SHARON HAYES Theres So Much I Want to Say to Youby Kareem Estefan
WHITNEY MUSEUM | JUNE 21 – SEPTEMBER 9, 2012
In the last year, the civil rights, feminist, and gay liberation movements of the ’60s and ’70s have returned as critical models for a present torn asunder by international uprisings and occupations. The debates and tactics of those tumultuous years have re-entered public space, where activists across generations attempt to determine their pertinence to a nascent decade of revolt.
With rebellion past and present in the air, it was an opportune moment for the Whitney Museum to mount major shows from two feminist artist-activists, Yayoi Kusama and Sharon Hayes, who represent these two epochs. In the late ’60s, Kusama staged nude happenings against war and Wall Street; over the last 10 years, Hayes has investigated the language of protest by re-circulating signs and “re-speaking” slogans from past social movements to test their potential in the present.
Hayes, born in 1970, came into art and activism upon arriving in the East Village performance scene at the pinnacle of AIDS agitation in 1991. Entering that tumultuous community, she befriended a diverse group of queer-identified, feminist cultural workers and found herself transformed by passionate protests—enacted both in the streets and on the stages of East Village clubs—in which the artists and activists created a seductive obverse to Reaganite family values.
Framing her rehabilitations of incendiary political events—from the Stonewall riots to ACT UP’s direct actions—as more than nostalgic replays, Hayes has stated that “a moment of time is never exclusively its own.” Her show at the Whitney attempted to materialize this insight by projecting sounds, words, and images from historic protests into an atelier-as-installation where visitors were challenged to discover the ways in which these bygone messages might belong to our future.
Hayes appropriates, rearranges, and remixes in order to revitalize spirits of dissent. In tribute to Allan Kaprow’s Yard (1961), she gathered campaign signs from across the country to mount a melee of mixed political messages on the same platform for Yard (Sign), 2009, previously installed in an East Village cemetery. She lined the adjacent walls with rows of spoken word records—featuring speeches from politicians and activists including Kennedy, King, Malcolm X, and Angela Davis—she has spun during DJ sets at Art in General and the Guggenheim, for An Ear to the Sounds of Our History (2011). On another wall, she compiled an anachronistic grid of 600 rally posters advocating for gay rights, racial equality, peace, and the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan, apparently gleaning from the archives and recycling bins of a hundred leftists.
If Hayes brought together diverse source material that remains ripe for thought, she also tended to elide the most troubling and paradoxical aspects of the social movements she showcased, by presenting them as disassociated images or neat grids. Gazing at record covers that index political struggle is an unavoidably nostalgic act; on the walls of the Whitney, the albums appear as both images of a fading past and objects whose material obsolescence is bound to their decline in social relevance. Of course, vinyl is not yet obsolete (far from it, one hopes), but pasting records on the walls sure makes the medium seem dead, and likewise keeps the subversive (and divergent) politics of those who confronted oppression superficially visible, yet ultimately buried.
There is a yawning chasm between the discourse that surrounds Hayes’s art and the experience of it. The feminist slogan “The personal is political” is often cited in reference to her hybrid speech acts, which conjoin passionate protest and erotic plea. But while the political is evidently personal for the artist, the converse claim is harder to appreciate in her work. The troubled intimacies that once ignited this dictum—that the personal sufferings of women are not subjective defects, but the common result of objective oppression—are too often absent, or else refined beyond recognition. If suffering surfaces in There’s So Much I Want to Say to You, it feels precious, even practiced, like the show’s coy, sentimental title.
As Hayes addresses an unnamed lover in “I March in the Parade of Liberty but as Long as I Love You I’m Not Free”(2007-08)—a street performance represented here as a sound piece—she skillfully mixes the desperate supplications of the lovelorn (“You refused to answer my calls…”) with classic chants from gay liberation movements (“Out of the closets and into the streets!”). However, the work’s staid tone flattens its impact. The more personal declarations, which include quotes from Oscar Wilde’s De Profundis, resonate in the same rehearsed frequency as the protest slogans. It is as if, paradoxically, there were no room for emergent subjectivities—queer, unconventional and unanticipated—in either the private or the public realm. “I speak to you of your life and of mine,” Hayes intones in a restrained, plaintive voice. The elevated syntax, with its staccato elaboration of the intertwined destinies of speaker and (imagined) interlocutor, evacuates these lives of their specific struggles, abstracting them into a realm where the political is always personal, but the personal has lost all erotic, psychological, or indeed intimate meaning. Whose life are you speaking of again?
So it is unsurprising that Hayes’s art is of most interest when speech breaks down and she enunciates what critic Julia Bryan-Wilson, in a 2006 Artforum profile of the artist, calls the “stutters of history.” In “Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA) Screeds #13, 16, 20, and 29” (2002), a four-channel video displaying only the artist’s closely cropped face, Hayes recites the messages Patty Hearst broadcast while held hostage in 1974 by the Symbionese Liberation Army, a militant leftist group that demanded Hearst’s billionaire parents pay ransom in the form of food to Californians living in poverty. Hayes has only half-memorized the script and an off-screen audience interjects each time she makes a mistake.
This clumsy process of collective memory, centered on a political event likely to elicit a range of ambivalent responses, compellingly preserved a moment in time in an undecided state. Hayes channeled this controversial past without incorporating it into a deceptively coherent image. As she struggled to fill the role of conduit, history flitted between writing and speech, live and recorded, from her body to the bodies of an absent audience, and on to museum visitors. Hayes was at her best here, when there was so much she had to say that she could only stumble, as one often does when speaking politically, in saying it—in urging a return to the real.
KAREEM ESTEFAN is an art critic, writer, editor, and Ph.D. student in Modern Culture and Media at Brown University. He is co-editor of a forthcoming anthology of writings on artist-led protests and cultural boycotts, Assuming Boycott: Resistance, Agency, and Cultural Production (OR Books, 2017).