The Figure of Question is in the Room

by Fiontán Moran
Reviews / Exhibition • 19.01.2024

Questions were important to James Lee Byars (1932–97). In the late 1960s he created The World Question Center, a fictional, semi-autonomous organisation, under which he collected queries from scientists and thinkers in relation to their respective fields. For Byars, a question represented the perfect form: a space of possibility and openness, and an invitation for the viewer to enter his lifelong search for perfection. As he explained:

A question does many things. It creates interest. I think it automatically has benevolence and humility in it. It suggests that one is pursuing perfection, in itself not being well defined.1

Questions also surround Byars himself. He created a memorable persona in his performances and ‘actions’, in which he appeared as a shamanic, cult-like figure dressed in top hat, blindfold and a suit, sometimes in gold. This exhibition, therefore, which is dedicated solely to his sculptural installations made between 1974 and 1997, is particularly intriguing, especially in the raw, industrial spaces of Pirelli HangarBicocca, Milan, which differ drastically from the opulent settings in which he often staged his work. The result is an exhibition that grapples with the ways in which Byars used material objects to explore the immaterial and transient.

On entering the space, one is immediately struck by what could easily be construed as permanent monument: The Golden Tower FIG.1, a 21-metre domed tower gilded with gold leaf, which reaches almost the full height of the building. Once installed on the edge of the canal in Campo San Vio, Venice, here it is shown in the cavernous gallery alongside The Capital of the Golden Tower (1991), a sculpture that replicates the tower’s top hemisphere. This arrangement provides two perspectives on the phallic, gaudy object. It also serves as an exceptional opening – from which the exhibition never quite recovers – dramatising Byars’s ambition and his use of vertical and horizontal planes in ways that often force the viewer to be conscious of their own bodily presence.

The exhibition is curated by the museum’s Artistic Director, Vicente Todolí, who worked with Byars on a number of projects during his lifetime, including The Palace of Perfect at Fundação de Serralves, Porto, in 1997, which turned out to be the artist’s last exhibition, opening four months after his death.2 Drawing on these direct experiences, Todolí has curated the show according to Byars’s own methodology of curating his works by assembling them on a particular axis to emphasise centrality, as well as grouping them in blocks of colour. Thus, most of the works are arranged in two parallel rows, with the pillars of the building creating zones for each work. Organised non-chronologically, the sculptures form dialogues with one another, drawing attention to recurring motifs and colours: the predominant red, black, white and gold, and the repeated use of circular or spherical forms. This is most evident in a pairing originally devised by Byars: The Door of Innocence (1986–89), a gilded marble sculpture in the shape of a circle, and The Figure of Question is in the Room (1986), a single column engraved with the letters Q and R. The circle becomes a doorway through which one views the ‘figure’ of the ‘question’ FIG.2, perfectly representing Byars’s use of the void as a space of activity rather than absence. Such ideas connect to the artist’s long-standing interest in Zen Buddhism, as well as his knowledge of psychology and philosophy.

The void is prime material for Byars. The installations Hear TH FI TO IN PH Around this Chair and it Knocks You Down (1977) and The Chair of Transformation FIG.3 feature antique chairs within their respective tent structures – a reference to the Buddhist doctrine of ‘non-self’ and the use of the empty chair in Shinto rituals, which is offered to the spirits.3  This ghostly quality continues in a side room dedicated to correspondence between Byars and the Italian artist Maurizio Nannucci (b.1939), which features two looped sound works from 1979: the artist continuing to ask ‘what?’ and, more softly, repeating the phrase ‘pronounce perfect until it appears’. In what is otherwise a somewhat solemn exhibition, this inclusion of Byars’s performance practice is a welcome addition, pointing to his recurrent use of the question to explore how we give form to and seek perfection.

The apparent simplicity of many of Byars’s actions and installations was undoubtedly informed by his time in Japan, which he first visited in 1958. There are also clear associations with Minimalism, Conceptual art and performance art. Despite this, Byars maintained a distance from any dominant movement, describing himself instead as a ‘baroque minimalist’ (p.7).4 Indeed, although many of the works in the exhibition display Minimalist tendencies – such as a focus on primary forms and structures, an embrace of the natural ‘truth’ of materials and an interest in the relationship between object and viewer – they are made ‘baroque’ through Byars’s use of precious or expensive materials, including glass, gold, crystal, marble and silk. They also incorporate found objects with specific cultural and historical associations – museum vitrines, theatrical curtains and a narwal tusk, to name a few – and often have esoteric titles that point towards philosophical preoccupations. For example, the most typically ‘Minimalist’ work in the show is a stack of ten large basalt cubes, but placed on a golden plinth, while its title, The Figure of Death FIG.4, emphasises its connection to obelisks and ancient tombs – concerns quite removed from the work of such artists as Sol LeWitt and Carl Andre. Similarly Red Angel of Marseille FIG.5 comprises one thousand red glass spheres, which are arranged on the floor in a tree-like formation. Here, it serves as an encore of sorts, installed by itself in a vast room at the end of the exhibition.

Among such precise organised works are the reconstructions of two of Byars’s floor installations – The Giant Angel with the Human Head FIG.6 and The Devil and his Gifts (1983/2023) – in which an array of objects and small works from different periods are loosely arranged on pieces of fabric. Manifesting as enlarged renditions of an esoteric game or divination system, they recall the scatter-logic of Marc Camille Chaimowicz’s installation Celebration? Realife (1972–2000) and Mike Kelley’s Monkey Island (1982–83) and Mechanical Toy Guts (1991–2012). Shown close to The Golden Tower, these two installations appear to collapse the phallic dominance of Byars’s works to a horizontal plane, which instead emphasises his relational approach to signs, symbols and objects.

The satisfaction of these two floor installations derives in part from a contrast with the rigidity created by the two-row layout and the use of general lighting, which somewhat reduces the possibility of surprise. Unlike previous exhibitions, such as the 2014 survey at MoMA PS1, New York, in which many works were spotlit in darkened rooms, here they are shown in a defiantly sedate manner.5 At times, this minimises some of the luminous qualities of the materials, as well as the theatrical and mystical associations, so that some sections feel akin to the unveiling of the Wizard of Oz, whereby the material reality of the artistic form is made visible. Moreover, the absence of documentation of Byars’s performances, many of which took place in Italy and are included in the catalogue, remove an essential part of how he understood sculpture within a language rooted in liveness.

Nonetheless, in his attempt to present an honest survey of a figure whose practice is so often cloaked in theatre and myth, Todolí manages instead to position Byars as an artist with concerns both serious and magical, tender and dramatic – qualities widely appreciated in the work of contemporary artists, from Marina Abramović (b.1946) to Guadalupe Maravilla (b.1976). This exquisite tension is especially potent in Byars is Elephant FIG.7. One of the largest installations, it consists of a gold silk curtain that hangs from the ceiling and collects on the floor, creating a makeshift stage. A plinth is erected in the middle underneath the fabric, on which sits a ball of rope made from camel hair. Byars devised the work during the last three months of his life, which he spent in a hospital in Giza, overlooking the pyramids. It serves as an important reminder of the way Byars was able to create grand statements with an economy of materials and motifs, as well as the many ways in which his art and life were intertwined. Perhaps the question he was posing here was how to find space – both physical and symbolic – to give form to the invisible, and how to make the viewer part of that experience. As Byars once noted in a letter to a friend, ‘we live only to discover beauty / all else is a form of waiting’ (p.42).

 

Exhibition details

James Lee Byars

Pirelli HangarBiccoca, Milan

12th October 2023–18th February 2024


Catalogue

James Lee Byars
Edited by Vicente Todolí
Pirelli HangarBicocca, Milan, 2023
ISBN 979–1–25463–132–4.

 

 

About the author

Fiontán Moran

is a curator, writer and performer based in London. He is a curator of international art at Tate Modern, London, where forthcoming projects include the Mike Kelley retrospective (2nd October 2024–9th March 2025).



Footnotes

  • James Lee Byars, quoted in James Lee Byars, exhibition booklet, available at d2snyq93qb0udd.cloudfront.net/HangarBicocca/wp-content/uploads/2023/10/Exhibition-guide-James-Lee-Byars-doppie.pdf, accessed 8th January 2023, p.21. footnote 1
  • T. McEvilley, V. Todolí and K. Power: exh. cat. James Lee Byars: The Palace of Perfect, Porto (Fundação de Serralves) 1997. footnote 2
  • K. Power: ‘A glimpse of the perfect’, in idem, Todolí and McEvilley, op cit. (note 2), pp.280–81. footnote 3
  • Catalogue: James Lee Byars. Edited by Vincent Todolí. 272 pp. incl. 100 col. + b. & w. ills. (Pirelli HangarBicocca, Milan, and Marsilio Arte, Venice, 2023), €55. ISBN 979–1–25463–132–4. footnote 4
  • M. Arriola and P. Eleey: exh. cat. James Lee Byars: ½ an Autobiography, Mexico City (Fundación Jumex Arte Contemporáneo) and New York (MoMA PS1) 2013–14. footnote 5

See also

Marc Camille Chaimowicz:
Nuit américaine

Marc Camille Chaimowicz: <br>Nuit américaine


Marc Camille Chaimowicz:
Nuit américaine


13.07.2023 • Reviews / Exhibition

Jala Wahid: Conflagration

Jala Wahid: Conflagration


Jala Wahid: Conflagration


15.03.2023 • Reviews / Exhibition