Exhibition: Glenn Ligon's 'Call and Response'
This past weekend, I was fortunate enough to take part in a panel discussion on modern art—namely on the work of Glenn Ligon, whose recent exhibition “Call and Response” at the Camden Arts Centre has made a distinctive impact. The exhibition ran from October 2014 to January 2015 and engaged audiences with material from the interview of a member of the “Harlem Six” (which was also used by American composer, Steve Reich). The exhibition also involves a video installation of Richard Pryor’s famous Live at Sunset Strip stand-up performance--from various angles, and with sound and audience edited out. (The Pryor piece was fascinating, I could have watched all 80 minutes of it). Glenn’s work will return to the UK later this year.
The panel was entitled ‘Blackness: Ghosts of Past, Present and Future’. Comprised of Gilane Tawadros (Chief Executive of DACS), John Akomfrah (artist, writer and filmmaker) and Avery Gordon (Professor of Sociology at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and Visiting Professor at Birkbeck College School of Law, University of London) and myself, the panel aimed to engage with Ligon’s work, reflecting on two key terms identified by Gilane from Avery’s opening keynote address: ‘post-racial’ and ‘utopia’. The discussion, including the exciting interventions from the public, continued on for a few hours in the café downstairs.
It was incredible to meet some of the artists, academics and professionals at the event, many in early stages of their careers, many insightfully drawing connections between art, social movements, public discourse and academic inquiry. Two artists in particular made poignant observations about the absence of discussions around sexuality during the panel—that while it was good to have mentioned sexuality violence against queer people as one of various issues raised by the work, Ligon’s ‘Come Out’ virtually begs for a more deliberate and intense reading of sexuality and queerness. Another panellist mentioned that it may have been good to have discussed policing more. I agree on both counts, and I suppose that responding to a piece of art (or anything else) in such a short space of time is bound to leave absences, and it is good to reflect on such absences in order to self-critically assess one’s investment in the response. In short, I’m happy the panel was able to spark a lively discussion, and the extended break-out sessions in the café were an absolutely crucial part of the evening.
Part of the beauty in discussing how artistic renderings evoke ideas about the political is that the frame for drawing meaning from art (like literature) is wide open, the field of interpretation is excitingly broad. If I would have had time during the panel to go into a bit more detail about my impressions of the pieces, I would have mentioned that the ‘Come Out’ piece looked to me, from across the room, like a brick wall, dabbed with blood and ash. Though the piece is of blacks and greys and involves no red, the contrast and wet richness of the smudges (which are, by the way, actually the words ‘come out to show them’ repeated and layered) allow me to understand the shades and textures that way. The neatness of the structure, with its square-edged partitions, reminds me of bricks, and the contrast between neat brick and messy blood, and between the rigorous repetition of identical words and the messy intensity of that repetition on the silkscreen which, at points, renders the words illegible, creates a piece defined by tensions. I think of the danger of speaking out, amplified by the silence in the exhibition hall on the three occasions I visited the piece, contrasted with the explicit instruction to transgress.
The piece, for me, certainly embodies the ‘come out’ phrase in various ways—‘let some of the bruise/blues blood come out to show them' your human/queer/black/bruised/blue/vulnerable/self-determining self, a thing, themselves, some different way of being that is currently obscured. Perhaps it is a call to action, perhaps a recognition of a choice, a position, the potential for transgression and its accompanying risks. It could be the potential for transformative action, and visitors to the space, enclosed by two such gigantic walls, may leave with questions about where they are situated, the choices they have before them, and what may be at stake for them in coming to terms with the suggestive ‘come out to show them’. As Gordon asks in her keynote--'show them what'?
To read more about ‘Call and Response,’ visit the Camden Arts Centre archive online, here.
To read James Baldwin's essay in The Nation on the Harlem Six, "A Report from Occupied Territory", click here.