeiffer, Fragment of a Crucifixion (After Francis Bacon), 1999. Digital video loop, projector, and armature; 5 minutes, 20 × 5 × 15 in. Edition of 3, aside from 2 artist’s proofs
Courtesy of Paul Pfeiffer Studio

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Fragment of a Crucifixion

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Chanon Kenji Praepipatmongkol

Could you, briefly, describe your work Fragment of a Crucifixion (after Francis Bacon) (1999)?

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Paul Pfeiffer

I would start with the title. Fragment of a Crucifixion comes from a painting by Francis Bacon made in 1950. In Bacon’s version, two figures are suspended on a cruciform-shaped armature, which is surrounded by a vast, spatial void. The figures appear to be disintegrating. One has a screaming head, which Bacon imported from the early Russian film Battleship Potemkin (1925). Its arms are raised and outstretched, recalling the iconography of the crucifixion in religious paintings. My video came from the experience of watching a basketball game and being reminded of Bacon’s painting. The basketball court is the armature, the dome of the arena is the spatial void, and at the center are the suspended figures of the basketball players. There’s one basketball player in particular: he’s just made a slam dunk, and he’s celebrating by screaming. I took one or two seconds of video footage of this moment and looped it. And by looping it, the scream continues infinitely, so it becomes ambiguous as to whether it’s a scream of pleasure or a scream of pain. That’s where I stop.

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CKP

What you describe as the psychological experience of the work and the manipulation of that psychological experience seems so central to the work. When I approached it, initially, seeing the smallness of it and the handle of the video projector jutting out, my first thought was that it makes reference to sculpture. There’s a smallness and an almost fetishistic quality to its physical nature. But when you watch the video for a while and see this basketball player stuck in a loop, the reference then turns to painting: the stasis that is painting. Thinking in terms of physical medium, though, it is video. The work really eludes a distinction of media. What you’re getting at is how all of these media references can be used to manipulate the quality of attention that the work then holds. How do you feel about that kind of description?

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PP

In a sense, the viewer’s attention is the real material to be shaped. I’m generally interested in the phenomenology of different media and how these relate to the context of art-making. My understanding of phenomenology has to do with the proposition that reality does not exist in an already-given state outside ourselves. It’s actually produced in the interface of perception. The production of knowledge and the study of the limits of understanding, in some ways, have to start with this interface. This is precisely the point where media can manipulate perception.

I recently spoke with a philosophy teacher who said he believed that, properly speaking, philosophy ends with the emergence of phenomenology, which I found astounding. It was his way of saying, “I’m not interested in phenomenology; that’s no longer philosophy to me.” For him, it’s the tipping point where you go from classical philosophy to something like criticism. There’s a hierarchical relationship, he’s saying: philosophy is serious, criticism is not as serious. The dividing line is phenomenology.

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CKP

I read phenomenology as a moment when philosophers began to admit to a kind of lived experience that did not necessarily depend on analytical propositions or strictly delineated beliefs. It is something that needs to be thought of at the interface of psychology and the world, and how that relates to embodiment of, say, brown bodies or black bodies.

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PP

Or the queer body. To me that is getting to the central point. That, to me, is the matrix of the body.

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CKP

Can I push you further in that direction? Fragment of a Crucifixion puts the body on this loop that, on the one hand, shows really intense human emotions—jubilation, ecstasy, anger, pain. It’s intensely human and intensely psychological. But there’s a flip side to it, which is that after you watch it for a while, the loop turns the human into something extremely mechanical and inhuman, becoming energy that’s stuck. How do you think of these intertwined concepts—the human, the inhuman, and the mechanical?

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PP

Your question makes me think of Jacques Lacan. Specifically, the idea that in the developmental process of every child, there’s this thing called the mirror stage that signifies the moment when the child, this sentient being, recognizes itself in the mirror. This is associated with ego formation. What’s interesting to me is that there is a period of months from birth to a certain age before the mirror stage when that ego formation is incomplete. At this point, sensory experience is fragmentary; there is not a unified selfhood to contain sensory experience. It’s just in fragments: the mother’s breasts, a hand, an eye. There isn’t a structure yet to organize it into a sense of wholeness. Although we think of a kind of sensual, essential humanness as something that you’re born with, the implication of Lacan’s studies is that people are actually born not human. They become human at the point where the ego is formed. And even then, it takes time for it to develop to a point when the child is educated enough to claim to be fully socialized. In Michel Foucault’s terms, there is a process of discipline and punishment to get to a state of full human formation. In short, I feel that the relationship between the human and the inhuman, or the not-human, is much more troubled than we usually think.

Please excuse me for intuiting this connection, which feels way too general, but to me this is also a Buddhist lesson, or at least it reminds me of certain Buddhist lessons that I’ve been exposed to through Lawrence Chua. There are certain meditations intended to focus your attention on the idea that you are born into the trauma of blood and shit. Whatever that is, it is not properly thought of as human in the sense of a civilized, socialized being. At the point of birth, we’re more like an animal than a human, to put it one way. You can say that to focus on such things is a kind of regression. Why focus on aspects that we’ve moved past? We’ve adopted a civilized nature. But in becoming civilized, human identity also becomes racialized or gendered in a hierarchal way. To me it is very interesting to imagine the possibility of identifying with something other than the aspiration to assume human identity in a hierarchical sense.

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CKP

It’s fascinating how you’ve put it. Your comment about regression and the inhuman or prehuman returns me to your interest in the stadium as an archetypal space in human history. It seems that we’re returning to a prehistoric arena, reenacting a primal violence and our being drawn to that spectacle of violence.

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PP

It’s intriguing to think of identity formation on a primeval level, going back to the abstract codes of classical architecture—the most ancient patterns of thought in the Western tradition—to investigate the roots from which enduring distinctions such as human/nonhuman were first formulated. It’s not just ancient history. These are patterns of hierarchical thinking that endure into the present. The multicultural movement of the 1990s was an important moment of politicization for me, providing a way to challenge the limits of Eurocentric history. The ways that they were being formulated in the 1990s seem too easy to co-opt, too limited, not to go far enough. The idea of finding an alternative in these more abstract codes was something powerfully intuitive to me.

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Worlds in Collision

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CKP

I understand that you grew up in several places—Hawai’i and the Philippines, among other places—in part because of your parents’ work with the Methodist Church. Could you speak about this religious story of your childhood?

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PP

I was born in Hawai’i, at a moment when my father had gone back to school at the University of Hawai’i and was working on his PhD in ethnomusicology. He was doing his fieldwork as I was growing up, and every summer he would go to the Philippines and make field recordings of indigenous musicians in the southern Philippines, mostly Mindanao. From as early as one or two years old, I was traveling back and forth periodically between Hawai’i and the Philippines because of my parents’ involvement with music education and performance in both places. While he was doing his field recordings, we stayed at my grandparents’ place in Dumaguete City, which is the home of Silliman University. It was founded in 1901, and my grandparents and my parents were associated with it. Silliman is a Protestant university, which is very unusual in the Philippines, an overwhelmingly Catholic country. Later on, my family actually moved from Hawai’i to Dumaguete, where my mom became the director of the music school at Silliman. At that point, I was going to high school at Silliman, which is a liberal arts education with a pretty central Protestant religious component.

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CKP

You eventually moved to the States to do your BFA in San Francisco and MFA in New York City. I was looking back at articles on your work from the early 1990s and was struck by your close involvement with the Filipino-American community and magazines like Filipinas. What was that period like?

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PP

I moved to New York from San Francisco in 1990. Just before I moved, by happenstance, I attended an event called “Worlds in Collision” at the San Francisco Art Institute (SFAI). It was a conference of artists of color organized by Carlos Villa, a Filipino-American artist who lived for a long time in New York but then settled in San Francisco and was teaching at SFAI. The event really galvanized my consciousness of the intervention into art history that was coming from a very diverse group of artists—there were artists of color, but also queer artists and artists with a feminist discursive background. It was very moving to me. In retrospect, up until that point, I had a lack of investment in art history. I remember struggling to stay awake in art history classes at the Art Institute, but I remember feeling riveted at “Worlds in Collision.” These were people who could be my uncles and aunts talking about art history! It was the first time I really experienced that. The conference set the stage for what happened when I moved to New York and what became known as the multiculturalism movement. In 1990 in New York, there was a huge debate going on about the canon—the cultural canon. The Culture Wars were playing out, and the excitement at the time was in these kinds of organizations. ACT UP. The Guerrilla Girls. Living in the East Village, that’s where the action was. I jumped in.

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CKP

In New York, one of the early events you participated in was Santo Niño Incarnate, a sculptural installation commissioned and curated by Cee Scott Brown in 1994 when he ran the Art Matters Foundation. Can you describe how the project speaks to that charged moment of multiculturalism?

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PP

I suppose we’re talking about my network at the time. I was hanging out with the Asian-Pacific Islander caucus of ACT UP. That caucus was trying to make sense of how to build a politicized awareness of the AIDS crisis: how it was playing out in first-generation Asian immigrant communities, and how it would make sense culturally to bring this conversation to them. We worried that they were being left out of the ACT UP conversation.

I remember the project you mentioned, Santo Niño Incarnate, where I used the image of the Santo Niño but rendered it in transparent resin. I was thinking of it as a specific Catholic icon, but by rendering it transparent in a way, it became even more open to a proliferation of readings. I went around asking the Asian-American LGBTQ community to contribute photographs of themselves with loved ones, which I then cast inside these transparent statues. The idea was to take that aspect of Catholicism that has to do with an openness to all parties. At some point, I discovered that the roots of the word “catholic” are Greek, relating to ideas of universal or common experience, or to an attitude of all-embracing acceptance of diverse customs. These roots predate the use of the term Catholic in reference to the Christian church, and the even later use of the term to delineate the notion of a “true” church distinct from other “untrue” churches. In a very intuitive way, to take this very popular and accessible image of the Santo Niño and further explode it meant thinking of it as something that could be individualized and could contain the widest possible range of content.

Given that I was coming from a Protestant background, there was this moment in the 1990s when I started to specifically gravitate towards the possibility of utilizing Catholic imagery as a way of speaking about things. I remember telling my family a little bit about what I was doing. Or actually, maybe they just saw pictures. I made this sculpture of the Virgin Mary with a kind of cape made out of silver condom packets. The silver of the condom packet is very seductive to me visually. It was playing off the abstract reflective quality of that silver material and, obviously, the provocation of the sexual association. I remember when I showed it to my mom, her response was, “Why are you doing that? We’re not Catholic. Protestants don’t believe in the Virgin Mary. Why are you doing that?” Somehow, eventually, a picture of that sculpture ended up on her wall. I guess she got over it.

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CKP

What you’re talking about—your interest in the shiny surfaces of the condom wrapper—seems to be particularly of that moment. Artists of color didn’t want to be pigeonholed as merely ethnic artists. Layering body, sexuality, and religion allowed you to arrive at something more.

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PP

There was an interest in eluding the limits of a very categorical identity-based discourse of the time, which I have to say, coming from Hawai’i, seemed particular to the East Coast. It wouldn’t make sense to have this conversation in Hawai’i or even California. If, like me, one was raised moving between Asia and the United States and Hawai’i, the idea of subscribing to this identitarian politics seemed too prescriptive. The adoption of the religious image was an attempt at scrambling that.

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CKP

One of your early works that dealt with religious imagery was the series Temple of Solomon—photographs of Mattel dolls with their hair parted to reveal a geometric pattern, which looks like an architectural floor plan. What struck me about this series was this inscription of something that has deep religious connotations onto a contemporary commodity object—dolls that reproduce archetypes of the blond, brunette, or ebony. This is a strange and powerful collision.

Pfeiffer Figure 2

Paul Pfeiffer, Temple of Solomon / Blond (After Villalpando), 1998. Digital chromogenic development print; 4 × 4 in. Edition of 3, aside from 2 artist’s proofs
Courtesy of Paul Pfeiffer Studio
Paul Pfeiffer, Temple of Solomon / Brunette (After Villalpando), 1998. Digital chromogenic development print; 4 × 4 in. Edition of 3, aside from 2 artist’s proofs
Courtesy of Paul Pfeiffer Studio
Paul Pfeiffer, Temple of Solomon / Ebony (After Villalpando), 1998. Digital chromogenic development print; 4 × 4 in
Courtesy of Paul Pfeiffer Studio

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PP

I love connecting these dots. There’s a certain point where the extension of the exploration of religious iconography led to looking at ground plans of basilicas. I remember reading one treatise on classical architecture in particular, a book called Architectural Principles in the Age of Humanism (1949) by Rudolf Wittkower. The central point was that the principles explored in the Renaissance were being recycled from antiquity in a very conscious way. There were ideas about the most primary proportions and tropes in architecture that, as it turns out, were not just architectural, but were more broadly aesthetic principles that applied equally to music, painting, and really all the arts. The agenda of the Renaissance really had to do with wanting to see themselves as the inheritors of certain aesthetic codes that, in a sense, were fundamental as far back as one can go in Western culture. The figure of the stadium or coliseum started to emerge as something very important, because in these books of classical architecture, it was one of the principal building types. It also connects to something that, at the time, I considered to be one of the most important contemporary architectural formulations: Madison Square Garden. Aesthetic codes aren’t just about the design and decoration of buildings, but they describe on an abstract aesthetic level the essence of cultural identity.

This blew my mind. Coming out of the identity politics of the 1990s, here was an articulation of what I was intuiting in adopting religious iconography: that there’s another deeper level of identity one could tap into and use as a kind of language to speak about the construction of experience, of reality, and of individual and group identity. To me it was very exciting—the idea of picking up this 2,000-year-old language that I somehow had access to through my own religious upbringing. It really makes identitarian politics look superficial. There’s also an idea that working in the language of abstract aesthetic code, one could scramble Western artistic conventions by injecting the equivalent of silver condom packets—these seemingly incongruous elements that have been systemically defined as other or simply excluded.

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CKP

I am curious how your interest in the historical structure of aesthetics intersects with your investment in understanding the present tense, that is, the visceral and intense qualities of contemporary aesthetic experience. For instance, I’m thinking about your early video work like The Pure Products Go Crazy (1998), where there’s looped footage of a woman plunged head-down into the sofa shaking, as if in a demonic possession. I take this to be a different way of understanding deep aesthetic codes, perhaps filtered through The Exorcist and American gothic narratives.

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Paul Pfeiffer, The Pure Products Go Crazy, 1998. Digital video loop, projector, and armature; 2 minutes, 5 seconds, 20 × 5 × 15 in. Edition of 3, aside from 2 artist’s proofs
Courtesy of Paul Pfeiffer Studio

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PP

On a certain level, my experience of growing up in a Christian university was centered around music, which was nothing if not visceral. I would even make the connection that although I am not a musician, there’s a relationship between the video image and music in that they’re both time-based media. Since I did not come from a film background, I only started working in video when it was accessible through desktop editing software. The most obvious structural experiment in digital video was to simply scroll back and forth or to create a loop and loop a video. That was my entry point. I think now about that loop structure as one which has to do with repetition, and there’s an association of repetition with prayer and meditation—the use of both visual and auditory repetition to create states of altered consciousness. In an unlikely way, growing up in a family that was centrally involved in the production of music in a religious setting led intuitively to an interest in the way that visual and auditory media can be used to shape perception on an experiential level, on a non-didactic emotional affective level.

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CKP

I would like to ask about your current project on college football in Georgia. This is such a charged moment to consider the intersection of sports, religion, and race, given the controversy around Colin Kaepernick kneeling and the repercussions of that episode in national politics. Could you speak more about your interest in football in the current moment?

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PP

It started when I accepted a visiting faculty position at the University of Georgia for two and a half years. I was interested in some of the culture and literature coming from there. In college I read W. E. B. Dubois’s The Souls of Black Folk and found it very relevant, particularly the notion of double consciousness, which has become a fundamental aesthetic category within the black literary lexicon. What does that mean? I went down there and found that the history of the South is still extremely present. There’s the sense that in every conversation, just underneath the surface, people from the South are aware that the world sees them in a particular way, and they feel that they have to answer for it. It’s this kind of enforced self-awareness of history exerted from outside, but then internalized.

It so happened that when I went down there, in the beginning of 2016, there was a student-organized exhibition on view that was about the history of slavery at the University of Georgia. As it turns out, the university figures centrally in that history.

It just unfolded from there. Then I discovered that in December 2015, just before I arrived, a construction crew at the university had accidentally, well, they were doing construction at the parking lot, and they unexpectedly exhumed 105 bodies. It turns out that the parking lot was built over a burial field for slaves, which was adjacent to the official cemetery, where slaves weren’t buried. The university accidentally dug it up. They weren’t sure what to do with it, so they tried to take an anthropological route and dealt with the bones as artifacts and reburied them. Respectfully, they thought. But they didn’t bother to ask the Athens community if there were any descendants there. So I basically walked into a storm.

The strange coincidence is that there is a number of underground rivers on the Georgia campus. One of them runs right under the stadium, and it exits in one corner of the official cemetery, which is adjacent to the stadium. It turns out that this underground river beneath the stadium exits at the exact place that these bones were transferred. So now, all of these things started running together.

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CKP

There’s such a deep sense of history that as soon as you scratch the surface, there’s a million other things that need to be uncovered.

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PP

Then I found out that in the 1970s the marching band would play certain songs associated with the Confederate Army, which became an explosive point for the student body and led to riots. They had to create a university law that these songs would never be played again. It goes on and on. It’s all so connected in the end. Or discovering that the lead quarterback is the descendant of slaves in Georgia.

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CKP

In the project you’re working on, are you dealing with these histories in some way?

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PP

The central focus of the project is actually the band, specifically the band playing during the football game. At halftime they do maneuvers in the field, but during the game they sit in the stands and provide a kind of emotional soundtrack. If you turn your back on the game and just observe the band doing that, it’s extraordinary. The rules of college football are that every football team has a band, and the band always plays, but they’re not allowed to play when the ball is live. As soon as the ball stops, they begin to play immediately because they want to hype the crowd. The way the band director put it is that if they don’t hype the crowd, they’re in danger of being replaced with a prerecorded soundtrack. They train to be able to start and stop suddenly. That’s the way they perform—they never finish a song. If you turn your back to the game and just watch the band, it’s a strange performance of constant interruption. Loud band followed by silence, and then loud band again. It’s going in and out of silence and the loudest possible sound.

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CKP

It feels like we’ve come full circle, in the sense that we started our conversation talking about your father doing his degree in ethnomusicology. There is something ethnomusicological about your current project, recording sounds that are devotional in a sports context. It’s also ethnomusicological in capturing sounds that are accented in a certain way because of the weight of history.

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PP

It’s definitely an inspiration for me, having grown up with some closeness to a community of ethnographic researchers—not just my father or my parents, but professionally, they’re part of an academic community at the University of Hawai’i as well as at Silliman University. In fact, my father was one of five people in the first PhD class in the ethnomusicology program at the University of Hawai’i. His teacher was a woman—her name is Barbara Smith, and she started the program. I talk to her a lot now.

I have also become aware that there’s an increasing literature and dialogue around the relationship between ethnography and anthropology and contemporary art. Because of where I’m coming from personally, this is extremely intriguing. In the twenty-first century, with the proliferation of cameras, there’s a kind of universalization of the problems of anthropology, in terms of what happens when living people become the subjects of the gaze, a study, or a representation. I would say that what used to be thought of as the plight of the ethnographic subject is becoming an almost universal condition in the age of social media or reality TV.

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"However the image enters"

Anni Pullagura

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however the image enters
its force remains
[1]

There’s an odd sort of rehearsal that attends the public loss of minoritized life in the United States. In a white supremacist state, headlines make mourning routine, unexceptional. Names transform into hashtags and movements, becoming something extra-ordinary in the perfect ordinariness of their occasion in general speech. Ordinary because, as contemporary discourse would will us to believe, black and brown and queer kids have always been dying, at once daily and #neveragain.

Or, maybe, this is just how their always-dying feels, how feeling is made around the overwhelming cost of living exactly as the technologies of oppression work so hard to compel us to live. Maybe this insistence of normal operating standards is the odd sort of rehearsal we commit ourselves to each day, moving steadily to the beat of “merely” surviving. That surviving, when others don’t, or can’t, is what it costs us to witness, over and over, the extraordinary violence of endless recurrence.

How does something endlessly recur?

Not reoccur—for as many as we have lost since, before, and with Emmett Till, it is not the same loss, even if it may feel, to some, like a refrain—but recur: to go/come/be back. The form may be different, but its happening is the unbearable imminence we keep bracing for. A tending to an endless end.

How does an artwork endlessly recur?

For Felix Gonzalez-Torres, we might say that endlessness belongs with the artwork—that is, how the art works. What makes “Untitled” (The End) (1990) work is the event of its working endlessly; the artist entrusts this event to the work’s caretakers, whether the museum, the owner, or the collector. My copy of “Untitled” (1992/93), which I took from the exhibition Nothing Stable Under Heaven[2] at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in 2018, still hangs on my bedroom wall, riddled with pushpin holes at corners that are so frayed the paper has become crumply soft like worn fabric. I have not decided, yet, when and how I will remove the paper from the wall.

Pullagura Figure 1

Felix Gonzalez-Torres, “Untitled” (The End), 1990. Print on paper, endless copies; 22 in. at ideal height × 28 × 22 in. (original paper size). Collection Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, restricted gift of Carlos and Rosa de la Cruz; Bernice and Kenneth Newberger Fund, 1995.111. © Felix Gonzalez-Torres. Courtesy of The Felix Gonzalez-Torres Foundation
Photo: Nathan Keay, © MCA Chicago

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There’s no reason to think that Gonzalez-Torres predicted this sort of indecision with the caring for his stack works—he called them “true public sculpture”[3]—which, like the candy spills, are meant to be taken and replenished in each installation.[4] Others, meanwhile, think of this caring as a tending, a waiting, not of an end, but of a going on—that the paper stacks witness our goings on simply by being themselves endlessly going on. We know, of course, that to be asked to go on is really a political act of survival, and that such an ask itself asks, “What are the politics of tending the embers of the witnessing art object or text?”[5] Art historian Adair Rounthwaite’s evocation of “embers” is suggestive, anticipating and still delaying its own end. “The stacks of paper, or piles of candies are indestructible,” Gonzalez-Torres told artist Tim Rollins in 1993, “because they can be endlessly duplicated. They will always exist because they don’t really exist, or because they don’t have to exist all the time.”[6] Here is an acknowledgment of a way of being that cannot be made a category for being because it quite simply exceeds it: the stacks, monumental and accumulative, look like they could go on, sturdy and fed, tended to by those who have agreed to replenish the papers to their ideal height. They look like they could, and maybe that’s the point.

Mónica Amor names this rejection of an end of the art’s work a refusal of “the possibility of the absolute,” one that long attended Gonzalez-Torres’s practice. Whether by stacks or spills or clocks, Gonzalez-Torres created art that doubles as an active locus of thinking relationally to “that space between waters, between lands, between skies in which momentarily we suspend our precise location to find ourselves neither here nor there.”[7] Maybe it is this very space of being called forward, the space of endlessness, that is the radical claim. Maybe it is enough to perceive the stacks’ replenishing as a comforting promise of delay, of suspension—one that makes it possible for us to take the sheet of paper, to eat the piece of candy, to hang the two clocks, and to do this for ourselves and by ourselves, and as many times as we like, or want, or need, or care.

Said Gonzalez-Torres, thinking with Bertolt Brecht: “This is not life, this is just a theater piece. I like that a lot: This is not life, this is just an artwork.”[8]

Pullagura Figure 2

Pamphlet, “Guide to Re-Creating “Untitled” (Perfect Lovers) by Felix Gonzalez-Torres,” Temporary Services
Available online at temporaryservices.org/served/wp-content/uploads/2014/05/FelixGTbooklet.pdf

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“hard, but not this hard.”

Here’s another kind of tending, and another kind of endless end:

The endless copy in Adrian Piper’s Imagine [Trayvon Martin] (2013) speaks to its free distribution in an open acknowledgement of the collection and dispersal that is implied in Gonzalez-Torres’s stacks and spills, if the caretaker so allows. The medium line of Piper’s work stipulates this a little differently: “Available for free download using the following link: http://adrianpiper.de/art/Piper2013Imagine[TrayvonMartin].zip.” With this introduction of digital interfaces and free replicability, here is an endlessness speaking out of labored time—that is, a speaking up into possibility and a speaking out of turn, of thinking like an anti-capitalist. Materially, this occurs in the free taking of the “free” copy, lifting the nearly square sheet from its siloed, wall-stationed, and pedestaled stack, the way visitors to the artist’s 2018 retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art would or should have after crossing into that last great room preceding the orderly exit to the sixth-floor lobby. Would, because many did, including myself, although unlike “Untitled” (1992/93), I did not keep this one long. Should, because presumably many didn’t.

Pullagura Figure 3

Adrian Piper, Imagine [Trayvon Martin], 2013. Digital PNG formatted image; 10 4/5 × 10 2/5 in. (27.3 × 26.5 cm), 300 dpi. Available for free using the following link: http://adrianpiper.de/art/Piper2013Imagine[TrayvonMartin].zip
Collection of the Adrian Piper Research Archive Foundation Berlin, © Adrian Piper Research Archive Foundation Berlin

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Regardless of whether or not one received the physical work, one would have received the image. In it, Martin looks at us, watchful and wide-eyed and endlessly 17. A reproduction of a photograph that circulated widely in the aftermath of Martin’s shooting death in 2012, here, his hoodie is burned off a page printed with a thick black border, the brightness and contrast set to an extreme combination of fade and blur. All we really see is the faint suggestion of Martin’s face under a red circle target and, in the bottom right, bright blue type: “Imagine what it was like to be me.”

The “me” in this case must be Martin, we think; Piper allows for such a conclusion. She also allows for others. The “me” sinks into the black border, the only word to do so, while the first part of the line—“Imagine what it was like to be”—rises up. Is this what Martin’s image thinks being is or was or could have been: this endlessly copied dream? Does he still think of being free? Do we?

“For some,” writes Larissa Pham, “it’s all too easy to imagine what it would have been like to be [Martin]; for others, it’s a forced self-examination, a posthumous exercise in empathy.”[9] Posthumous—that odd rehearsal. As though an exercise in empathy’s slipperiness could only ever be meaningful in a second scene of violence, as Saidiya Hartman has speculated—as though empathy’s rehearsal of moving thought into emotion can be found not in the first act of violence but in its endless recurrences, because “the act of ‘witnessing’ [is] a kind of looking no less entangled with the wielding of power and the extraction of enjoyment.”[10]

At MoMA, Imagine [Trayvon Martin] was stationed between two sets of artworks comprising a portion of Piper’s ongoing Everything series and behind a trio of chairs and video monitors showing the Pac-Man Trilogy (2005–8). The former, in fact, enveloped the room—its repeated phrase, “Everything will be taken away,” everywhere insisting, in the very reading of the text, that we have already imagined the taking, the everything, and the away into which we don’t follow.

It is easy to pass this taking by, to deceive ourselves that we are the ones who take. If this isn’t clear enough, the video monitors placed before the stack of free papers return us to Piper’s deliberations of Kantian philosophy, in which attentive, undistracted reason becomes the faculty by which Enlightenment is achieved. In a recent essay for Artforum, Piper warns us that “[i]n both thought and action, we sacrifice our freedom to see and think clearly and to act consciously when we allow our interests and desires to cramp, distort, or suppress our impartial awareness of self, action, and world.”[11] The Pac-Man Trilogy offers three ways to reckon with this sacrificial distraction, variously exploring the deceptive nature of the pack mentality in endlessly recruiting new members; how consciousness is not only linked to sentient life but recurs in form and energy; and the difficulty of overcoming the desire to fulfill desire, even when the source is withdrawn.[12] To witness these experimental modes in the same frame that we witness, see, and take Imagine [Trayvon Martin] heralds something like a critical return of what the witnessing, the seeing, the taking, and the imagining means. Here we are, back again, and for why?

Says Piper: “Easy Listening Art occupies its own modest niche in one’s consciousness and does not divert one’s attention from more pressing or immediate pursuits. It does not make trouble; instead it makes nice.”[13]

Perhaps Imagine [Trayvon Martin] says, in return: There is nothing nice about the way you imagine being me.

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Installation view, Adrian Piper: A Synthesis of Intuitions, The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2018. Artwork © Adrian Piper Research Archive Foundation Berlin. Digital Image © 2018 The Museum of Modern Art, New York
Photographed by John Wronn, Martin Seck, Robert Gerhard, and Jonathan Muzikar

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and wherever I looked that summer
I learned to be at home with children’s blood

One final tending, one final end:

Jason Lazarus began his photography series 2004–present for a deceptively simple reason: “I [wanted to] create discrete conceptual gestures that, as an amalgam over time, propose expanded photography’s capability to bear witness.”[14] There is no suffering of fools in such a statement; Lazarus doesn’t bother to salvage the photograph or its presentation as an art object. His emphasis remains with the expanded, with expanding photography, and expanding what we think of when we think of expanding photography’s capability. The challenge should reel us, as the works in the series do, but quietly. We see a shot of a leafy treetop against an overcast sky (The top of the tree gazed upon by Anne Frank while in hiding [Amsterdam], 2008); a pink paisley wallpapered ceiling (Above Sigmund Freud’s couch, 2008); a woman clutching a jacket around herself while standing on a windy street at dusk (Claire awaiting 15 minute HIV test result [Chicago], 2010). They are large photographs, sequenced neither according to the time of the photograph’s making nor the time of the subject’s image, nor by the size or date of printing. They are, as Lazarus titles it, a collection of the present, presenting.

Standing at the Grave of Emmett Till, day of exhumation, June 1st, 2005 (Alsip, IL) (2005) is the first work made in the series. Emmett Till was 14 when he was lynched for looking/speaking/being wrong in Mississippi in 1955. The story of his murder, the all-white jury acquittal of his murderers, and the decision of his mother, Mamie Till-Mobley, to hold an open-casket funeral ensured Till’s infamous place in a thoroughly American story of anti-black racism. Even now, we still talk of Till, of what happened to him, of what we did. “We can’t seem to lay Till’s body to rest,” says Shawn Michelle Smith, who writes that Lazarus, a white photographer, attempts to work out this very problem in his photograph.[15] Taken at the exhumation of Till’s body in 2005—part of an effort by the US Department of Justice to put an end to the racist rumors that Till wasn’t Till—the image shows the ground at disproportional odds to a bright blue sky. This sunny horizon lures and baits us, stills us, distracts us, as we witness through the photograph what Lazarus saw that day: a grave being emptied.

Pullagura Figure 5

Jason Lazarus, Standing at the Grave of Emmett Till, day of exhumation, June 1st, 2005 (Alsip, IL), 2005. Archival ink-jet print; 43 × 56 in. (109.2 × 142.2 cm). Collection Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, restricted gift of Emerge, Aviva Samet and James Matanky, and anonymous donors, in memory of Andree Stone, 2012.18. © 2005 Jason Lazarus
Photo: Nathan Keay, © MCA Chicago

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To not look at the grave is entirely possible. The ratio of sky to grass to tree to grave almost appears to encourage this. There is so much else to see if we want to look away instead. This desirous looking elsewhere, in fact, is a guiding premise for Lazarus. A later series, titled Too Hard To Keep (2010–present), often abbreviated by the artist as T.H.T.K., began from an invitation to anyone anywhere to send Lazarus photographs that you couldn’t look at anymore; he would tend to them for you. Of the collection, Lazarus explains: “I feel like there are kindred spirits and orphaned or shadow images that don’t know where to live.”[16] Installed several times since the open archive began in 2010, Lazarus follows faithfully the wishes of his donors. Some photographs are pasted to walls in groups, others isolated, many stacked, and several pasted in reverse, presenting their backs to us all. In truth, T.H.T.K. doesn’t really care what you see.

Does Standing at the Grave care? (Is it strange to assign the labor of care to the photograph?) The title—which places the image in a context of meaning only as this title can—suggests that Lazarus cared enough to stand there and to preserve his standing there, if we can think of the bodily presence of attending and attendance, of witnessing, as a form of care and a stand to attention. If he calls himself into the making of the photograph by this title, there is no expectation that we do the same. There is only the sky, and the ground, and the grave—this endless attendance we continue to make to Till.“ Lazarus’s latter-day photograph asks us to see this long history of image making and of repetition and return,” writes Smith. Everywhere we look, when the looking is about the endless exceptionality of disposable black life, it is a looking that recalls Till even now, some 64 years later, “his body, his ghost, his photographs.”[17]

Says Lazarus: “Part of the point of the image is the inability to in any way visualize the initial terror and the ensuing historical arc that still continues — it is un-photographable.”[18] What a privilege it is to be unphotographable, to endure what is unphotographable. What a privilege it is to end a knowing. To look at this and think: I don’t want to see this anymore.

Jason Lazarus, T.H.T.K., 2010–present. Installation view, The State I Am In, International Photoszene Köln, 2016
Photo courtesy of the artist

Text

I wade through summer ghosts
betrayed by vision

To speak of endlessness is to speak of an evacuated time (or time, evacuated). That without end, to be rehearsed and returned, to and with and towards, defeats the logic of the end, refuses the arrival that promises to come, to pass. Instead, endlessness is a continued passing and continuously passing us by, a time for thinking the event of time.

Of the strategies, devices, and refusals that black women made (and make) to keep going on, Saidiya Hartman writes in Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments of the “revolution in a minor key”: the insistence, open and unnoticed, to imagine “other ways to live and never [fail] to consider how the world might be otherwise.”[19]

To live, to survive, in a world not yet over, because the world isn’t ending. It’s not even close.

Footnotes

  1. This and subsequent headings excerpted from Audre Lorde, “Afterimages,” 1981, in The Collected Poems of Audre Lorde (New York: W. W. Norton, 1997).
  2. This exhibition takes its title from James Baldwin, “The Creative Process,” in Creative Process (New York: Ridge Press, 1962). Here, Baldwin diagnoses the role of the artist as not merely knowing, but revealing, that “there is nothing stable under heaven.”
  3. Robert Storr, “Interview with Felix Gonzalez-Torres,” ArtPress (January 1995): 24–32.
  4. Greg Allen notes that not all the stacks works were made—or at least are made now—to be replenished. There are forty-three stack works and three are not replenishable. Greg Allen, “Art Sold Separately: Why Are People Buying Free Felix Gonzalez-Torres Posters?” Greg.org, May 26, 2018.
  5. Adair Rounthwaite, “Split Witness: Metaphorical Extensions of Life in the Art of Felix Gonzalez-Torres,” Representations 109, no. 1 (Winter 2010): 37.
  6. Tim Rollins, “Felix Gonzalez-Torres: Interview,” in Felix Gonzalez-Torres (New York: A.R.T. Press, 1993), reproduced in Temporary Services, “Guide to Re-Creating ‘Untitled’ (Perfect Lovers) by Felix Gonzalez-Torres,” 2000.
  7. Mónica Amor, “Félix González‐Torres: Towards a Postmodern Sublimity” Third Text 9, no. 30 (1995): 69.
  8. Rollins, “Felix Gonzalez-Torres: Interview,” reproduced online at Artpace San Antonio, Artpace.org.
  9. Larissa Pham, “This MoMA Show Asks You to Confront Racism—Both in Strangers and Yourself,” Garage, April 3, 2018.
  10. Saidiya Hartman, Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in Nineteenth-Century America (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), 22.
  11. Adrian Piper, “Reality Check: Where is Enlightenment? Adrian Piper Responds,” Artforum 56, no. 10 (Summer 2018).
  12. Current Conceptualisms,” Conceptual Paradise, Kunstraum.leuphana.de, 2010.
  13. Adrian Piper, “Goodbye to Easy Listening,” 1990, in Adrian Piper, Out of Order, Out of Sight, vol. 2, Selected Writings in Art Criticism, 1967–1992 (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1996), 176.
  14. Jason Lazarus, “2004–present,” jasonlazarus.com/projects/2004-present/.
  15. Shawn Michelle Smith, “The Afterimages of Emmett Till,” American Art 29, no. 1 (Spring 2015): 22.
  16. Exposure Magazine, “Eavesdropping on the Conceptualists: Jason Lazarus & Mishka Henner in Conversation,” Medium, September 29, 2017.
  17. Smith, “The Afterimages of Emmett Till,” 26.
  18. High Museum of Art, “Is the Next Dr. King Making History Right Now on Your Instagram Feed?,” Medium, February 1, 2018.
  19. Saidiya Hartman, Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Social Upheaval (New York: W. W. Norton, 2019), xv.

Text

“Untitled” (The End): Queer of Color Living After the Apocalypse

Joshua Chambers-Letson

for Victor and Josh

Text

i

For some time we hung above our bed two sheets from Felix Gonzalez-Torres’s 1990 paper stack “Untitled” (The End). The sheets of paper that make up “Untitled” (The End) form a rectangular plinth that rises to an ideal height of 22 inches. Each sheet is a rectangular white expanse with a black band of about one and a half inches wrapping the border. As people encounter the work they can take away these sheets, diminishing the sculpture in size unless the exhibitor or owner ensures its replenishment.

Chambers Figure 1

Felix Gonzalez-Torres, “Untitled” (The End), 1990. Print on paper, endless copies; 22 in. at ideal height × 28 × 22 in. (original paper size). © Felix Gonzalez-Torres. Courtesy of The Feliz Gonzalez-Torres Foundation
Photo: Nathan Keay, © MCA Chicago

Text

The End: as in, death. While it’s not uncommon to find the paper stacks compared to minimalist sculpture, Susan Tallman notes that they also evoke tombstones.[1] Gonzalez-Torres gestures towards death, mourning, and grief throughout his body of work, including a number of the stacks such as 1990’s “Untitled” (Death By Gun), which offers a visual catalogue of (the highly racialized and gendered nature of) US gun deaths. But death is also a thematic possibility in 1992’s “Untitled” (Republican Years), which offers a revision on the single black border of “Untitled” (The End). by adding and setting within it a thinner black band. For Robert Storr, the black-banded works evoke a funeral announcement.[2] Perhaps a funeral for the end of the Republican Years, as 1992 marked the end of 12 years of Republican control of the White House. Perhaps a funeral for all the deaths that occurred as a direct result of the policies of the Reagan and Bush administrations.

Chambers Figure 2

Felix Gonzalez-Torres, “Untitled” (Republican Years), 1992. Print on paper, endless copies; 20 cm at ideal height × 138 × 98 cm (original paper size). Installation view, Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco, CA. Apr 1—May 29
© Felix Gonzalez-Torres. Courtesy of The Felix Gonzalez-Torres Foundation

Text

The United States saw AIDS deaths reach over 120,000 in 1990. This was also the year public health authorities reported that black and brown women—under 20 percent of the nation’s population at the time—constituted more than 70 percent of women living with AIDS. The End: Republican Years as a mass grave. Republican Years as an ongoing period that marked and marks the end for too many black and brown women, trans, and queer folk.

Gonzalez-Torres’s sheets of paper look like giant funeral announcements without any text. But you can write the names of your own dead within them. When hung on the wall, the black bands wrapping the periphery of the sheets of “Untitled” (The End) suggest black frames around white canvases or projection screens. So project your dead, but also the living, into them as well. There is the way that the black band with a white center formally mirrors whiteness as it occupies the center of the frame, as in popular portraits of the first wave of the AIDS crisis.[3] On such occasions, black and brown life and death is held at the margins. Held at the periphery. Held. Contained but still held on to so it can mark the limit and function as a surplus reserve to be consumed and cast aside. But if we see in “Untitled” (The End) a frame and a projection screen, it is the richness of black and brown life in the time of proliferating deaths and endings that I choose to cast into the center of the frame. Doing so, I imagine the stark white center giving way to rich hues of black, brown, and every other color.

Sometimes I’d look at the sheets from “Untitled” (The End) hanging above the empty bed—itself marked by the imprints of absent bodies—and imagine that the sheets were portraits of Gonzalez-Torres and his lover, Ross Laycock. Gonzalez-Torres first materialized “Untitled” (The End) in 1990. This was around the time that Laycock was dying from AIDS. Near the end they lived together in Los Angeles, and as Gonzalez-Torres wrote of that time, “Ross and I spent every Saturday afternoon visiting galleries, museums, thrift shops, and going on long, very long drives all around L.A., experiencing and enjoying the ‘magic hour’ when the light makes everything gold and magical in that city.”[4] The End: “Ross was dying right in front of my eyes. Leaving me.”[5]

Here’s what I like to imagine: In the center of one frame is a portrait of Felix. In the center of the other is Ross. Both are full with the fullness of living. Both are basking in light “that makes everything gold and magical.” I know what Laycock looked like because Gonzalez-Torres used photographs of his lover in some of his works. This includes a work made in the wake of Laycock’s death: the haunting “Untitled” (Ross and Harry), 1991, comprised of a grainy, ghostly photograph of a shirtless Laycock playing fetch with a dog. A little googling and you can find a snapshot of the couple together at a beach: Gonzalez-Torres looks regnant at the center of the frame, Laycock just beside him. Both are sporting sunglasses as they bathe in light.

When I imagine their portraits taking up the center of the black frame, I like to imagine the photographs were taken during the “magic hour.” Which is to imagine that their photographs were taken by Star Montana, a photographer who stages the brownness and queerness of life in Los Angeles as it bathes in the city’s “gold and magical” light. Montana was born in the Boyle Heights neighborhood of Los Angeles and would have been three or four around the time Gonzalez-Torres resided there. In one series Montana produced stunning portraits of people in East Los Angeles: brown people in the center of the frame, held in the light of the magic hour. As Juana María Rodríguez has described it, “Montana’s subjects—the strangers and friends that populate her vision of East Los Angeles—enter her light and present themselves to their futures ancestors.”[6] Another end, since the magic hour comes at the end of the day. By offering up her photographs for “future ancestors,” Montana seems to suggest that endings give way to other beginnings. This is something black and brown folks know a thing or two about, having become ourselves in the wake of any number of apocalypses: the proliferating ending of worlds brought about by the destructive and overlapping forces of colonialism, racial capitalism, cis-heteropatriarchy, and white supremacy.

Chambers Figure 3

Star Montana, Marina (from the series I Dream of Los Angeles), East Los Angeles, 2016. Archival ink-jet print; 32 × 40 in
Image courtesy of the artist

Text

To think of the pieces of “Untitled” (The End) as portraits of our own lost ancestors, who should have been our peers and mentors, was a way of remembering something that we couldn’t forget anyway. My partners and I are the children of the Republican Years and the Clinton Years (which were, in their own Gingrichian way, still the Republican Years). If the manifestly phobic environment of the 1990s taught us to believe anything about our sexual selves in those sexually formative years, it was that queer sex = death. Following Essex Hemphill and Marlon Riggs, we learned to live, with each taste and exchange of fluid, with this thought: “Now we think / as we fuck / this nut might kill us. . . . This kiss could turn to stone.”[7]

It’s hard. You internalize that kind of thing. Start to think of yourself as the inevitability they tell you that you are and cannot let yourself continue to be: death, disease, racial and sexual monstrosity. It gets to be a lot. The pressure builds up and maybe you cut away to bleed the messiness out. Or maybe you come up with new ways of loathing yourself and of forgetting that you’re doing other people’s hating of you for them. Or maybe you try to follow the command issued by someone else’s desire for you not to be. When the struggle is real, the death drive is realer. Under these circumstances the bed (and the sexual landscapes akin to it) can be zones of powerful transgression, worldmaking desire, danger, and self-denying shame all at once. The bed is a place where the pains and pleasures of brown, black, femme, and queer fleshiness get caught up in any number of ends and endings.

The End: the vagina, the rectum, or some other terminal port of entry as a (pathway to the) grave, yes, but also towards the excesses and pleasures of being and of being with.[8] So we hang this reminder of someone else’s end above the bed and we think as we fuck: “Look, here we are living and loving instead of loathing. Here we are holding onto each other but also holding onto those who aren’t here anymore.” Because when we think as we fuck “this nut might kill us” and that this kiss “could turn to stone”—and when we fuck under the sign of Felix and Ross (who aren’t here anymore)—in a queer kind of way we are keeping in mind the ones whose ends we are living after. Keeping them in mind, which is to say, keeping some part of them alive and in our bodies as we think as we fuck.

Which is a queer mode of reproduction, if you think about it.

A queer of color mode of reproduction.

ii

If I am projecting queer, trans, femme, black, and brown life onto the sheets of paper hanging above the bed, I am also thinking of black feminist theorists working at the intersections of black, queer, and lesbian thought—such as Audre Lorde, Hortense Spillers, Sharon Patricia Holland, and Amber Jamilla Musser—who have taught us about the ways in which the erotic becomes overdetermined by the effects of racialization, histories of racial objectification, and interlocking technologies of racial and sexual subjection.[9] As Musser writes, “some people circulate as highly charged affective objects, while simultaneously being positioned outside of the parameters of normative sexuality and subjectivity. We see this acutely in the ways that black women are positioned as the ‘fleshy limit of theory.’”[10] Within the orders of white supremacy, racial capitalism, colonialism, and cis-heteropatriarchy, the sexualities of women of color, queers, and trans people are commonly understood to demarcate the limits of normative sexuality. They function as the aberrational limit against and through which white, patriarchal, and heteronormative genders and sexualities are defined as universal, moral norms. Or such sexualities may be framed as a dead end, making the people who practice them contagiously dangerous subjects who are “wrong” insofar as they are a threat to the vitality of whiteness’s purity complex. Queer, black, and brown practices of desiring, living differently, being otherwise, and being with are detained at the margins defining whiteness.

So linger on the black band that wraps the limit of the black-banded works. And linger on the color black. “Untitled” (The End) is accompanied by instructions for the owner or exhibiting party on how to materialize the piece. In the “Manifestation Guidelines” supplied to the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago by the Felix Gonzalez-Torres Foundation it is specified that the ink used for the work’s original manifestation was “Pantone: Extra Black U.”[11] Isn’t blackness (as well as brownness and queerness) always already conceived of as sort of extra? One might think here of Glenn Ligon, following Zora Neale Hurston as he fills a white canvas with a blackening abstraction of the thought: “I feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background.” A similar tension between black and white surfaces connects “Untitled” (The End) and “Untitled” (Republican Years). But where Ligon’s repetition of Hurston’s phrase suggests, as Huey Copeland notes, the way in which “projective investments in racial filiation tend to cloud African American voices,” the starkly segregated, black–white dynamics of “Untitled” (Republican Years) and “Untitled” (The End) depict an order in which filiation is altogether impossible; black is divided from white and held at the periphery. Blackness at and as the limit.

Chambers Figure 4

Glenn Ligon, Untitled (I Feel Most Colored When I Am Thrown Against a Sharp White Background), 1990. Oil stick, gesso, and graphite on wood; 80 × 30 in. © Glenn Ligon. Courtesy of the artist, Luhring Augustine, New York, Regen Projects, Los Angeles, and Thomas Dane Gallery, London
Photo: Luhring Augustine

Text

The End: an ongoing apocalypse in which blackness is held at the margin and periphery by a sharp white center that defines its purity by means of this marginalizing effect. A sharp white center that secures its claim to power by means of this delimitation, detention, and peripheralization of blackness. To describe the Republican Years as the end is to gesture to the mounting piles of wreckage illustrating those years’ ongoing impact on black and brown life: the AIDS crisis and its disproportionate effects, mass incarceration, the dismantling of public assistance, the ongoing redistribution of wealth upwards alongside ongoing military expansion (both in and out) of the nation’s violently policed borders. I’m only naming a few.

But also, The End: as in, This is over. We are done with this. We’re going beyond this. We have always been going beyond this. Which has something to do with blackness as, among other things, a collectivity of (un)being beings and a practice of going beyond all known being. Describing the original manifestation of “Untitled” (The End), the “Manifestation Guidelines” relay that “The border bled to the edge on all four sides of each sheet of paper.” Here, blackness cannot be contained by the pale gravitational center of whiteness. This blackness at the margin insists on going beyond. It exists in excess of and, yes, sometimes bleeds to the edge.

Extra Black. To think of blackness as excess or as the act of exceeding is resonant with what Musser describes as “brown jouissance”: “These forms of otherness—excess forms of embodiment—are central to what I call brown jouissance. In contrast to an ecstasy that imagines transcending corporeality, brown jouissance is a reveling in fleshiness, its sensuous materiality that brings together pleasure and pain.”[12] Which is another way of capturing what I mean when I refer to the thought had while fucking under “Untitled” (The End). The End: of Felix, of Ross, Marlon, Essex, and the more than 319,800 people who were dead from AIDS in the United States by the time it took Gonzalez-Torres from us on January 9, 1996. But, also, fucking after the end.

iii

Imagine if all the people living after that particular and ongoing ending were to gather in front of “Untitled” (The End) and project into it the images of the people they were missing and yet to miss. Imagine how quickly that white space would become full with the figures of people whose stories and bodies have been held at the periphery and delimited at the margin. How quickly the space would become dense with black, brown, and other color-rich tones to paint a million different portraits of other ways of being together while “reveling in fleshiness, its sensuous materiality that brings together pleasure and pain.” Imagine that these projected figures would exceed and bleed past the limits of the frame, densely populating the stark white center to open up the potential for something new to emerge. This potential would emerge through a transformation of the space so radical that we might lose all sense of, and need for, a center or margin in the first or final place.

But imagine, also, that all of this could happen in a fashion that did not at the same time “cloud” into abstraction femme, trans, queer, black, and brown voices, bodies, and lives. Imagine that each projected figure or combination of figures might hold on to all of their singularity and particularity. What if they were remembered as they were and as they wanted to be at the same time? And what if they could still be in relation to the incommensurable plurality of any number of commons through which they moved: the brown commons; the black commons; the queer of color commons; the commons of black feminism and of women of color feminisms; the upon, over, and undercommons. Imagine, then, a being-singular-plural of femme, trans, queer, black, and brown life that is full with generative surplus and excess. A being-singular-plural that is tangled together and apart in fleshy embrace, transforming the bounded white rectangular expanse into an endless, shimmering, and opaque surface that is apparent but not transparent, grasping but ungraspable, knowing but not knowable, and rich with all the yearnings of, for, and in the New.

Imagine what that would look like and feel like. Then wonder that it is not.

iv

The End: a beginning waiting for its title.

Footnotes

With thanks to Kelly Chung, Tavia Nyong’o, Chanon Kenji Praepipatmongkol, Sheila Majumdar, and David Olsen.

  1. Susan Tallman, “The Ethos of the Edition: The Stacks of Felix Gonzalez-Torres,” in Felix Gonzalez-Torres, ed. Julie Ault (Göttingen, Germany: Steidl, 2006), 123–33.
  2. Robert Storr, “When This You See Remember Me,” in Felix Gonzalez-Torres, ed. Julie Ault (Gottingen, Germany: Steidl, 2006), 5–37.
  3. See Tony Kushner, Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes (New York: Theatre Communications Group, 1993); Leo Bersani, “Is the Rectum a Grave?,” October 43 (Winter 1987): 97–222.
  4. Felix Gonzalez-Torres, “1990: L.A., ‘The Gold Field,’” in Roni Horn: Earth Grows Thick, 65–69 (Columbus, OH: Wexner Center of the Arts, 1996), 68. I tell a version of this story in Joshua Chambers-Letson, After the Party: A Manifesto for Queer of Color Life (New York: NYU Press, 2018).
  5. Gonzalez-Torres, “1990: L.A., ‘The Gold Field,’” 68.
  6. Juana María Rodríguez, “The Streets in Afterglow,” Aperture 232 (2018).
  7. Tongues Untied (1989), directed by Marlon Riggs.
  8. For more on the queer of color valences of “being with” see: Being With: A Special Issue on the Work of José Esteban Muñoz, Social Text 32, no. 4 (Winter 2014).
  9. See Audre Lorde, Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches (Berkeley, CA: Crossing Press, 2007); Hortense J. Spillers, “Mama’s Baby, Papa's Maybe: An American Grammar Book,” in Black, White, and in Color: Essays on American Literature and Culture (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003), 203–29; Sharon Patricia Holland, The Erotic Life of Racism (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2012); and Amber Jamilla Musser, Sensual Excess: Queer Femininity and Brown Jouissance (New York: NYU Press, 2018).
  10. Musser, Sensual Excess, 9.
  11. The “Manifestation Guidelines” for “Untitled” (The End) (1990) were supplied to the work’s owner by the Felix Gonzalez-Torres Foundation and are included in the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago’s document file for the work.
  12. Ibid., 3.

Title

Now Found: On Faith and Wonderment in Deana Lawson’s Messier 81, Return of the Dove

Jovanna Jones

Pull Quote

And we were able, the church told us, to dream beyond the narrow confines of our world and to realize our dreams. . . . The elders would sit in the pews applauding us as we marched down the aisle, black angels wearing wings made of wire and halos formed from coat hangers.[1]

Text

I learned religion in the expansiveness of solitude and space, and I sometimes say “the Universe” to mean what others mean when they say “God.” The capital “U” lends an air of specificity and glory often reserved for God yet capable in all things.

Text

My own father—a pastor—stepped away from the pulpit for many years to write about ways of being and the sacred practices that he referred to as “resting in the storm,” “savoring pace,” and “holy play.” Every Sunday when we stayed home from church, I’d wake up in my room above his office, attentive to either the silence of his meditation, the sounds of his favorite jazz albums, or the faint clicks of the keyboard while he typed. On Mondays, my siblings, my mom, and I would wake up to a yellow, green, or pink index card tacked next to our doors or placed on our nightstands. The card might say something encouraging like “Dare to be great,” or the phrase might emerge from something my dad had read early that morning or late the night before like “Listen to the sound of the genuine.” The time of my childhood could be counted by those sacred traces of music and message occupying my room whenever I woke up. I no longer live at my parents’ home, so my dad has taken to texting the phrases, lyrics, and images that catch his eye.

Text

One day many years later, now an adult, I am sitting at the kitchen table with my dad. During a pause in our conversation, he reaches for a napkin; a twinkle in his eye signals that what was coming next was either a joke or something profoundly serious delivered with the silliness of a joke. That’s his way. He places the napkin on the table between us and says, “See that?” He leans closer and points to a small smudge. I play along and look into the napkin. “That little speck is us!” he says. “Pretend this napkin is the entire cosmos. That speck right there—that’s Earth, that’s what we’re living on.” So much occupies our minds every day, he proceeds to say—so much pain and suffering and joy while living on this earth, “And all we are is this little speck.” (I’d learn later that he’d recently binge-watched the reboot of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey. That’s his way.)

Jones Figure 1

Deana Lawson, Messier 81, Return of the Dove, 2018. Pigment print; 55 × 70 in
© Deana Lawson, courtesy of Sikkema Jenkins & Co., New York

Text

In the 2018 monograph Deana Lawson, the image of Lawson’s Messier 81, Return of the Dove (2018) does not include the small Polaroid that is now affixed to the work’s gold frame.[2] To create the initial iteration of this work, Lawson enlarged a found photograph of the cosmos. Stars glow inkless in a black sky that encircles the Messier 81 galaxy in this image, but a printing glitch obscures its center, resulting in a sharp, thin schism trailing from top to bottom and echoing a parallel ribbon of light on the far left side, perhaps another printing error. The glitch’s distortion warps the gaseous cloud of Messier 81 into what appears to be the shape of a dove in flight. The wayward twist of the glitch also recalls the sine wave of human speech oscillating between higher and lower frequencies.

Jones Figure 2

Deana Lawson, Messier 81, Return of the Dove (detail), 2018. Pigment print; 55 × 70 in
© Deana Lawson, courtesy of Sikkema Jenkins & Co., New York

Text

Sometimes divine messages emerge in the tension between bodies, between worlds. “I am sending you out like sheep among wolves,” Jesus told his twelve disciples before sending them out to teach and heal in resistance to the sovereignty of the government: “Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves. . . . But when they arrest you, do not worry about what to say or how to say it. At that time you will be given what to say, for it will not be you speaking, but the Spirit of the Father speaking through you” (Matthew 10:16–20, NIV).

Text

I don’t refer to the Bible much, but like Lawson I am drawn to the idea that some people walk with the humility of an open vessel and the glory of a vision revealed; we delight in bearing witness when we find them in our presence. “People are creative, godlike beings,” Lawson responded to Arthur Jafa when asked about the capacity for human engagement through photography, “I don’t feel like we carry ourselves like that all the time, or that we know how miraculous we are. When I speak of potential, teasing out this incredible, powerful person in front of me, I am trying to locate the magnificent and have it come through the picture.”[3]

Text

But Messier 81, Return of the Dove does not appear to be about the glory of the black being and body that is characteristic of Lawson’s portraits and, as I think of it, her theology. This work compresses what we can see in it into a warped galaxy, a dove, and maybe even a message that takes an earnest practice of spirit and sight to interpret. Some visual historians of celestial images refer to this as the astronomical sublime: the nationalistic, scientific, and spiritual desire to not only pursue awestruck and fearful observation in the face of the unknown, but to also compose something that makes the unknown seem knowable and, more troublingly, perhaps even conquerable.[4] While most celestial phenomena are not visible to the naked eye, scientists and photographers alike have sought to fashion color, contrast, and detail from a composite of telescopic images in order to “present the universe as one might see it.”[5] The faith of the astronomer, the disciple, and the photographer is equally speculative, therefore, requiring work beyond the limits of what one can see. But is it the perfected picture of cosmic imagination that holds our awe, or, as Lawson’s work suggests, do we find instead the very glitch that makes a new field of vision possible?

Text

If Lawson’s original found image enacts the process and politics of transcendent visualities, then the appended Polaroid tethers such sight to a specific scene of black girl joy. Lawson’s practice often relies on images and objects that catch her attention—a well-worn couch or a postcard of George Washington’s dentures, for example, which conjure and meld people, histories, and affects across time and space. It is this spark of the fantastic in mundane materials and moments that draws Lawson toward her photographic subjects as well. These are the strangers whom she invites to participate in highly staged portraits of intimacy in domestic interiors or lush local landscapes. “These psycho-spiritual moments can be found in the places where we live,” Lawson has explained, “you don’t have to search far.”[6]

Text

The scene snapped in time by the Polaroid tells a story of connection and, more specifically, the sacred intimacy between girls sharing a moment of their own. Though sitting in church, the girls sport the kind of casual attire often reserved for church program rehearsals, vacation Bible school, youth group meetings, or convenings in the sanctuary before heading out to the amusement park for a field trip. The energy in this small group is electric with delight. The girl sitting apart in the second pew leans forward like she’s hearing the word on the street, turning her attention toward the storyteller. The older girls lean both toward each other and toward the younger child in the middle, who smiles broadly at the camera while she basks in the protective center of her inner circle. At the same time, these older girls seem to be having a conversation of their own, while “Little Bit” makes the camera her priority. Perhaps this moment is another site of the artifice or staged interaction like that which one finds in Lawson’s portraiture: the moment where the community photographer—or whoever has the camera in the group—asks the kids to just do what they were doing before in order to restage and capture a candid moment worth savoring. While the older girls continue with the conversation, the younger one cannot help but shine, striking a gleeful and cutesy pose with arms crossed over her lap and head tilted to the side. One older girl drapes a hand across her shoulder tenderly; she could be nudging the younger girl to “act natural,” as a photographer might have requested, or maybe this gesture from one girl to another serves to keep her connected, included, acknowledged.

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Far behind this young group, two women inhabit the recesses of the picture. One wears a blue blazer, and the other a floral blouse. Rows of empty pews separate them from the girls. From what I can see, the women look straight ahead, perhaps talking with each other as they watch the girls interact just out of earshot. Growing up, the observation of such women often made me feel policed in church, but more frequently I felt loved just by being seen. These church women were our mothers and aunties, our pastors and pianists, our deaconesses and First Ladies, our Sunday school teachers and our Praise Dance leaders. The church pew itself became a site to notice and discuss the contours of black sociality and social performance in our place of gathering. And I could count on my girls being there in our spots every time—our worlds unfolded in the notes we wrote to each other in our Bibles and on our prayer cards.

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Hanging on at the edge of the cosmos, black girls can be found enjoying each other’s company in both the close quarters of the church pew and the far reaches of the universe. I would love to hear Lawson herself share how she came across the photograph, as well as how and when and why she chose to add it to the spatial abstraction of a galaxy millions of light-years away. Maybe when Lawson came across the image that she would eventually add to Messier 81, Return of the Dove, she felt something akin to wonder. Maybe she shared in the giddiness of this church crew. I feel it, too—I know it. If Lawson fixes such images into her frames to insert “domestic mementos,” as Helen Molesworth calls them,[7] into the conventions of art gallery display—the clues that unravel the bigger picture—then black interiority, black girl joy, and black church space are meant to tell us something about the Universe, about accidental glitches and happenstance encounters that reveal mundane ephemera and unknown subjects to be sights of wonder and care. Specks in the Universe, yet divine matter all the same.

Footnotes

  1. Gloria Wade-Gayles, Pushed Back to Strength: A Black Woman’s Journey Home (Boston: Beacon Press, 1993), 7.
  2. Conversation with curator Chanon Kenji Praepipatmongkol, June 6, 2019. For more on the piece included in the monograph, see Deana Lawson: An Aperture Monograph (New York: Aperture, 2018).
  3. Deana Lawson, quoted in “A Match Made in Heaven: Deana Lawson and Arthur Jafa on Destiny, Intuition, and Influence,” excerpted interview, GARAGE 15, September 4, 2018.
  4. Elizabeth A. Kessler, Picturing the Cosmos: Hubble Space Telescope Images and the Astronomical Sublime (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2012), loc. 335, Kindle.
  5. Ibid., loc. 89.
  6. Deana Lawson, quoted in “Deana Lawson’s Portraits of Everyday Black Life,” by Thomas Gebremedhin, Wall Street Journal Magazine, September 19, 2018.
  7. Helen Molesworth, “Helen Molesworth on Deana Lawson at Sikkema Jenkins,,” Artforum, December 2018.

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