Rome, Milan, April 15 2017
Dear Razvan Anghelache, Ellen Angus, Jessika Björhn, Simon Gran Danielsson, Jonas Malmberg, Anna Olaes Parker, Cia Ringertz, Jonas Silfversten Bergman, Jenny Simm, Annika Stridh and Melanie Wiksell, dear Swetlana Heger.
I write to you while on a train between Rome and Milan. Passengers around me look at holiday travel websites. Like them, you are impatiently looking upon the coming weeks to determine what your foreseeable future will look like as you prepare for your degree show.
When I came to meet you in Umeå it was cold. A snowstorm had grounded my airplane in Switzerland. Thus, I arrived from Rome, whose winter light was very crisp, to partake a strange white moment with you. From the large windows of your university, I could see the frozen river. I don’t recall what I talked to you about. But I think I remember that I claimed that we have a vocabulary in common, a language that brought us close whilst it differentiates us from the rest of the world.
I had come to this somehow naive and outdated idea during my long journey (invited by Swetlana Heger, an artist whose work and personality I like), trying to imagine what we might have in common: you, students in Umeå, and I, a Swiss curator, recently appointed in Rome to “render visible” the density of the Swiss cultural scene in Italy. In short, a somehow silly and outdated idea which, as I was formulating it, threw me in a pond of stale paternalism. Here I was, an old white academic, coming from the heart of the historical West, comfortably seated on my privileges, imagining that I would enclose you in a common artistic space, purportedly free and open, while outside nature demonstrated its frank hostility.
If I were to visit you again, now that the thick winter fog must have gone, maybe I would be in other spirits, that the time we spent together would have another tone. But, there we were: sharing a possible common vocabulary, of which certain basic forms and obvious outlines we had discussed, notably elaborating on the exhibition space as a simple and readable codified space.
Today you give me another opportunityto write to you. You invite me to react to the title you gave your degree show: Fool’s Gold. For you (according to the note you sent), it evokes the artist’s ability to discuss the most ordinary values and expressions of our Western societies. I can only agree with you. But, I am neither a philosopher nor a sociologist, a linguist, a political scientist, a geologist, despite my strong taste for surrealism of which certain members believed they could read the future of art in the shapes of stones. On another level, I am not a moralist and I think that alchemical archetypes are absolutely vain and brutally castrating with regard to creative processes (if at all worth discussing). Neither am I a psychiatrist, nor genuinely interested by System Validation. I have no taste for mythological stale smells that lurk in our Western culture. And, finally, I couldn’t say I pursue a spiritual quest. We’re on the wrong foot.
I would therefore like to find a few examples to follow you up the metaphoric path of the Fool’s Gold phrase while keeping you of the cruel disillusion experienced by the unfortunate soldiers who, during the 1860 pillage of the Forbidden City in Beijing, uselessly scraped the big gilded decorative jars with their bayonets, hoping to retrieve the treasures promised to them by their officers blinded with resentment and stereotypes.
I like to remember that the gilded backgrounds particular to the medieval Christian iconography would find their origin in the will to present a space that, although an image of the real world actually is its reflection, its imagination is of another time. Indeed, the Christian heaven, contrary to that of other mythologies, would be on Earth once it has been appeased by the return of the Saviour at the end of times.
Thus, gold was used to express this reversal in a safe time, yet to come. It made visible the wealth and beatitude reserved for the chosen and the wise who would remain in this already eternal visible enlightened by faith. The use of gold seems to have been privileged to other precious materials for its reflecting qualities and its ungraspable vibration reminiscent of timelessness. The ephemeral glimmerings then become one of the vectors for an image of eternity. A bit as if we dared to think that, not devoid of a-chronological effects, the medieval world had the intuition, before Duchamp, that it is always the beholders who will make the work and assure its survival through the ages. Gilding made metaphorically visible the paradoxical contemporary permanence of our common thinking.
Closer to us, 2017 celebrates the centenary of the ready-made: one of the most radical statements of our ability to admit that the world is the place for all possible swings. It’s therefore been now 100 years that a moralizing and stupidly aesthetic discourse thinks that we, however diverse we are, are running into the wall of the end of Art, the bearer of essential common values. 100 years that some of our contemporaries have postulated the vacuity of our practices and vocabulary. 100 years that we can take advantage of their difficulty to counter the merry fragmentation of the world, which is no longer simply Eurocentric, masculine, white, aesthetic, moral. 100 years that artists repeatedly tell them that they can keep their gold and their eternity, that we prefer pyrites: Fool’s Gold.
20 years ago, James Lee Byars (1932 – 1997) died. Maybe this American artist’s name doesn’t ring a bell. Well, I think that he is the artist under whose wing your exhibition and common thinking could place themselves. His work stands exactly at the centre of both metaphorical spaces I have been developing and which, I think, are dividing you. Having spent time in Japan, he retained the intuitive knowledge of the spiritual tilting point of values and things. Born in Detroit, impressed by the Second World War, he was part of those who were able to make note of the societal breaking caused by the success of ideologies. His work is strongly marked by a theatrical courage, placing and challenging his persona bravely. He has used and abused, not without humour in my opinion, the most kitsch, the richest colours, the most symbolical objects, and the most obvious actions, in order to take the risk to claim another possible way of living. Thus, gold has become his identity. He has even staged his own death in a performance during which, dressed in a gold-coloured gown in a gilded exhibition space, he has laid down three golden spheres on the floor. He then left in a golden Rolls-Royce. The artist had returned to what was a vain and golden reflection of time’s light.
However, the most interesting aspect in James Lee Byars’s work might be his untiring correspondence with friends, artists, curators, gallery owners, and amateurs whom he sent strange letters on crepe paper. These missives of all shapes, signed in gold and sometimes containing small golden spheres, bear witness that Art offers a broad enough common vocabulary to shake down all social, political and cultural barriers.
Maybe should we keep on writing to each other?