Sharon Hayes and the “Near Past”

Contemporariness is, then, a singular relationship with one’s own time, which adheres to it and, at the same time, keeps a distance from it. More precisely, it is that relationship with time that adheres to it through a disjunction and an anachronism.[1]

– Giorgio Agamben

Although Sharon Hayes is a contemporary artist, reviewers of her work almost always discuss it in relation to American art and culture of the 1960s and ’70s. Critics such as Quinn Latimer and Paul David Young write of Hayes’s “plaintive missives [that] recalled songs from the ’60s and ’70s by Marvin Gaye and Nina Simone”[2] and that her art “speaks of a longing for the golden era of artistic and political radicalism of the late 1950s through the ’70s.”[3] During the Q&A following Hayes’s February 24, 2015 talk at the Institute of Fine Arts (part of the Artists at the Institute lecture series), Professor Robert Slifkin addressed this theme, asking the artist about any sense of nostalgia in her work: either for that period of American history, or for the radicality the era offered.

The question followed naturally from the artworks Hayes chose to highlight, which included Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA) Screeds #13, 16, 20 & 29 (2003), Everything Else Has Failed! Don’t You Think It’s Time for Love? (2007), Parole (2010), An Ear to a Sound in Our History (2011), and Ricerche: three (2013). Many of these were exhibited in her 2012 solo show at the Whitney Museum of American Art, and Hayes presented them as examples of engagement through video art. Of these five works, four explicitly reference or build upon art and events of the 1960s and ‘70s, from Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Comizi d’amore (1964) to Patty Hearst’s kidnapping by the Symbionese Liberation Army (1974). Hayes explained that, having been born in 1970, she had a “temporal” relation with that decade, but could not at the time process that moment’s politics and culture in which she finds such rich inspiration now. She told the audience that she does not mourn the loss of that era, but uses it as “the past that exists in the present,” or the “near past.” For Hayes, this “near past” has an unfinished relationship to our present moment, and sets the parameters for the questions and issues with which we still contend.

Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA) Screeds #13, 16, 20 & 29 (2003) was Hayes’s MFA work at UCLA. In it, she “re-speaks” the words of Patty Hearst on the videotapes released by the SLA, but without any of the fidelity of a reenactor, which is a purposeful distinction. Hayes explained to the audience that she finds the concept of “reenacting” problematic because such endeavors attempt to make whole the past, without its natural ruptures.[4] Instead, in the Screeds, the “notness” of the work is foregrounded: she is not Patty Hearst, it is not 1974, the camera crew is not the SLA. As Hayes stumbles through her partially memorized monologue, the audience eagerly jumps in to correct her mistakes, emphasizing the video’s disjunctures—not continuities—with the 1974 tapes. In 2006, Julia Bryan-Wilson astutely described Hayes’s approach as “investigations into the stutters of history, its uncanny reoccurrences and unexpected recyclings.”[5]

Hayes then screened Ricerche: three, a video of her interviewing Mount Holyoke students about gender- and sex-related topics, directed by Brooke O’Harra. I was surprised by Hayes’s blunt, direct, and leading questions, which contrasted so starkly with her usual careful speech, and often derailed the conversation or stymied the students. After the video, Hayes explained that the piece was formulated on director Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Comizi d’amore, and her interviewing style mimicked his, sometimes using the same questions. As did Pasolini, Hayes talked to the students in a group, “as their social selves,” and as they developed debates about feminism, identity politics, and trans issues, rifts formed: between the students who found “feminism” a welcoming label and those who didn’t, or those who saw sex as central to their identity and those who didn’t. During a lively and often provoking debate about current understandings of sex and gender, the transposition of Pasolini’s 1960s method and questions was often jarring and frustrating. And this fidelity to her source material displayed what Hayes called “disrupted time,” emphasizing, as in the Screeds, the distinctions (not the similarities) between the two contexts.

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Notes from the Street: Charles Simonds at the IFA

On October 7, for this year’s inaugural Artists at the Institute lecture, Charles Simonds delivered an energetic and astute summation of his career to date. He began with his earliest Dwellings—miniature architectural structures, made of clay, sand, and small bits of wood—which in the early 1970s seemed to emerge organically from the gutters, broken walls, and empty lots of downtown New York, springing up wherever the city’s crumbling infrastructure afforded a place for their putative inhabitants, whom Simonds dubbed the “Little People.” Simonds’s rich practice, which incorporates elements of sculpture, architecture, urban planning, craft, performance, conceptualism, narrative fiction, and social engagement, has taken many forms in many places since those early breakthroughs. Yet even today, viewers seem perpetually drawn back to the original Dwellings, which remain landmarks of his artistic practice and of the downtown scene though they exist only in photographs and in memory.

Dwelling, East 6nd Street, New York, 1974, clay, sand and wood. Photo courtesy www.charles-simonds.com.
Dwelling, East 6nd Street, New York, 1974, clay, sand and wood. Photo courtesy www.charles-simonds.com.

There are many reasons for this consistent focus on Simonds’s early work, not least the powerful charm exerted on us by things that are gone. The Dwellings’ loss helps establish them as a kind of founding myth—both for Simonds’s mature work and for the narratives he wove within it. But at play here is also the art world’s typical exhaustion with itself, the self-disgust that has, since Duchamp, drawn art irresistibly toward things it hasn’t yet absorbed. For that reason viewers may think that the Dwellings’ natural habitat is the city, and the white walls of the museum can showcase only taxidermied specimens, removed from both context and life.

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Carroll Dunham: Artist as Medium

When Carroll Dunham loaded his PowerPoint presentation for his Artists at the Institute lecture, “Carroll Dunham Speaks About His Recent Work,” at the IFA on March 22, he requested that the projectionist leave the screen blank before he began his talk. My guess is that he didn’t want to scare away the audience with his first image–either Hers/Dirt/One (2009) or a similar painting–-which is part of his most recent series and features a naked female figure bending over. Sometimes bathing, sometimes just bending over, usually with face obscured and arms spread in a landscape setting, his characters’ genitalia (often depicted in “shockingly pink” colors) are typically the central focus in these paintings.[1] Clearly self-conscious and a little embarrassed about the direction his art has taken, Dunham began his lecture by saying that he “knows very little about it.” His lecture, followed by a provocative Q&A session, was the personal account of an artist who has seemingly let go of artistic agency and has become something of a medium, passively channeling his expression.

Hers/Dirt/One (2009). 51 x 66 inches. Mixed media on canvas.
Courtesy Carroll Dunham website.

This female series is not the first time that Dunham has steadily riffed on a theme for many years during his career. For roughly a decade, from the mid-1990s through the mid-2000s, Dunham’s work mostly centered around a cartoony male figure with a top hat and phallic/pistol-like nose. In describing that series, Dunham curiously verged on speaking in the third person. He said that at a certain point this male character–“a simple, dumb figure”-–entered his work and after a while he couldn’t imagine a painting without it. Following the compulsion to depict this subject matter, he began to “close in” on the character, cropping it in different ways, adding new elements, and even eliminating color, in hopes of eventually ridding his canvases of the invasive figure. Continue reading “Carroll Dunham: Artist as Medium”

The many authoritative faces of Walid Raad: Thoughts from the lecture hall at the IFA

Dr. Fadl Fakhouri, "Already Been in a Lake of Fire_Notebook Volume 38," 1999. Digital color print.
1 of 9 plates, 30 x 42 cm each. Via The Atlas Group: http://www.atlasgroup.org/

My internal conversation with the work of Walid Raad began as I paged my way through a monograph of his work, entitled Scratching on Things I Could Disavow: Some Essays from The Atlas Group Project (Cologne: Walther König, 2008), before the artist’s recent lecture at the Institute of Fine Arts on February 23, 2012. A Lebanese-born artist and associate professor at The Cooper Union, Raad is perhaps best known for his work under the guise of The Atlas Group, a fictional collective founded to examine the political, social, and psychological effects of Lebanon’s Civil War through archival documentation.

This archival documentation takes on a variety of forms, ranging from photographs of Raad’s personal collection of bullets, found during his teenage years in Beirut, to reproductions of documents attributed to (fictional) figures like Dr. Fadl Faukhouri, a leading historian of the Civil War until his death in 1993. The assembled contributions of Dr. Faukhouri and others seem to treat the war somewhat objectively by focusing on minute details and empirical data. In actuality, however, they suggest both the extreme psychological effects of the war upon the Lebanese people and the concomitant difficulty of portraying this people’s experience of war. For example, notebooks in The Atlas Group archive that belonged to Dr. Faukhouri show that the historian would obsessively walk the streets of Beirut in search of intact versions of models of cars recently destroyed by car bombs. He would then photograph his finds, to document the frequency with which certain makes and models were used in these bombings.

The aforementioned monograph, Scratching on Things I Could Disavow, published on the occasion of the exhibition The Atlas Group (1989-2004): A Project by Walid Raad at Culturgest in Lisbon, contains reproductions of articles, interviews, and documents that relate to Raad’s work and to the archive formed by The Atlas Group. Following Raad’s practice of exhibiting photographs of documents and objects, rather than the documents and objects themselves, the book comprises a series of overhead scans of papers, magazines, and articles. Each is related to Raad’s oeuvre in some way, although his role in their authorship is not always immediately clear. Even when he explicitly states that the Group is an imaginary foundation, as he does often in exhibitions and lectures, he notes that his audience sometimes fails to grasp the “imaginary nature” of the Group and its documents.[1] For Raad, “this confirms to me the weighty associations with authority and authenticity of certain modes of address (the lecture, the conference) and display (the white walls of a museum or gallery, vinyl text, the picture frame), modes that I choose to lean on and play with at the same time.”[2] I would add to this list of confusingly authoritative documents the monograph he has published.

Raad’s remark sets the stage for my comments on his recent lecture at the IFA, “Scratching on Things I Could Disavow.” Continue reading “The many authoritative faces of Walid Raad: Thoughts from the lecture hall at the IFA”

Peter Halley: Isolation and Connectivity in the Big Apple

Peter Halley’s work is distinctive—once you’ve seen a few Peter Halleys you can easily pick them out.  Buying into this perception to a certain extent, the “paintings” tab of his website has an “overview” option.  If a visitor to his site so desires, he or she can literally scroll through his entire oeuvre to see how Halley has reworked his simple iconography of squares, rectangles, and lines over the course of his career, steadily embracing a neon DayGlo palette.  However, his “Artists at the Institute” lecture at the IFA on February 2nd provided insight into the profoundly thoughtful artist behind the paintings.  Indeed, his highly individual style is a hermetic rumination on subject matter close to his heart: How to cope with the isolation of modern life and find human connection, particularly in New York City.

Peter Halley, The Grave, 1980. Courtesy Peter Halley's website.

Halley began his lecture by discussing his move to New York City in 1980 and a linchpin piece, The Grave, that helps unlock the iconographical implications of his work.  The minimalist painting depicts a stark whitish rectangle resting on a black ground with a sickly yellow background.  The isolation of death comes through clearly.  Looking back at this work from 32 years ago, Halley revealed that the piece’s deadpan style harbors a “touch of emotional depression.”  It is hard not to imagine that the painting bespeaks the profound loneliness of a transplanted artist amidst the bustling, crowded streets of New York.
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Marina Abramović at the IFA

Editor’s Note: This review was written directly following Marina Abramović’s lecture at the Institute of Fine Arts on March 1, 2011. It has been reprinted here in its original form.

Marina Abramović at the Institute of Fine Arts, March 1, 2011. Video still.
Courtesy the Institute of Fine Arts at NYU.


A long duration is sublime. — Immanuel Kant

Although it is safe to assume that almost everyone who attended Marina Abramović’s recent lecture at the IFA, had seen her in person fairly recently, few, if any, had ever seen her speak: like all of her best-known performances, The Artist is Present (2010) at MoMA was completely wordless. In the very least, Abramović’s IFA lecture proved that the absence of speech in her performances is not due to any lack of ability on the part of the performer. She was lucid, frank, and insightful, managing not only to set her work into intelligent dialogue with a wide range of her contemporaries (Chris Burden, Gilbert and George, etc.), but also to be quite funny and entertaining along the way. By the end of the talk, one really felt to have gotten a good sense of Abramović’s personality. This of course shed a good deal of light on her work, though perhaps not in the direct sort of way that one would expect. Rather, the ease by which her personality came through in speech only threw into relief how little of that personality comes across in her performances. The type of encounter that occurs in the latter is entirely different in nature.

Abramovic’s lecture touched on many issues: the importance of long temporal durations in her work, a conception of the parts of the body as instruments of performance, her own path to becoming a performance artist, and many others. She began by reading a manifesto and went on to show a series of video excerpts of performances, choosing each from a DVD menu screen and discussing them freely, without a transcript or predetermined order. The present essay will not even attempt to map out the territory that she covered; for this, one would be better off simply watching the video recording of the lecture that is available on the IFA’s website. Instead, I would like to reflect on just a few aspects of the lecture that I found particularly helpful in interpreting her work.

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Rachel Harrison at the IFA

Rachel Harrison spoke at the Institute of Fine Arts on February 24, 2011, as part of the IFA’s Artists at the Institute lecture series.

Rachel Harrison, Contact Sheet (should home windows...), 1996, chromogenic print on fiberboard, 20 x 16 inches. © Rachel Harrison

Asking an artist to give a lecture about her own work already seems kind of unfair. It’s not enough that they have to make these wonderful things, but they have to explain to us what they mean? To wrangle with those digital projections that we all hate? To tie up a whole lifetime of experiences and subjectivity into one neat little hour-long bundle (hour and ten minutes, if you include the Q & A)? But asking a sculptor to talk about her work—to add the inadequacy of photography in capturing anything, really, about these objects—well, that just seems downright mean.

Rachel Harrison seemed game enough to try, though, and despite all the obvious limitations of the slideshow format—or maybe even because those limitations echo some of her artistic concerns—she provided some pithy insights into her notoriously unwranglable works. There were no moments of total understanding or easy summaries of her body of work, but there were some interesting intersections of ideas and illuminations of corners here and there. Plus she got some of us stuffy art historians to laugh once in a while—pretty good for an hour and ten minutes.

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