Edgar Arceneaux’s “A Book and a Medal” at Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects
Edgar Arceneaux’s “A Book and a Medal: Disentanglement Equals Homogenous Abstractions” opened at Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects earlier this month. Challenging and compelling, the show is a triple threat of musts (must-see, -feel, and -experience) all in one.
Edgar Arceneaux | installation view of PLATONIC SOLID’S DREAMING/DETROIT’S SHRINKING (Dodecahedron), 2014, Paintings on mirrored glass, graphite and ink on vellum, layered over colored paper, in a hand crafted steel frames. Courtesy of the artist and Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects.
The exhibit features the contents of a partially redacted 1964 letter from J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI and part of the “Suicide Package,” blackmailing Dr. Martin Luther King by referencing his extramarital affairs and encouraging him to commit suicide. Another letter that serves as the former’s bookend came 50 years later as Bernice King, MLK’s daughter, urges her siblings not to sell their father’s Nobel Prize and bible (objects for which the show is named). Arceneaux explores the complexity of iconicity and monument-making; history and storytelling; and forgetting and memorializing. Using mirror installations and the shape of the redacted letter as a recognizable and repeated template throughout the exhibit, he creates a mood of intrigue, redundancy, and disjuncture. – Ellen C. Caldwell, Los Angeles Contributor
Edgar Arceneaux | A Book and A Medal, 2014, Painting on mirrored glass, handcrafted steel frame 41.50" H x 188" W x 1.50" D overall dimensions. Courtesy of the artist and Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects.
Experiencing the show, I often lost track of when I was seeing through a window to another side of the gallery and when I was seeing myself and the exhibit behind me in the reflection. At one point I looked up to see what appeared to be my friend across the way, only he looked like he had my legs. This disjointed reality Arceneaux creates does what it should: it jars, it jostles, and it forces the viewer to consider the cacophony of themes, references, and histories presented.
I left the show with 100 questions and was lucky to interview Arceneaux for insights on his goals, process, and intent. “A Book and a Medal” runs through October 18th and is not worth missing.
Ellen C. Caldwell: I love how you continue to reference and explore the intersections of science fiction and the politics of the past and future. There is a real dynamism there… "Spock, Tuvok, Tupac" is one example I am thinking of from 1997, but then there have also been the more recent ones like "The Slave Ship Zong" and "Detroit Monolith, It's Full of Holes" (both 2011) that tie in Stanley Kubrick's “2001: A Space Odyssey,” political history, and techno music.
Similar themes run through your current show as well and I am wondering if you could explore some of this a bit? I think it is rare to see science fiction addressed so specifically in the art world and I really appreciate it as a tool for opening wider conversations.
Edgar Arceneaux: A friend of mine and collaborator, Kurt Forman, we recently started a production company called Beyond Entertainment [BE]. He’s really an authority of sci fi and horror movies and the idea with Beyond Entertainment is to build media literacy through the use of serendipity. He and I had been talking about this stuff for 15 years and just recently started doing these mashups…Coincidence and chance offers a way to think about fiction not being a subset of fact, but that these two things are constantly describing the reality that we currently inhabit.
So, when I was thinking about this connection between “2001: A Space Odyssey” and the assassination of Dr. King, it may seem far-fetched to juxtapose them to one another, but you know, Dr. King’s assassination happened two days before “A Space Odyssey” was released in theaters. And in both King’s speech “Beyond Vietnam” as well as in the film, they were looking at the duality of technology as being used as a weapon or tool. And you know it’s not surprising to me that they’d be consumed with these questions.
ECC: That really resonates. In terms then of thinking about some of the earlier pieces that I was mentioning, were you thinking about those when you started to collaborate with Kurt or were those kind of chance happenings too?
EA: Yeah, most certainly. You know, when I was younger, I was struck that oftentimes I would be thinking about something and that very thing would somehow be addressed outside of myself, sort of independently of my actions. Or the ways in which there are certain kinds of poetic redundancies that happen. You know, you wake from your slumber thinking about bananas and then you go outside and somebody is eating a banana, or has a shirt with a banana on it, or you see it on TV. And instead of ascribing a kind of supernatural order to these things, I have tried in various ways to try to understand the phenomena as a kind of common factor of what we call reality. But what’s a little kind of confounding about it is that such a viewpoint of the world can’t objectively be explained. Like, “oh this is just the way life works,” but we understand it commonly as such – that echoes our part of life.
So this exhibition was informed by that understanding...Not only reading about philosophy and trying to understand metaphysics and physics – the points in which science is attempting to address some of the deeper questions that face us. But also getting involved in projects and neighborhoods like in São Tomé or Watts where you realize that a lot of the conditions in which you are working to positively affect change have been created by decisions that were made 50 years ago. And that history has obscured the connection between where we are now and the things that happened prior to even our own birth. So it doesn’t take much analysis to understand the connection between where my generation is financially with the stagnation of wages that happened in relationship to inflation. But that was two years after I was born. When you look around you, you don’t see the linkage but you can feel it, you can intuit it.
Oftentimes with my work, when I am bringing together stuff from science or political history, philosophy, or religion, it’s me presenting to you the elements of my exploration – of my trying to understand how this all somehow seems to connect, but I’m not quite certain how or why.
ECC: That’s great. I think that comes across too -- and it’s part of what is challenging in your work.
EA: So “The Book and the Medal” piece, the title work in the show that has two letters that repeat throughout the exhibition, is looking at conflict both on a moral level and on the level of the individual to a conflict that is happening on the level of the family or the family body – so from the individual to the family body -- the conflict with these items. But then also the way in which that reflects itself in a different way within the body politic or within the social body of our nation.
So thinking about things in this way, the way in which coincidence or chance – that these two letters would be 50 years apart and that one of them would be released in February of 2014 – is really a matter of circumstance. But what serendipity allows is for you to decenter the subject. And by that I mean, what the thing is really about is not in either one of those two letters, but it’s in that space in between those two letters – those panes of glass that are both empty and full, where the redaction is traveling – that 50 year expanse of time.
Edgar Arceneaux | Film still 1 from "A Time To Break Silence", 2013, Single-channel HD video with color and sound, music composed by Ray 7, 1 hour and 4 minutes, 1 of 5 + 2AP. Courtesy of the artist and Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects.
ECC: Ooh, that is wonderful. Related to this, I am a very light sci-fi enthusiast -- specifically interested in time travel -- in both overt and covert ways and references. A cultural historian I like, Rudyard Alcocer, has explored time travel literature in the Americas and I was thinking of his work when I saw your show: "Occasionally, the only possible remedy for historically profound social ills seems to lie in--or be informed by--the fictional mechanism of time travel. A related notion is that however difficult this may be to ascertain or measure, fiction can provide templates for the actual creation of a different world" (Time Travel in the Latin American and Caribbean Imagination: Re-reading History, 187).
I wonder if you would comment on this if you see it as being at all relevant to your current show. What I am thinking of specifically is that need to go back into the past through your artwork as if to correct or question time and narrative. I think your continued ties to references like Kubric and techno (both seemingly futuristic, though now may be more past and dated) makes this especially interesting as well…
EA: Yeah, it may be worth some distinction between fiction in film and fiction in books – one kind of possesses an economic burden a little more than the other. Oftentimes fiction allows you to hide progressive stories because it’s presented as a kind of a fancy of the imagination. So, you know they’re like, “Oh it’s just a movie about outer space, you know.” Because the movie is not really speaking directly to us. Because you know poetics has a way of dancing around having one finger on it and saying this is only what it is. But at the same time, fiction is oftentimes a kind of self-censorship because you then start to push politics into the background because you know that you can’t get your movie produced if it’s in the foreground.
So, for the projects with the films that my friend Kurt and I do with John and our team (what we call BE), a lot of the emphasis at least on the film portion is to bring those politics to the foreground – because a lot of times, that’s where the story is. You know, back there. The things or people that are not allowed to speak or the places where these stories are shot or archetypally where the story is rooted in.
ECC: Yes, I love that idea of “back there.” Process-wise, the work you are doing with mirror is incredible. And quite simply, it made me realize that I have no idea what mirror is made of or how you would begin to craft and manipulate it the way that you have. The effect is stunning, confusing, and wonderful as it refracts and reflects the room, the document, and the feeling of a stable environment…Redacted parts of the letter become the ways in which we see ourselves reflected back at us and the shared parts of the letter become the windows to the rest of the exhibit.
Can you speak to your goals here? It seems clear to me that we are seeing some of King's faults and foibles through our very own imperfections, but I wonder what you might want to add to this?
EA: So I guess one thing to note is that these mirrors don’t twist and distort in the ways in which a funhouse mirror would – that bends the light and causes a kind of grotesqueness. At the foundation of it, I was thinking that I wanted to use a material that would really trouble the stability of one’s gaze. Sort of in the way in which John Berger said that the thing that separates human beings from animals, is that we understand that there is a reciprocal nature to vision. The animal knows that it sees you and the animal knows you see it, but what it doesn't know is that you can see yourself from his perspective. It kind of fills in the loop of this kind of third understanding of sight.
With these works, what I wanted them to incorporate was the reciprocal loop – in the sense that you never really feel like you are getting it all. Mirror is a material that I’ve used in the past, but in this instance, I wanted to understand almost on an alchemy level what the silver was and how it operated. We’ve all experienced old mirrors that loose their reflection. They start to dim, they get foggy. It is as close to the metaphor of time as one can get. That age starts to register itself in the breakdown of the physical material and you can actually see the erosion being reflected back onto the world.
And I wanted to take that kind of material understanding and then link it to the synthetic, unnatural force of economics. The unnatural science. The unnatural force. And that’s also operating on us and it’s also invisible. When Milton Friedman wrote that essay on positive economics in 1953, this rethinking of economics and the stock market was being formulated at the same time as the Civil Rights Movement and it is interesting to me that these two things were working against each other. At that same time period, US manufacturing was starting to ship jobs overseas, so you know King’s legacy is commonly understood about trying to create a more civil and just society, but the other side of that effort was a more just and equitable economic system that didn’t continue to dehumanize the worker.
So I shot the film in Detroit because of its history with industrialization, with the shipping of jobs overseas, and with the breakdown of family and the village.
The mirror as a metaphor is something that’s echoed both in the film and also in the pieces – because when light strikes off of a mirror, it travels at the speed of light and it pushes into the future. So in the film, “A Time to Break Silence,” when you see King from the front you see him as this monument, but when you see him from the back, you see him as a real person. And the idea was to play off of the experience of being in a car: when you’re looking through the windshield, you see where you’re going, your future, and then simultaneously you can see where you came from in the rear view mirror. I’m taking that phenomena of being both in the present but simultaneously being able to see your potential as well as where you came from.
It’s something reiterated in the materials of the physical work and then also in the narrative of the movie.
ECC: Yes, and you play a lot with the idea of legacy and iconicity in this exhibit. Specifically you call to attention Dr. King's iconicity, popularity, and legacy – calling relics into question and the very process of legend- and icon-making. Can you explain some of your motivations with this show? It can always be dangerous territory breaking down or even examining a beloved idol or icon – even when there is truth to it. Were you worried about any pushback and has there been any?
EA: There hasn’t really been any pushback. I have had discussions with people. A few folks have asked me why I would juxtapose an image of Dr. King with that of some kind of primitive. You know it sets up a kind of a false duality from the very beginning and then with time it kind of moves past that. You know my feeling around stereotypes and clichés is that oftentimes, stereotypes can be a form of a cliché but clichés oftentimes possess a kind of a bloated wisdom...
And I’ve had someone else look at the juxtaposition between King and Stargazer, the prehistoric man, and say he seems to also represent innocence because he’s just exploring and doesn’t have a sense of the forces of society and the civilization as trying to ascribe a role onto him. He’s kind of free in a way. Somebody said that to me yesterday and I honestly never thought about it that way.
I also thought about his being the embodiment of the uncivilized force (and this is contrary to what I said earlier), as the embodiment of the uncivilized force that King was describing that the Civil Rights Movement was working against – but he’s also our descendent. It’s kind of that scale thing I was talking about earlier – both outside of us and inside of us.
Edgar Arceneaux | King Vanitas Second Stage: When Objects Become Things, Mirror on the Wall, 2014, Charcoal, acrylic on linen, 64" H x 48" W. Courtesy of the artist and Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects.
ECC: One thing I thought about and wasn’t sure of had to do with Kermit – I feel like I saw his face repeated in some of the works too – what’s the tie there?
EA: Yes, you did. Let me say one more thing about the monument first. I’ve dealt with the subject over the years in different ways, but essentially monuments present a kind of a paradox because the intention to monumentalize something is to ensure that we don’t forget it. But the paradox is that you can’t remember something unless you forgot it first. So the monument oftentimes gives us permission to forget. It also gives us the unfortunate result – that we start to crystallize things into these very singular perspectives – and it’s a dehumanizing force.
An evidence is that the woman who is in the first vanity mirror – and the presence of the only female in the show, besides the viewer – that woman is Uhura from the original Star Trek. She stayed on the show because she had a conversation with Martin Luther King and he told her she should stay on it because it was an important part of American history to see these relationships.
And usually when I tell this story, people laugh because most people don’t think that Martin Luther King watched TV, moreover that he watched science fiction television and Star Trek – you never imagine him sitting in a chair watching TV. But he did. And for some reason the forces of history want to strip his vulnerability, his wonder, and his fantasy from him to be this kind of warrior of some other substance that you yourself could never be. I really wanted to attack that.
And Kermit was part of that strategy. He was a way to decenter King. Because the monument wants to produce the singular vision but when you juxtapose it to something that breaks the logic, you’re forced to look at it peripherally, to look in between the two of them to prove all kinds of senses. It was really a matter of coincidence that I juxtaposed King and Kermit in the beginning. It was partially because of one of the poems in one of the mirrors by local LA poet Douglas Kearney: “Bullfrog’s Liturgy of the Eucharist.” It wasn’t until later that I realized that Kermit was born in 1955, the same time the Civil Rights Movement really entered the public imagination. But I never imagined that Kermit was that old. To think that these two were born at the same time.
Edgar Arceneaux | A Time To Break Silence: Reliquary Of The Stars, 2014, Acrylic on satin, mounted on MDF on yardstick railing, found plaster relics from St. Anne’s church in Detroit, 2 Bibles (1 prop, 1 real), 5 pieces of electronic motherboard, prosthetic rubber mask, wood frame, wood shelf, pallets 97.50" H x 77" W x 13.75" D widest dimensions. Courtesy of the artist and Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects.
ECC: Yes that’s a wonderful juxtaposition and it comes full circle with your earlier pairings. What's next and what are you working on now?
EA: I’m in a couple biennials -- Montreal in October and Shanghai in November. I am also working on a feature-length film called “King Terminator,” that’s looking at the relationship between the Rodney King beating and “Terminator 2: Judgment Day,” starring Arnold Schwarzenegger. We discovered that the Rodney King beating actually happened across the street from the filming of “Terminator 2” – it happened within about 300 feet. So both in fact and in fiction, we see the destruction of Los Angeles. And then Schwarzenegger used “Terminator 3” to run for governor, which he did successfully. We are hoping to release that film in theaters in 2016 at the 25 year anniversary of “Terminator 2” and the LA uprising.
Los Angeles-based artist Edgar Arceneaux received a BFA from the Art Center College of Design and an MFA from the California Institute of the Arts. Since then, he has exhibited locally and internationally and co-founded the Watts House Project, a non-profit neighborhood redevelopment organization in Watts. In 2015 Arceneaux will present a new work commissioned for Performa in New York and a new collaborative installation with Wangechi Mutu for SITE Sante Fe in New Mexico.
Ellen C. Caldwell is an LA-based art historian, editor, and writer.