Detroit Free Press, February 5, 2014
MOCAD EXHIBIT A MEDITATION ON DETROIT CONCEPTUAL ARTIST JAMES LEE BYARS
by Mark Stryker
The first thing you encounter walking into the exhibition “I Cancel All My Works at Death” at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit is a shrine to a ghost. A white-tulle apparition hangs in the air, an abstract form less a figure than a metaphor for James Lee Byars, an elusive artist absent at his own exhibition.
The Detroit-born Byars remains a slippery, enigmatic figure. He was best known as a conceptual artist, whose performances — or “actions” — could be playful, profound or pretentious, sometimes all at the same time. Byars, who died in Cairo, Egypt, from cancer in 1997 at the age of 65, led a peripatetic life. He traveled the world, relying mostly on patrons to survive and making art in his own way and on his own terms. He was a trickster, an artist more interested in asking questions than providing answers, and his influence has only grown since his death.
In one famous piece, “The Perfect Kiss,” Byars walked into a museum wearing a black suit, stepped up onto a podium and pursed his lips to blow a subtle kiss to the audience. Then he walked away. In another piece, “A Perfect Death,” Byars walked in a circle outside the Philadelphia Museum of Art as a Tibetan monk sounded a long, traditional horn. At the 1972 opening of the “Documenta“ exhibition in Kassel, Germany, Byars donned a red silk suit, stood on the roof of the central civic building and called out German names through a gold megaphone.
Organized by Triple Candie, a two-person collective based in Philadelphia, the MOCAD show is probably unlike any exhibition you’ve seen. Rather than collect objects made by the artist, the wife-and-husband curators Shelly Bancroft and Peter Nesbett have constructed re-creations of costumes, props, scripts, videos and posters, replicas of obituaries, altered photographs and more that have all been inspired by Byars’ work and legacy. The show, to put it another way, is a meditation on Byars. The idea is that as viewers move through the exhibition, that opening ghostlike vision of Byars will fill in with flesh and meaning. Bancroft and Nesbett, both of whom were trained as art historians — they met in graduate school — spoke this week at MOCAD about Byars and their unusual approach to creating exhibitions.
Q: Byars is a conceptual artist. What does that mean?
Nesbett: Conceptual art is about ideas first — ideas over objects or other things, going back to Marcel Duchamp being about ideas before esthetics or visual pleasure. Characterizing Byars as a conceptual artist is one way of getting into the work, but there are many.
Q: What are the others?
Nesbett: The work from the ’60s shows a strong interest in the artist as a street performer, almost like a busker. His earlier performances were ceremonial. They were often taking place outside of strict “art” contexts, often in temples in Kyoto, when he was in Japan. In the early works, others were generally performing them. He did not have the sort of presence that he does in later performances. So there are these phases: There’s the early ceremonial, ritualistic, spiritual performances that consisted of a simple task being done. Then there’s the group performances of the late ’60s that come very much out of street theater. And then there’s the performances from the ’70s and ’80s that are mostly solitary, where Byars is the only performer.
Bancroft: They are very quick. There’s one action. He comes, does one action, and leaves. A lot of patience is required by the viewer and a willingness to engage. In “The Pink Silk Airplane,” which he did in 1969, he had people come sit in a gallery. He made this airplane costume with holes in it and they put it over their heads, and he asked everyone to pretend that they were flying.
Q: What’s the point of a piece like that?
Bancroft: I think it’s about imagination, about going to a place that you don’t necessarily go to.
Nesbett: That artwork only exists in a way for the participants. If you had, say, 50 people participating, you’d have 50 different impressions. It puts the artwork squarely in the participants’ head. It goes back to the idea that the viewer completes the work. It also engages with the whole idea of the imagination that he tries to unleash in people to some degree. ... He took on the big topics — love, death, perfection, existence.
Bancroft: And he was interested in distilling these things down, which to me is the most important thing he did — distilling.
Q: Why does he remain so intriguing for many in the art world?
Nesbett: He feeds something we’re looking for in this moment where everything has gotten so grand and so spectacular and so infused with money. The brevity of Byars’ performances, the fact that they are so unspectacular in some cases — there’s something refreshing about that. As people look for options outside the gallery system, he becomes an ideal.
Q: What did Detroit mean to Byars?
Nesbett: That’s hard to answer. He was married at 18, and he was here until he was 26 when he left his wife and went to Japan. The people we’ve talked to said he didn’t talk about Detroit much at all. He apparently didn’t show any predilection for being an artist until about a year before he left. He took classes at Wayne State from which we don’t think he ever graduated, even though it is frequently said he had a thesis exhibition — it’s even in some of the obituaries. But Wayne State has no record of there ever being a thesis exhibition. It might be part of the Byars mythology.
Q: What do you hope viewers get out of your show?
Nesbett: We have an educational desire in all of our shows to introduce people to certain artistic personalities. We want people to gain a better understanding of Byars’ practices and contributions and uniqueness as an artist. But another thing is that our shows are grounded in a belief that you can engage with the history of art without actually having the art. A lot of people feel that art is such a special thing, and some art is so valuable that it becomes untouchable, that you can’t be part of the conversation without access to it.
Bancroft: As curators we’re forging this territory that’s saying if you want to do a show about an artist and you don’t have access, you can still do it. You just have to find a different way in. It’s about suggesting the character of the artist.
Nesbett: A lot of history museums rely on replicas. The object before you is almost an illustration of an object that existed at one time, and it serves a role within a larger narrative that’s being told to you. We feel aligned with history museums.
Q: But isn’t there a power that comes from being in the presence of the authentic object?
Nesbett: Sure, of course.
Bancroft: We’re not dismissing objects. We feel the same way when we see something authentic, but there are other kinds of experiences that have value and we’re interested in doing something else.