To articulate what is past does not mean to recognize “how it really was.” It means to take control of a memory, as it flashes in a moment of danger. For historical materialism it is a question of holding fast to a picture of the past, just as if it had unexpectedly thrust itself, in a moment of danger, on the historical subject. The danger threatens the stock of tradition as much as its recipients. For both it is one and the same: handing itself over as the tool of the ruling classes. In every epoch, the attempt must be made to deliver tradition anew from the conformism which is on the point of overwhelming it. For the Messiah arrives not merely as the Redeemer; he also arrives as the vanquisher of the Anti-Christ. The only writer of history with the gift of setting alight the sparks of hope in the past, is the one who is convinced of this: that not even the dead will be safe from the enemy, if he is victorious. And this enemy has not ceased to be victorious.
– Walter Benjamin Theses VI, On the Concept of History (1940)
Prior to a panel discussion led by ICP/Bard MFA Chair Nayland Blake at the ICP Museum on October 17, with Christopher Clary, shawné michaelain holloway, William E. Jones, and Allison Parrish, it was possible to see two temporary installations in the galleries:
Christopher Clary staged a re-enactment of 1979 Robert Mapplethorpe photograph Larry and Bobby Kissing, which was live streamed in real time on Cam4 with the models Paloma Gil and shawné michaelain holloway. Clary has performed a variation of this previously at the Palais de Tokyo, Paris, with himself. As Clary termed it, “I was Bobby and the public was Larry. Anyone could kiss me.” Recasting the image with other performers opens a potential for inclusion outside the ken of the Mapplethorpe image, which was part of the early “X Portfolio” series that christened, as it were, Mapplethorpe’s artistic ascendance to a beau monde of society portraits and floral still lives. Along with varying the subjects in the in the image, it is also reformatted into a streaming video on Cam4, a website most often associated with on line sexual performance and voyeurism, far from any non-profit cultural institution. Movement, real time, switching models: qualities outside the Getty Museum description of the photographic print itself as: Close-up of two men kissing. Both are wearing leather jackets.
The 30 minute video Fall into Ruin (2017) by William E. Jones was projected in the downstairs video gallery before the panel. Fall into Ruin is structured around reminiscences of the late art dealer Alexander Iolas (1907-1887), who Jones met when Jones was a student, and subsequent research into Iolas’s life, which is difficult to trace clearly, but which reflects the extremes of historical flux of the twentieth century: shifting borders, varying modes of survival, and a remarkable panorama of great artists, inflected with rumor, innuendo, and doubt. The video looks backwards from the present day ruins of Villa Iolas, in Athens, and the city itself in its own grueling situation wrought by economic models of austerity and the punishing logic of sustainability.
Clary’s reworking of an early Robert Mapplethorpe photograph seeks to reanimate an image of ardor from the structures of a mainstream culture of collecting in which any symptom of desire is deflected into the needs of a curatorial project of accumulation, outside of any physical body. As an aside to the image, I can’t help but think that the hyper-masculinity of many of the subjects in the X Portfolio can now look much more mainstream in relation to the extreme commodification of the body rendered into images of strength and health (and by extension, sex) that permeate our mediated everyday. It’s as if everyone behaves as if a camera is always pointed at them. And it’s OK. Clary complicates this kind of “total subject” by shifting its details like a board game, and reintroducing a sense of the arbitrary and a potential for play in what is otherwise a field of control.
The Alexander Iolas Gallery was still in operation in my early years in NYC. The artists were blue chip. The cloud of rumors that obscured Iolas following his death brings to mind the murky economics that have buttressed the arts (ideal for money-laundering and social elevation) along with whatever personal grievances and official homophobia that were foregrounded in a systematic erasure of Iolas as a cultural arbiter, especially in the looting and destruction of his estate. Jones invokes a complicated, colorful and pragmatic figure working in an emerging global art economy, contra a valorized system of order that is often seen as the true subject of “the art world.”
Both Clary and Jones remind me that history, like memory, is not static. It is closer to a fire alarm (cribbing from Michael Löwy on Walter Benjamin), with a sense that “not even the dead will be safe from the enemy, if he is victorious. And this enemy has not ceased to be victorious.”