Sharon Hayes, I march in the parade of liberty, but as long as I love you I’m not free, 2007 photo copyright New Museum
I’d been hearing a lot about performance and video artist Sharon Hayes over the last few months so I attended her lecture at MoMA last week. She showed a couple of works as a means of contextualizing her latest performance; a series of interviews she made in graduate school featuring freshman who gave predictably inarticulate responses to various questions about their ideology, the now famous Symbionese Liberation Army a performance in which Hayes tries to recite from memory words delivered by Patty Hearst, a woman kidnapped by the SLA, a radical, California political organization, and Everything Else Has Failed! Don't You Think It's Time for Love?, a performance sponsored by Art in General in which she read a different love letter every day in front of the USB building.
In case that last title raised a few Miranda July, Learning to Love You More, etc. hairs, Hayes’ most recent and odiously titled performance for the New Museum, I march in the parade of liberty, but as long as I love you I’m not free, certainly seals that fate. Not that there’s anything wrong with July — her video performance telling the story of a woman who cannot decide to live or die a personal favorite — but it’s been hard to forget the endless “precious” moments in her feature length movie You, Me and Everyone We Know. More to the point, I’m not sure it benefits Hayes, an artist who describes her work as political, to be compared with her a-political counterpart.
“Dear Lover,” begins Hayes, her voice at once evoking Ms. July while speaking into a megaphone on the street;
“Why don’t you call me.? …You refuse to answer my messages, my letters, my phone calls, but I know, the ears are the only orpheus that can’t be closed. You would be surprised how different is here now. No one seems to talk about the war. It’s like we can’t find the words or we’re tired of saying the same things over and over. There’s no movement here and yet so much happens. In May I started a list of things I wanted to talk to you about. Cheney’s pompous warning to Iran, the Blackwater scandal, the bombings at the al-Ghazl market, and all this hurried talk of Baghdad returning to normal.
Sure, as Hayes tells us in her artist statement there’s a political message here, but how deep is it? Unless there’s something I’ve missed, the primary point is that the war separates lovers, and people aren’t talking about current affairs much any more. I don’t want to sound needlessly snarky, but that’s hardly a news flash. The performance smacks of politic-lite, which I suppose isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but significant meaning should appear elsewhere. Of course, in this work, as Hayes and the New Museum press release will tell us, she’s more interested in investigating the “frictions between collective activities and personal actions.” Indeed she reads aloud an engaging letter meant to be seen by only her gay lover, but I’m not convinced the performance presents any outcomes we couldn’t have predicted ourselves. Most people hear her words but walk by without remarking, others don’t buy the story and call her on it or maybe they do and they engage her. But so what? Even the more interesting crowd reactions however still fall within a prescribed set of possible outcomes. And the letter she’s written — it’s sweet, but frankly, it lacks the substance of great art.