3.18 / Review

From New York: There’s So Much I Want to Say to You

By Brady Welch June 27, 2012

For the fourth and final installment of the Whitney Museum’s untitled series that has granted four particularly innovative artists carte blanche to use its third-floor galleries, the curators have revealed a curious choice in the artist Sharon Hayes. As with the others in the museum’s series—Paul McCarthy, Christian Marclay, and Cory Arcangel—the Whitney says this is neither a retrospective nor a survey of the artist’s career (even if it feels like one), instead including both a selection of existing works and some commissioned by the museum. Hayes is primarily engaged in performative and installation work exploring the interstices of public and private speech within the realm of political activism. Fittingly, she has based the entire show on a plywood platform spanning almost the width of the gallery—a veritable soapbox—constructed in collaboration with her friend, the artist Andrea Geyer. Conceived as a work in itself, entitled Space Set/Set Space (2012), the stage is a clever mise en scène for an exhibition that addresses the theatrics inherent in political protest. And because no theatrical stage is complete without a curtain, Hayes has also created a white one, measuring one hundred feet long and embroidered with the words Now a Chasm Has Opened Between Us That Holds Us Together and Keeps Us Apart in stark black thread. It is the first thing one sees upon entering the third floor and a not-so-subtle hint at the human drama that Hayes seeks to evoke.

Hayes is interested in the drama within the spectacle of rallies, hunger strikes, sit-ins, occupations, and marches. There’s So Much I Want to Say is suffused with a tender self-consciousness about the intoxication of revolutionary passions and the tension between political attitudes centered on the love of the Everyman and the failed application of that love in personal relationships. Hayes is most successful at showcasing this disjunction between the private and public faces of protest, and a number of works explore it as a sort of apologetics. Two sound installations, I March in the Parade of Liberty but as Long as I Love You I am Not Free and Everything Else Has Failed! Don’t You Think It’s Time for Love? (both 2007–2008), highlight Hayes’s theme in a series of monologues to an unknown audience. For Everything Else, Hayes stood in front of the UBS bank headquarters in Manhattan for five days in September of 2007 and gave a speech about the trials of living in a world at war, while pleading for a return to love—all naiveté and irony surely intended. For I March, Hayes walked from the New Museum to various downtown public parks between December 1, 2007, and January 12, 2008, and made proclamations to an unknown lover, which incorporated slogans from gay liberation parades and excerpts from Oscar Wilde’s forlorn love letter to Lord Alfred Douglas. At their best, these monologues function as a requiem for shattered idealism. This “dream deferred,” in the words of Langston Hughes, might characterize the very audience or unknown lover that Hayes is speaking to.

Sharon Hayes. I March in the Parade of Liberty but as Long as I Love You I am Not Free, 2007–08 (still); performance. Courtesy of Tanya Leighton Gallery, Berlin.
Sharon Hayes. Everything Else Has Failed! Don’t You Think It’s Time For Love?, 2007 (still); performance, United Bank of Switzerland, New York, NY. Courtesy of Tanya Leighton Gallery, Berlin.Photo: Andrea Geyer.

One of the best works in the show addresses this dream head-on through a woman’s personal testimony. Presented as a double-LP, playable on provided turntables, Sarah H. Gordon’s Strike Journal (2012) is the 1970 account of Sarah Gordon—a Smith College student who participated in a six-day, nationwide protest against the Nixon Administration’s order to invade Cambodia—and the FBI’s harassment of Black Panthers and other civil-rights activists. Hayes found the journal while digging through Smith’s archives; she then found Gordon and recorded her reading it aloud, more than forty years later. The account is one of confusion, ambivalence, idealism, and dashed hope, and the gulf of time that separates the war-weary narrator from the actions she describes is extremely affecting. Hayes stages a similar piece with Gay Power (2007/2012), in which Kate Millett, a nearly eighty-year-old feminist author and activist, provides commentary to unedited film footage of the 1971 Christopher Street Liberation Day Parade. Millett’s candid testimony—“We were so afraid”—contrasts with the theatrical defiance of the protesters on screen and Hayes’s overlapping commentary, which takes the form of canned pronouncements and revolutionary clichés. Through Hayes’s signature “speech acts”—primarily video works in which speech functions both as communication and action—other related themes are explored: the efficacy of bearing witness, the mediation of protest through television and print, and the sheer cacophony of voices within the American body politic.

Hayes moved to New York in 1991 and has remained in the city ever since. She was particularly influenced by the feminist and AIDS activism prevalent at the time, and her work here is a testament to the vibrancy with which those two movements confused and conjoined the public and private in their political ideals and discourse. While such a synthesis between one’s political ideals and private behavior could be a source of strength, Hayes also warns of the mutability of idealism within the tangled web of human emotion.

 

There’s So Much I Want to Say to You is on view at the Whitney Museum of American Art, in New York, through September 2, 2012.

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