Edgar Arcenaux’s exhibition at MIT’s List Visual Arts Center, Written in Fire and Smoke, is relatively modest in scale, occupying the List’s two main galleries. But while the exhibition is physically constrained, conceptually it is oversized—colossal, even. Written in Fire and Smoke is comprised of three bodies of work, all of which manifest through different material approaches. All, however, share the complexity that defines Arceneaux’s practice, a process that centers on research, layering, and remixing references and imagery from diverse parts of American culture and mashing them into sublime expressions.
While Written in Fire and Smoke includes a variety of media, the pivotal pieces in Arceneaux’s show are the two film-based works, A Time To Break Silence (2013), and Until, Until, Until… (2015). The first of these is an hour long, and presents a bizarre layering of referents. The setting of the film is an abandoned Detroit church, littered in its grand chamber with bits of itself that have fallen or been ripped off of its bones. The light filters through the church’s large leaded windows, leaving the whole building luminous but ravaged, a bit like a picked-over rib cage, with its great arching lines framing the hollowed out interior.
Though this singular setting remains consistent, Arcenaux’s film seems split into three separate temporal registers—layers of time that sometimes overlap but seem not quite to blend. The first figure to enter this solemn space is an ape-like creature (a mass of hair and set of movements that some might recognize from Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey) huddling and bounding close to the floor, examining bits of detritus throughout the gutted church. With wild hair obscuring its face and white powder from the church’s mangled plaster clinging to its simian hands and feet, it is hard to tell if this is a creature from the future or past. Pre-human or post-apocalyptic?
The film’s second stratum is populated by another solitary figure, though this one is more easily placed in our memory: Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. As the words of a speech King originally gave at Riverside Church in 1967 boom through the abandoned space, we have the sense that both King and his unseen audience are inferred but not present, psychically filling the space like apparitions. On screen, Dr. King speaks rhythmically about America’s involvement in the Vietnam War, and the moral dilemma of balancing non-violence and active dissent. Portrayed by an actor filmed primarily from behind, the King character is also represented by a composite of drawings, though the voice orates on no matter the camera angle. The final layer of film is the most temporally present, but feels the most spatially detached. In the choir loft, a member of Underground Resistance, a Detroit-based techno collective, poses behind his keyboard, producing pulsing sounds that both accompany and drown out King’s words.
Across the hour of the film, these three registers layer together to form a bizarre composite: present-future-past; history-fantasy-reality; speech-movement-sound. All parts appear intermittently and simultaneously, and even as this composition builds up to its own fragmented whole, Arceneaux breaks his own illusion with snippets of conversation with the actors, or a glimpse of a crewmember in the space, cracking (and then quickly restoring) the film’s mesmerizing fourth wall.
Until, Until, Until… is also comprised of several layers, all of which relate back to and interpolate a singular moment in American culture. The subject of Arcenaux’s installation (which itself is an adaptation of a theatrical version of the piece commissioned by Performa 2015) is a 1981 performance by the actor Ben Vereen as part of a televised “All Star Inaugural Gala” celebrating incoming president Ronald Reagan. Vereen’s performance was meant as a tribute to the vaudeville-era performer, Bert Williams—a black man who performed in blackface. When Vereen, too, donned blackface to recreate Williams’ act (and when the network broadcasting the gala edited out the latter half of his act that meant to critique the practice), Vereen was lambasted for reinforcing racist tropes.
The version of Until, Until, Until… on view in the exhibition includes video footage of Vereen’s televised performance, and film of the theatrical version from 2015, with actor Frank Lawson playing Vereen. The room’s mis-en-scene includes a booth lined with empty glasses, and two colorful orbs projected on the sidewalls. In the center of the gallery, two long, parallel curtains function as diaphanous screens and create an interior chamber atop a blue spangled floor. Between the two curtains, a TV set blares a distorted picture (at times, one can make out a man dancing his way across a blue patterned stage), and behind it, a coat rack cradles bits of Vereen’s costume. Lawson-as-Vereen offers several interpretations of the 1981 performance to the (contemporary) crowd, reciting lines and imitating actions in different emotional and tonal registers. At times, his delivery seems mocking as he punches out Vereen’s words: “It’s an honor to be in your presence. You are so gracious to allow this. Really.” At other times, the delivery of these same words is gut-wrenching, as Lawson’s shining face fills the gauzy screen.
Both visually powerful and emotionally charged, these intricate composites recreate powerful historical utterances—King’s and Vereen’s—but build up a context around them that complicates rather than clarifies the original actions. The artist does not seek to simplify that which is complex, that much is clear. In these film-based works, Arceneaux addresses American politics, race, science fiction, and collective memory as imbricated and interlocking components. By building these layers, Arceneaux’s works interrogate the way that perceptions slip and change across time, and explore an imaginary that parallels the subconscious—a space where actions play on loop (but never replicate exactly), where metaphor lives in the open, and where time is compressed into the lacuna of the present.
Edgar Arceneaux: Written in Fire and Smoke is on view through January 8, 2017.