Goodman Gallery, Johannesburg
07.09 – 05.10.2019
Carrie Mae Weems’s photographic practice over time, shown in a time-condensing retrospective, ‘Over Time’, at the Goodman Gallery, lands us in a slow, sore, unsolvable equation in which life and death – perhaps social life and ontological death, white life and black death, or capital’s life and collectivity’s death – form the circling sides of a perpetually unbalancing equation.
Multiple bodies (of work, if you want) only express themselves through their traces, with the artist engaging an offsetting mechanism we could call ‘visual disarticulation’, in which subjects operate as ghosts, symbols, or stand-ins, never quite representing just themselves. Weems, herself, haunts western art institutions in the Museum Series, where, in All the Boys (Profile) and All the Boys (Blocked), unidentified black men’s bodies stand in to signify a collective precarious existence between perceived criminality and very real bodily vulnerability. Further, in Slow Fade to Black, black women of the Hollywood elite, are placed in soft focus, becoming ghosts or obscurities. In these moments of disarticulation, we find a repeated mistrust in the mathematics, administration, and language of images, and so the choice to work outside of focus, displacing description of the violence of living in states of black, of gendered, ontological death, by working somehow in the space around.
Weems’s invocation of the idea of oppositional forces – life and death – is backgrounded, for me, by a trouble with so-called ‘opposites’, ever since my encounter with the concept as a kid. The cleanest proposition for true opposites, is that together, they will perform the very simple task of canceling each other out. If death and life are opposite, then death + life is just zero. However, it only takes a slightly more abstract set of opposites, like ‘sweet and savoury’, to throw off the maths in this method, or a misunderstood idiom like “as different as chalk and cheese”, to send any sensible child into a conceptual nightmare of unreachable zero.
My allusion to this clumsy personal history is to set up a baseline of disorientation as a potential entry point into Weems’s work, in which it seems that life and death – a particularly grueling case study for opposite-confusion – act as the fundamental operative forces across the various bodies of work.
The ‘deathlyness’ that the artist mobilises in her practice could be said to describe something of the simultaneous designated outside place of blackness – the margins – and the trapped inside place of genderedness – the throat, perhaps? Weems’s two main visual strategies touch on the polarities of this condition, between marginal, not-quite existence, and over-existence – being held (too tightly), or being too much of a body and so read in service of violence.
The artist blurs, blocks, and obscures. She frustrates her own representations of iconic black women through a process of overdrawing, as in Color Real and Imagined. In another instance, Constructing History, she highlights, stages, and names. This re-enactment of famous photographic scenes in collaboration with students, these large-scale, greyscale, cinematic works, force a dual-encounter with an other experience of over-performativity, accompanied, always, by erasure and misquoting.
And there is the saying of names of black Americans killed by state-sanctioned, or state-forgiven force, which enters too, into that strange dialectic – a process of naming, as a strategy to resurface the perpetually erased meaning in black life, but also the naming as a forced situatedness within the lived experience of black dying. In People of a Darker Hue (2016) names are ghosts that join other ghosts, uttered by those waiting to become ghosts – and so their naming is a spiritual process, an unsolvable performance that speaks of the conditioning and unconditioning of black relationships with life and death in America (as just one of many).
Laden as well by this other-space between naming and being unnamed, is the 1991 series And 22 Million very tired and very angry people, which covertly employs ‘universal’ visuality, as a starting point for the excavation of specific historical meaning. The series of fifteen polaroids make use of what would seem to be explicitly nameable objects, and translatable symbols, with each work showing a bleakly, predictably-composed thing shot against a blank background, and underwritten by immovably-deadpan captioning. But a moment with the text causes sudden drop, where the works become barely-equipped to support their own weight, each one saturated now with reference to a history of revolutionary resistance, that bleeds into the spaces held between the lines, between the images. The globe, an innocently imaged model of our planet, holds the burden of being a hotspot in a corrupt world. Weems loads the impulses of globing, mapping, and projecting as held in a language of colonial mechanics, inseparable from the un-doing of the black family, and the un-making of the black subject, who, home or away, is not home. She highlights the history of the middle passage – somewhere between enslavement and the colony – as a global project of writing, inscribing life or negation onto the surface of bodies.
The body (of work, this time) whispers the significance of objects – everyday ones, and then more obviously political ones – in embodying or standing in for moments of power, gesturing to a host of histories, like the works of Maya Angelou, with A cool drink of water, and the mass civil disobedience spoken through Malcolm X’s presence in by any means necessary.
In thinking through death, and social death, Carrie Mae Weems ends up dealing also with its alleged opposite – life, and perhaps, white life, capital’s life, the life of patriarchy and violent life. By granting us her labouring through, and producing with this life/ death equation, where subjectivity – ‘the right side of capitalism’ – exists through subjection – (always wrong) – Weems moves us to watch ourselves, altogether this time, drifting further and further, in every direction, away from sense, or zero.