When Edgar Arceneaux’s survey of recent installations opened during the final weeks of the 2016 United States presidential campaign, it was one of those times in which it’s best to look to artists for difficult truths. Arceneaux’s immersive, theatrical works reveal complex, lost storylines of the post–civil rights era United States and cast us as witnesses to the lies, redactions, iconizing, and forgetting that has shaped this country, particularly the lives of African-Americans.
The exhibition, titled “Written in Smoke and Fire,” begins with Library of Black Lies (2016), a large pinewood shack set in a darkened gallery. Entering the installation, one finds shelves of chaotically strewn books that create a narrow, labyrinthine path. Many books are sealed shut with crystallized sugar or black skins of paint. Germano Celant’s Arte Povera (1969) has a special place in the library. Title and author morph on Arceneaux’s multiple manipulated copies of the book: PART POVERA, SPAZIO PERVERTITO, CERMANO GELEANT, GERM SELLER. There are also copies of an illustrated children’s Bible with a beatific white Jesus on the cover. Arceneaux’s library is a place to reflect upon history’s distortions and occlusions, the black lies embedded in shared narratives of art history, US history, and religion. Sheets of reflective Mylar cover the walls, conjuring Warhol’s factory and producing a surprising degree of spatial disorientation within the confined space. A spare incandescent bulb hangs from the ceiling, like the bulb in a Guston painting or Picasso’s Guernica. Art historical evocations abound throughout the show, particularly those of Robert Smithson, whose mirror displacements and crystalline structures are formally echoed in Arceneaux’s delirious compressions of 1960s art and the unraveling civil rights movement. Arceneaux’s gestures reclaim history and reopen it, making it again unresolved or even portraying it as incoherent and irrational.
“A Book and a Medal” (2013–15) is a kind of exhibition-within-the-exhibition that fills the remaining space of the List’s main gallery. Its title references a recent legal battle between Martin Luther King Jr.’s children over the auction of his travel Bible and Nobel Peace Prize medal. At the center of the sprawling installation is an hour-long video, A Time to Break Silence (2013), set in the graffitied, crumbling interior of an abandoned Detroit church. An actor reads King’s 1967 “Beyond Vietnam” speech as techno music cuts in and an apelike phantasm recognizable from Stanley Kubrick’s film 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) climbs walls and pulls down plaster and glass with a startling nihilism. The actor reads King’s indictment of America: “It became clear to me that the war was doing far more than devastating the hopes of the poor at home. It was sending their sons and their brothers and their husbands to fight and to die in extraordinarily high proportions relative to the rest of the population.” King, various wars, rave culture, urban blight, and science fiction here coexist in a nightmare of history.
The video is set off in a projection space demarcated with walls of wood pallets. Beyond are several series of works, also part of “A Book and a Medal,” that integrate facsimiles of redacted legal documents from the King family’s dispute and a heavily redacted letter sent to King by J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI, threatening to reveal marital infidelities (it has been interpreted as encouraging King to kill himself). Each of the series displays the texts in a particular way: placed in mirrored compartments within glass-and-steel columns; printed on mirrors encased in lightboxes, as if they are relics; printed on mirrors that jut from the wall at right angles. The various works establish the viewer’s role as participant and witness: it is our history, and we are reflected and implicated over and over again. A more active editing on Arceneaux’s part would have intensified the effect; with so many variations on the theme of mirrors, light, and metallic surfaces, the works begin to suggest a kind of finish fetish, distracting us from meaningful reflection on the redacted texts.
A separate gallery is dedicated to the new installation Until, Until, Until . . . (2016), which features two video projections. The work centers on African-American actor Ben Vereen’s song and dance in blackface—a tribute to the African-American performer Bert Williams, who performed in blackface to please white audiences in the late nineteenth century—at the televised gala held for Ronald Reagan’s 1981 presidential inauguration. Footage of the performance is combined with footage of a piece based on Vereen’s act that Arceneaux conceived for the 2015 Performa biennial (for which he won the Malcolm McLaren Award). The TV broadcast of Vereen’s performance eliminated the final five minutes, in which the actor offers to buy the (mostly white) audience a drink—only to be denied service by the unseen bartender, prompting him to remove his makeup and cease the vaudevillian routine. Arceneaux’s Performa piece re-created this troubling lost sequence. The two videos in Until, Until, Until . . . are projected on parallel scrims that visitors can walk between, our shadows integrating with the projections. We appear to mingle with the viewers of both the historical and the contemporary performances, becoming part of the audience.
Arceneaux’s exhibition can be bewildering and unassimilable, as the narratives and ideas he excavates don’t fit easily into American history as we know it. The show can feel undone by its serial repetitions and interrelated layers, but this is also the point: Arceneaux treats history not as a linear trajectory but as a process in which past and present become entangled. The contemporary reanimates ghosts of the past, as the recent presidential election underscores, with its reawakened forms of racist aggression.
We expect ruins to remain historical, hinting at disasters that occurred centuries ago. But the risk of the present becoming a ruin is perpetual. No matter how strong our architecture or how entrenched our social systems, entropy lurks. This troubling fact emerges strikingly in Edgar Arceneaux’s recent exhibition.
Arceneaux, whose work often examines memory and place, has lately turned his focus to Detroit, a site of social unrest and economic decline. The city’s degeneration was conjured most spectrally in the first room of Vielmetter’s gallery, in which Arceneaux installed The Crystal Palace (all works 2010), the title a wry nod to the 1851 London exposition of new technologies and products from the industrial revolution. Several shelving units installed around the room were crowned with arrangements of charred, dilapidated cardboard boxes that had been dipped in a sugar solution and left to grow crystals on their edges. This caused them to look at once abject and supernatural. In the center of the darkened space, a paper lantern hung from a rope almost to the ground, and as it swung back and forth when pushed by visitors, the boxes cast shadows on the walls suggestive of a lurching city skyline.
In the next room, Arceneaux presented “The Gods of Detroit,” a group of banners suspended from the ceiling on which he used clay and charcoal to paint crude figures and tuberlike forms. Each banner contains a handwritten word indicating a component of civil society, such as education, government, banks, police or libraries. However, the words are horribly misspelled (“banks” is “BKANS,” etc.), as though we’ve entered a dark age that vaguely remembers order, but can’t replicate it. Toward the back of the room was a tall plank painted with two scenes: the mysterious black monolith and enlightened ape from the opening of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, and below this, a ruined city besieged by bombs. The words “Natural History” are scrawled at the top of the plank. The works in this room all pointed to the barbarism of both proto-civilized and post-civilized eras, and while the misspelled words on the banners form a haunting vision of a future medievalism (one that’s all too possible following our age of shorthand texting), the cartoony imagery on the banners and plank, and their bald analogies, feel heavy-handed.
Orpheum Returns–Fire’s Creation offered a subtler approach. In a long vitrine, a book titled Fire (with a candlelit scene by Georges de la Tour on the cover) stood on a layer of cracked red clay. The book had also been dipped into a sugar solution, and its edges were heavily encrusted with white crystals that initially looked like ice. This evocative still life continued Arceneaux’s exploration of the primary elements necessary for civilization, stretching back to the first: fire. Nearby, two large drawings each depicted a burned-out Detroit building floating in blue space.
The undertone of science fiction or apocalyptic futurism gave this body of work an enlivening dimension of fantasy. Arceneaux seamlessly entwined a troubled past and a dystopian future, evoking the fears of our present age of anxiety.
Photo: Two banners from Edgar Arceneaux’s installation “The Gods of Detroit,” 2010, clay, charcoal and enamel on canvas; at Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects.