The exhibition ‘James Lee Byars: ½ an Autobiography’ – curated by Magalí Arriola and Peter Eleey and which tours to MoMA PS1, New York, in June – was criticized in Mexico City for being nearsighted: its perceived lack of local relevance weighed against the institutional politics that made it happen. Showing a US artist who died in 1997 might have seemed a surprising choice to inaugurate the new building of the Fundación Jumex Arte Contemporáneo. Yet the implication that the show had little relevance to its context here was unfounded.
One can easily imagine Byars in dialogue with local (albeit adopted) icons such as the Chilean filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky, whose 1973 film The Holy Mountain was shot mostly in Mexico City and shares certain philosophical concerns with Byars’s work – mystical themes, highly aestheticized and absurd. Such similarities are apparent in a video interview between the artist and Jef Cornellis from 1969, included in this exhibition, in which Byars’s ideas combine with a surreal sense of humour. (He is shown literally as a talking head, with the rest of his body buried in a mound of earth.) Visually, too, the artist’s characteristic pointy black hat recalls those worn by the Holy Mountain’s sages. Even more intriguing was Byars’s video documentation of The Perfect Epitaph (1975), a piece for which he rolled a volcanic rock around Amsterdam. In the context of Mexico City, this work is in close dialogue with many of Francis Alÿs’s pieces in which he promenades various objects (a toy, an ice block) around town, or with Gabriel Orozco’s Yielding Stone (1992), for which the Mexican artist rolled a plasticine ball around New York, collecting debris.
Much of Byars’s work was concerned with anticipating his own death – notably the performance This is the Ghost of James Lee Byars Calling (1969) – and the way in which several of his little-known or marginalized works have prefigured pieces by artists including Richard Serra, as well as Alÿs and Orozco, seems almost clairvoyant.
The exhibition was beautifully orchestrated by Arriola and Eleey. Starting with Byars’s early Zen- and Noh-inspired works, it moved through performances and sculptures, before concluding with his baroque mises-en-scène. The curators focused on the event-like quality of Byars’s work; his gift of turning accidents into art, like the wind suddenly making his wearable sculptures/clothes billow into beautiful shapes. The exhibition opened with the early Self-Portrait (1959), a flat object that lies on the floor like an elongated cartoon shadow and could be read as a kind of chair or palanquin, which Byars frequently cast as a stand-in for the human figure (in this case, perhaps, a cadaver). The last piece in the show, The Chair for the Philosophy of Question (1996), a golden Tibetan throne sitting inside one of Byars’s red silk tents, suggests themes of power, absence and death.
Ideas of being and non-being are also exemplified in the artist’s film Autobiography (1970), in which a blank screen gives way, for a split second, to a white-clad Byars before blackness resumes. You could easily miss this blink-of-an-eye moment, but it demonstrates how accident – seeing or not seeing – can become the work. Byars’s clothing pieces, when worn or performed in – as happened periodically over the course of the show – made male and female forms indistinguishable. His works on paper, again created to be performed – like the Performable Square (1963) or the Mile-Long Paper Walk (1964–65) – question ritual and repetition, rendering the performer a cross between an automaton and a priest-like figure. They raise the question: ‘What does it mean to be human?’ The publication which gave its title to the exhibition was written in 1969, when Byars was 37 years old. Sitting in a gallery, he jotted down questions and thoughts that came to him in conversation with visitors.
Perfection is a well-represented theme in Byars’s work. If we look to Ludwig Wittgenstein (famously, one of the artist’s three –stein heroes, the other two being Gertrude Stein and Albert Einstein), perfection presents itself through the example of the other, which can be interpreted as both God and other people. Byars’s interrogative philosophy – the hundreds of questions in World Question Center (1969), a collaboration with Herman Daled, or in The Black Book (1971) – is intended as a dialogue with an other, the someone that he asks his questions to.
Byars was a philosopher and cosmic clown. His personal letters, documentation and ephemera, also on display, raise questions of transcendence and materiality, of the miniature and the cosmic, taking us from the USA to Mexico, Japan, Egypt, Belgium and the Netherlands. Like the films of Jodorowsky before him, Byar’s work was clearly visionary.