Arthur Jafa’s “Love Is the Message, the Message Is Death” (2016) is a pitch-perfect music video. It starts with the song, an extended loop of Chance the Rapper’s Grammy-worthy preamble to “Ultralight Beam,” the ascendant opener to Kanye West’s The Life of Pablo. In his sometimes fragile voice, Chance measures out pain with preciousness; on “Ultralight Beam,” he exalts a mighty God even as he confesses, “I’m just having fun with it.” Jafa is having fun with it, too, even though his subject is also righteous and terrible.
Relevant and new works like Jafa’s may be winning a different audience for the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. While it’s purely anecdotal, over recent visits, visitors at the museum appear to be younger and more diverse than the usual set of National Mall museumgoers—even for an art museum. While the difference could simply be the long tail of the blockbuster Yayoi Kusama exhibition, the Hirshhorn is putting in the work to hold onto these millennials. Drawing from pieces in the collection and beyond, two cerebral shows on view—The Message: New Media Works and What Absence Is Made Of—chart the course for the museum.
“Love Is the Message, the Message Is Death” is a supercut of iconic moments in black history mixed with everyday scenes of severity and disgrace. There’s the bystander video of a police officer in McKinney, Texas, violently restraining a 15-year-old black girl at a pool party, after a fight broke out over a segregationist slur (“Go back to your Section 8 home”)—as well as tape of LeBron James, larger than life, destroying the rim. There’s the newsreel of Charles Ramsey talking to camera crews after he rescued Amanda Berry, a Cleveland woman who was kidnapped and held against her will for years (“I knew something was wrong when a little pretty white girl ran into a black man’s arms. Dead giveaway.”)—and also video of James Brown, electric, testifying through dance. “Love Is the Message, and the Message Is Death” finds footage in two modes of black video: the celebrity highlight and the police-cam vid.
This heinous, gorgeous artwork culminates, in a way, with a home video recording of an unseen figure instructing a black toddler to put his hands against the walls. The boy’s quivering lip breaks into a silent wail as he tries uncomprehendingly to process the instructions he is receiving from behind the camera, presumably from his father. This scene reads like a raw stage production of the talk that black parents must have with their children about law enforcement. Meanwhile, when the legendary Mahalia Jackson, goddess of gospel, lifts up her arms in praise, her rapture reads as “hands up, don’t shoot.” Sequences of the surface of the sun interrupt Jafa’s narrative, maybe to offer a way for viewers to process an abstract or real pain, by tracing the senseless fury that erupts in arcs along white-hot solar flares. “This is a God dream, this is a God dream, this is everything,” West sings.
The Message: New Media Works borrows its name from Jafa’s video artwork. But in truth, this piece is not an easy fit for a group show. “Love Is the Message” is singular, powerful, and accessible, a crisp edit of clips of performers like Drake and Steph Curry alongside similarly familiar scenes of police brutality. In the Hirshhorn’s basement show, curator Mark Beasley had the good sense to follow it up with Frances Stark’s “My Best Thing” (2011).
In this bonkers yet bewitching computer animation, blocky figurines stand in for the artist and a pair of Italian suitors, whom Stark meets in sex chat rooms. Text-to-speech programs render the transcripts of their exchanges in flat robotic voices. (Picture Siri trying to seduce Alexa, in a scene performed by Legos.) The comical presentation irons the eros right out of the sexts. Instead, it teases out a faltering sense of innocence behind all the sexy talk.
The medium, of course, is the message throughout The Message. In “Halka/Haiti 18°48’05” N 72°23’01” W” (2015) artists C.T. Jasper and Joanna Malinowska stage an opera, Stanisław Moniuszko’s Halka, in the mountain village of Cazale in Haiti. For viewers watching the panoramic film at a museum in D.C., the transfixed and perhaps nervous inhabitants are as central to the production as the performers. A goat tied up to a pole takes second billing only to the soprano. “How Not To Be Seen: A Fucking Didactic Educational .MOV File” (2013) by Hito Steyerl is a work of sustained intensity: a kaleidoscopic essay on cinematic editing, aerial photography, and facial-recognition technology. It’s also a love-note to falling into a very particular kind of YouTube hole: luxury apartment development architectural demo videos.
What Absence Is Made Of , another group exhibit on the Hirshhorn’s third floor, is just as conceptually rigorous yet still inviting to viewers. That’s in large part thanks to Ann Hamilton’s “at hand” (2001), a long-time fan favorite from the Hirshhorn’s permanent collection. The piece comprises ceiling-mounted printing machines that drop white pages like snow to the ground, making drifts of translucent fax pages. Somnolent whispers played over speakers lend to an atmosphere that’s ideal for daydreaming (or sharing on social media). It’s a shame that this room-sized installation is mounted right next door to Hiroshi Sugimoto’s essential silver gelatin sea horizons, as well as On Kawara’s minimalist date paintings—both of which demand silence and isolation.
Gianni Jetzer, the curator for What Absence Is Made Of, assembled several familiar works from the collection, including Christian Boltanski’s haunting “Monument” (1989), which memorializes the Holocaust without naming the victims in the photographs he uses. Hans Haacke’s “Condensation Cube” (1963) and Damien Hirst’s “The Asthmatic Escaped II” (1992) showcase how loss and limitation have evolved as sculptural themes over generations. Absence, as a concept, invites cascading interpretations in contemporary art. Without stretching the idea too far, Jetzer fits a host of different takes under this umbrella.
Ed Atkins’s “Safe Conduct” (2016), a new museum acquisition, shines in What Absence Is Made Of. This nervous computer animation watches a man place parts of his body through airport security. “Safe Conduct” tugs at the irrationality of global security rituals, like a fever dream inspired by Radiohead lyrics (but set in this case to Maurice Ravel’s classical Boléro). The three-channel installation, displayed on a triangle of suspended screens, looks as though it should be hanging over a baggage claim. (It would feel right at home in the Hirshhorn’s lower-level media show, too.)
Between Jafa’s video artwork in the basement and Hamilton’s installation upstairs, new viewers may find enough handholds at the Hirshhorn to appreciate contemporary art even when it doesn’t involve lining up around the block for Infinity Mirrors or snapping glam guitarwork by Ragnar Kjartansson. The good news is that these new media shows are filled with essential experiments, not cynical draws—the kind that turn the curious into viewers for life, not members for the moment.
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