Black Lies, Half-truths and Prussian Blues at the YBCA
You’re in a small, brown, clapboard cabin, or possibly the hold of a ship. There are twisting passageways of bookshelves lined with sugarcoated classics and newspapers covered in blackness — redacted or perhaps burnt. Meanwhile the teachings of Jesus and other religious materials sit unmolested. Reflective plastic sheets bounce distorted, clown-house mirror images of you around the room. Oh, yes, you’re in here too. We all are.
Welcome to the Library of Black Lies, Edgar Arceneaux‘s new installation at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, which opened on Friday night. This post-modern, multimedia installation is described as an inhabitable structure that confronts how we establish history and memory in a racially divided country. While waiting in line to enter the cramped room, it occurs that we already inhabit a racially divided structure built of history and memory on a daily basis. We call it “Life in America.”
Some of the books inside are literally sugarcoated. While art is always open to interpretation, considering the volumes chosen to be encapsulated in sugar crystals, it seems that some of the history that we have been fed contains racial perspectives that we have swallowed without close examination. Shakespeare’s works for example, contain the play Othello, which somehow led to Sir Laurence Olivier‘s definitive film performance in black face being considered acceptable by society at large.
The Library is ponderous, posing more questions than it answers. Many people that exit the room are hard pressed to express how they feel about it, declining to comment until they can digest further.
“Language decayed as you went on,” says Alan Norbert, attempting an interpretation. “It kind of crystalized and was sealed off at the end.”
“It’s very disorienting and packed with a bunch of different information,” says Karina Rubio, an artist originally from Columbus Ohio. “It’s comedic but serious at the same time.”
Richard Nelson, an artist in residence at the Headlands, also found the installation somewhat humorous. “It’s just like a weird connection because I’m from the Deep South,” says the textile video and performance artist originally from Savanah, Georgia. “I owned like half of these books. And then it reminds me of my grandmother’s cabin, it reminds me of growing up in fishing cabins. So this nostalgia and memory but then this farcical idea of it.”
Still others were able to simply enjoy the artist aesthetic.
“The crystal books were absolutely amazing,” says Jazmeen Floyd. “They were bright, shiny, very elegant.”
“I really liked the contrast of the white crystals and the black books,” says Kahlo Martinez. “The contrast in there, even though it was just created, you could see it was really intricate. Like they could’ve used more colors like red for fire, but instead they just used charcoal, so it was more intense.”
After being overwhelmed by the the number of questions and unfortunate situations that the structure brings to mind, you wander over to the next gallery and into Prussian Blue by Yishai Jusidman, which also opened on Friday night. At first, there’s a calming feeling while wandering through the well lit gallery and its blue paintings of fine art realism. It quickly becomes evident, however, that there is no respite to be found from horrifying truths.
Unlike the painting of a red barn and a green tree in the hotel lobby somewhere, these blue still lifes are program art, loaded with underlying meaning. Prussian Blue was the first modern synthetic pigment that humanity devised. We didn’t just paint with it, though.
Zyklon B and Prussian Blue are joined at the hip, the poisonous gas derived from the chemicals for the colors. The residue from the Zyklon B – which was originally a delousing agent – actually even left traces of blue pigment on the walls of gas chambers at Dachau and Auschwitz. Jusidman’s paintings depict in graceful detail the killing rooms and surrounding grounds of Nazi extermination camps – all done with Prussian Blue as the dominating tone.
The gallery is stark. The paintings, haunting in both their content and their beauty. Trees grow around rubble. Snow piles over mounds. The sterile beauty of death creeps in, serene in its loneliness. On one wall is a massive triptych of square canvases, all painted black except for one bottom edge of Prussian blue.
We humans have done – and still do – horrible, horrible things to one another.
“It’s sparse but it’s so emotionally devastating,” says YBCA director Deborah Cullinan.
In between the atrocities of war and the uncomfortable situation of American racism, there is a third gallery with a second installation by Arceneaux titled Until, Until, Until… The room is divided by a transparent curtain onto which images are projected. In one corner is a bar and benches, in another, the abstract shape of a black curtain painted on a wall. The multimedia performance piece is a sensory onslaught that tells the tragic tale of Ben Vereen and his blackface performance for Ronald Reagan’s 1981 inauguration.
During the first half of that performance, Vereen (who you likely saw act in the TV mini-series Roots) sang and danced, acting as the historic entertainer Bert Williams (who actually got his vaudeville start here in San Francisco). In the second half, Vereen slowly removed the blackface makeup while singing “Nobody,” making an effective commentary on the state of race in America – and in front of the POTUS no less.
Unfortunately, ABC only aired the first half, leaving Vereen looking like a sell-out.
“Why did they edit it? They said it was too long,” says Arceneaux. “But other people’s performances were longer. Ben says it was sabotage. But as an artist it’s not my job to say why they did it, just that they did it intentionally.”
“He [Vereen] was trying to intervene in a positive way in a discourse,” says Lucia Sanromán, YBCA director of visual arts. “And what happened is that the system actually created a condition where he couldn’t and it ruined his career. So the way that history is written is very, very important.”
Until, Until, Until… is not just a multimedia installation, but also a live play – meant to be viewed in the round — that was written, scored and directed by Arceneaux in an attempt to bring that historic moment into the present.
“When something from the past inserts itself so forcibly within the present, a big question is: ‘What is it doing here now?’” Says Acerneaux. “The way I decided to deal with that was to tell the story not from a historical perspective but from the way in which Ben Vereen remembers it, which is as a series of traumas. He’s been carrying this scar for more than thirty years.”
The play, judging from the projected recording, feels like an emotional dream, with distorted and abstract imagery, songs, and lead actor Frank Lawson playing all the male roles. It will be performed live at YBCA on February 22-24 at 8pm. Arceneaux hopes that Ben Vereen will attend.
Prussian Blue, Until, Until, Until… and the Library of Black Lies are a great compliment to one another. They are all very evidentiary, presenting facts in creative, artistic, and innovative ways, but leaving the viewer to draw their own conclusions – or perhaps simply a set of questions.
While this may sound horrific – “My gawd! Why would I want to spend my Sunday focusing on race relations and Nazi genocide?!” – much like a good work out, these exhibits are strenuous but rewarding. Think of it like yoga for your brain. Their content is incredibly timely, right now, too. It’s no accident that Arceneaux has chosen content associated with a presidential inauguration or that Jusidman’s paintings invoke racial genocide.
Perhaps the most rewarding thing about witnessing this art, though, is that it gives us a jumping-off place for discussion. We need to maintain and invigorate that discourse now more than ever. It’s hard to jump right into the deep end, examining current events and struggling for understanding. Instead, go to the museum with a friend, and afterwards, as you sit over a well-deserved adult beverage, ask her or him: “What do you think those books covered in sugar crystals were supposed to say?”