In So Many Words

John Haber
in New York City

Sharon Hayes and Klara Lidén

I cannot swear quite what I heard, from Sharon Hayes at the Whitney. I had gone to a museum before for a lecture, but never quite like this.

Words keep coming at you, from every side and wherever you may turn. They inform, but only now and then. They plead, over and over, and they make demands. If they left me wanting to learn more about the artist, fine with her. When she calls the show "There's So Much I Want to Say to You," she knows what she is talking about. What gets interesting now and again is that you may not. Sharon Hayes's YARD (Sign) (Whitney Museum of American Art/Hauser and Wirth, 2009)

As a hanging fabric explains, My Memory Translates Everything into Something Else. Hayes does her share of talking, but rarely in her own words. The confusion can be moving, funny, or dogmatic, but it is all part of finding a voice. In contrast, Klara Lidén is never self-effacing and barely political. On video at the New Museum, she, too, can show her stuff as performance artist and director. Even a trip on the subway, though, is an ego trip.

Fighting words and lonely words

For Sharon Hayes, the words start coming right off the elevator, and they never stop. One hears them right away, from a loudspeaker in a corner, loud enough to make out clearly almost half a floor away. They emerge from five faces, their lips moving in close-up. They tumble out from five more loudspeakers, with no telling which will speak next. They form the sound track to interviews, the contents of LPs covering three museum walls, the text of political posters and yard signs, the cold type of a wall projection, and a woman's journal read aloud. Hayes appears on video at last, in the show's one closed theater near its center, and of course she is articulating demands.

Make that ransom demands. The posters tightly packing a wall are calls to strike, some six hundred of them, and the monitors, journals, and LPs are history. Other posters go with the speakers, announcing a performance—or date and place of assembly—that one had better not miss. Just to find them, one has to get past the text of a curtain running one hundred feet, facing one from the elevator: Now a chasm has opened between us that holds us together and keeps us apart. One has to go around it, whether to put that first insistent voice behind one or to see practically the entire show.

They are fighting words and lonely words. The unseen voice off the elevator calls herself protected and abandoned. "No one," she says, "can shut the doors against love forever." The five speakers sound a little less sure. "I long for you," says one, but "I choose my words carefully," and so, "good bye." As for what the five faces have to say, one can only guess, for the video is silent.

The cause sure sounds obvious enough. Gay Power interviews Kate Millett, and it plays against footage of the second annual Christopher Street Liberation Day Parade. Hayes calls the first work I March in the Parade of Liberty, but as Long as I Love You I Am Not Free. She performed it at various sites in Manhattan in the darkest months of late 2007 and early 2008. The other five speakers have just as didactic a title: Everything Else Has Failed! Don't You Think It's Time for Love?

A huge projection rubs it in. Big, grainy, and completely static, it shows a pie in the face of Anita Bryant. The posters broaden things a bit, to the labor movement and Vietnam, but you know which side you were on. With so many voices, though, a welcome cacophony sets in, and certainty starts to slip away. It slips away with lost loves and loneliness. It slips away with the yard signs—not just "Sisterhood Is Powerful," but also "Open House" and "Shame on You / Driving By Without Stopping / Paying to See My Pain."

The LPs bring still more voices, as history. Hayes calls them modestly not an installation but her "collection." Eleanor Roosevelt, Churchill, and JFK attracted the most recordings, but Louise Nevelson and Spiro Agnew slip in among freedom marchers and Malcolm X. The bulk goes to series as impersonal as The World in Sound and The Year in Review. In fact, even the apparent confessions at the show's heart appropriate the words of others. Before she can make demands, Hayes has to find her voice.

Finding a voice

It all comes down, then, to finding a voice, and that relieves an often schematic art, much as it did for the "Pictures generation" of Jenny Holzer and Barbara Kruger. The small text projection calls itself Her Voice, but "what will her new voice say?" The text, again quoting others, compares a woman's voice to a car alarm, and "I never saw a woman make a speech." The sources for the initial loudspeaker include Oscar Wilde, more famous for writing that "all art is quite useless." Just to enter the exhibition, one must pass that curtain's chasm that "holds us together and keeps us apart." Folds allow it to fit the museum but obscure its first words as well.

Not that finding a voice has to begin in silence, any more than for Liz Magic Laser. The very goal of a political movement, especially for gay and lesbian identity, is just that. You may not like what you hear, it says, but listen. Finding a voice could even be an existential condition, to go by the source of the curtain's text, Hannah Arendt. The voice got on my nerves when I first encountered Hayes, in the opening of the New Museum downtown, the 2010 Whitney Biennial, and "Greater New York" that same year. Yet she kept the performance video urgent, and everyone in Manhattan was passing her by.

Cacophony and appropriation can have political goals, too—buzzwords like diversity and solidarity. The five silent faces have a politically correct mix of ages and races. The whole installation functions as both an invitation to listen and a call to arms. Behind the curtain, Hayes and Andrea Geyer set a raised platform, with seating. It puts visitors both in the audience and on stage. The curator, the Whitney's Chrissie Iles, speaks of an "artist's project" rather than a midcareer retrospective, and this once she has a point.

The show starts invitingly, between the loud voice, the curtain, and the stage. They prepare one, though, for something more slippery and satisfying. Finding a voice is hard, and even the speaker may not like what she hears. Those ransom demands once belonged to Patty Hearst, kidnapped by the Symbionese Liberation Army and calling herself, for a while, a true believer. Hayes recites Heart's tape to her parents, as SLA Screeds. Hayes also recites from memory, mistakes uncorrected.

One aspect of finding a voice is claiming a history, and that, too, runs up against distance and memory. A two-screen video has young performers responding to political protests, but more often expressing their discomfort with each other and the unseen interviewer. The collaboration with Kate Millett has a double disruption in time, since it begins at the end of the march, in Central Park's Sheep Meadow. Millett see "a younger self," and she sounds admiring, but also vulnerable—both then and now. "It was a very different parade then," back in 1971. "We look very brave, but aren't."

When Robert Frank photographed a 1950s' political rally, it was a rally for America, but Hayes, born in 1970, derives from the collective action of the 1960s and the optimism of today. The yard signs (exhibited in 2009 in an East Village cemetary) in fact riff on one of Allen Kaprow's "Happenings" from 1961, although without his free spirit. Wilde also wrote that "catastrophes in life bring about catastrophes in art." The hero of art for art's sake was speaking of his suffering and "The Ballad of Reading Gaol," and he meant, almost, a compliment. At her worst, Hayes piles on phony memorabilia, like photos of houses associated with more of the SLA. At her best, she welcomes catastrophes into her art, as part of finding a woman's voice.

Taking out the trash

So what did I learn from Klara Lidén? I learned that even New York slows to a moonwalk at night. I learned that Stockholm has plusher subways and friendly, responsive riders. I learned that the tiniest studio apartment has room for a bicycle, but then for nothing else—especially a woman determined to destroy it. I learned that a closed door and an axe may not keep one out of a teen's bedroom, but I may not like the blackness that I find there. I learned that, after so many trashy installations, from bad boys to Sara Sze, one artist is finally cleaning up.

Not that the New Museum has quite taken out the trash. An axe looks as out of place as ever in a museum, without so much as a warning not to touch. So does the door beside it, and the axe rises and falls discomfortingly as it opens and shuts. Black paint covers the 2009 Teenage Room behind it, down to the milk crates, books, a busted laptop, and a boom box. Other recycled doors do bar entrance, laid flat and piled high on the floor, but entrance to a lonely room of found materials like a desk and pendant lamp. One can glimpse it from a peephole at floor level in the teen's room.

Still more trash serves as impromptu theaters for four videos. 550, from 2004, indeed looks like a study in clutter. Behind the house number of the title, a bare-chested occupant peddles furiously on an exercise bike while ignoring the bare brick, shelves dense with canned food, and claustrophobic interior. Bodies of Society, from 2006, has the artist prancing gracefully in front of her bike by the window, her long rod held out as if for a duel. I bet you know how that turns out. The subway crowd in Lidén's earliest video, from 2003, greets her spastic dance with ritual cheers, and one has to wonder if its title, Paralyzed, refers to them or to her.

With their cardboard walls and displays of force, each video occupies a space between installation and performance. So do her occasional photos, like one of the artist standing on a traffic light half a block from the museum. A shot of a pigeon may refer obliquely to the neighborhood or to a show four years before, which allowed pigeons but not people in the gallery. Lidén (not to be confused with the comparable goth madness of Hanna Liden) clearly has issues with control. I have no idea what to make of recent grainy slide shows of the Seine, an empty room, and bodies on a roof (subtitled, um, Cheap High), other than that they look threatening. She calls those stacked doors from 2012 Yourway, but she is out to have fun her way, with herself as the center of attention.

Her last gallery show claimed so many leather jackets and soup cans that she seemed unable to accept that she somehow missed the Factory. Things accumulate, and she runs wild, as the anointed art-world star. Yet at the museum exhibition's center, she at last offers to clean up. The room accumulates bruised trash bins from all over. Also from the last year or two, it holds found posters painted over in white. She treats receptacles as both trash and the answer to trash, while she treats posters as both litter and sculpted canvas, as if from Ron Gorchov.

As for that moonwalk, it too comes as a relief. Lidén displayed it in the New Museum's "After Nature," in 2008, and one can see why MoMA snapped it up as well. March of Progress (Moonwalk) has her outdoors, taking to the city's rhythms, even as she walks slowly backward. Born in Sweden but working in Berlin and New York, she has a thoroughly urban sense of place, sense of self-importance, and sense of humor. Call it limited, entertaining, annoying, or self-obsessed. Do, though, remember to recycle.

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Sharon Hayes ran at The Whitney Museum of American Art through September 9, 2012, Klara Lidén at the New Museum through July 1 and at Maccarone through June 16. Portions of the review of Hayes first appeared in a different form in Artillery magazine.


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