Art Papers, May/June 2014
REVIEWS: JAMES LEE BYARS
By William Joseph Gass
It would seem hard not to use Detroit as a placeholder for "past-tense" or "the abject' in current civic journalism. Not until an outsider actually enters the city does the hyperbole about the city's decline feel justified: an overall feeling of absence overwhelms its potholes, vacant buildings, and empty lots. Detroit is also the birthplace of the mysterious conceptual artist James Lee Byars (1932-1997), whose poetic and dematerialized works often directly addressed death and the temporality of performative acts. Curator Jens Hoffmann and the rogue art historian collective Triple Candie, know to stage exhibitions solely of photocopied reproductions of artworks, use the "first comprehensive survey" of Byars' performances in a museum to construct a compelling drama of cloudy (in)authenticity. Relying on their own collagist documentation and sympathetic interpretation of Byars' interventions, materials, and culte of personality, I Cancel All My Works at Death (February 7 - May 4, 2014) suggests that art's loss of aura in the city of automotive production is not necessarily negative, but perhaps poetically perfect.
The curatorial conceit is that the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit (MOCAD) has assumed the role of a theaterical company staging a production about Byars' performance works. Instead of offering accuracy or attempting to showcase exact works, they gently compose a loose--very loose, even--narrative about a Detroit native named James Lee Byars who went on to become "James Lee Byars, artist." Byars himself refered to these works as plays, and the museum successfully examines the ontology of performance art by weighing it against theatrical conventions. The exhibition space is compartmentalized into areas highlighting a fictional auditorium, prop department, wardrobe department, script department, and casting office. In keeping with Triple Candie's mode of operation, each section is filled with facsimiles of imagery and content that Byars utilized either in his performances or in their peripheral documentation.
We are treated to something resembling a delightfully creepy art historical or curatorial Expressionism (capital E intended). The "theater's" division of labor reduces details of actual Byars performances to literal objects. The space is filled with discarded, thrift store items resembling elements of his pieces. There is a display of hats and costumes resembling those worn by Byars, as well as a vitrine of props simliar to ones Byars used in his perfromances. A phone gold megaphone reminds us that he had shoulted out German names atop the Fridericianum Museum in Kassel, and a charred book recalls the time he is noted to have burned this catalogues before the Berkeley Art Museum. Instead of photographic and filmed evidence of these performances, Triple Candie treats the information as fodder for creepy collages and paper doll home movies, in which we see, for instance, a cut-out Byars speed past the Guggenheim in a taxi. The goal seems to be to play up the dematerialized parts of Byars' oeuvre as being paranormal, even haunted, positioning the artist as a sort of "He-Who-Cannot-Be-Named-or-Exacted." A gold chair surrounded by burnt detritus with white, wispy fabric hovering above it concludes that Byars did indeed become a ghost. This curatorial installation is the yang to the yin of Ilya Bakakov's Man Who Flew into Space From His Apartment (1985).
I Cancel All My Works at Death, as much as it was a suggestion from Byars to the rest of the world, is also an exhibition that approximates an artist' raison d'etre and conflates it with exhibition-making in general. Byars' aesthetic death drive is evinced by the exhibition's tawdriness and extends to wal texts filled with typographical errors and proofreader's marks. The only evidence of truth in the exhibition is a timeline of Byars' performances and a wall plastered with black, inverted photocopies of newspaper obituaries highlighting his death, and augmented by cemetery wreaths and prayer candles. Triple Candie makes no attempt to concretize Byars' history, instead preferring to blur the lines into something closer to the germs of poetry or a koan embracing a kind of Zen nihilism. For an artist obsessed with paradox and mortality, one can hardly thin of a more fitting way of presenting a thesis on bot the formal and metaphysical ideas of Byars' body of dematerialized work.