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The week I visited Julie Ault’s new show, afterlife, at Galerie Buchholz, I also gave a talk at the Institute of American Indian Arts (IAIA) on poetry and the archive. I discussed my move away from desiring the “perfect” poem, to wanting to find a way to keep experience, in particular lost experience, alive. I wanted to figure out a way to do this without explanation or providing what I deemed unnecessary context. How, I wondered, to drop experience into a poem without forcing a superficial narrative or succumbing to meaninglessness? I discussed the work of Mexican poet Mario Santiago Papasquiaro and of Tory Dent, an American who lived with HIV for nine years before dying of an AIDS-related illness at the age of 47. By using language that refused literal or fixed interpretation, both poets were able to archive their lives or, rather, the experience of their lives without forcing a narrative. The result is that their work has been kept alive. By resisting narrative while, at the same time, not succumbing to the nonsensical or surreal, their works convey a sense of the poets’ lives. In one of Dent’s poems, she describes her isolated experience in the AIDS ward of a hospital. By compulsively listing the items of her world, as she slips away from it, she is able to, in a sense, retrieve them and then share them with us. As a result, each of the objects in her hospital room remain with us forever. Dent is, in a sense, kept alive forever. And, in the end, her poem is political, though nothing of what might be considered “political” is ever stated in the poem.
Similarly, the artist, curator, editor, and writer Julie Ault presents objects in a way that makes it difficult to make reductive explanations. A founding member of the New York-based collective Group Material (1979–1996), all of her projects are collaborative and often involve her curating the work of other artists into single shows. Her current show at the Buchholz Gallery is such a project, and is an expansion of afterlife, a constellation, included in the 2014 Whitney Biennial. In Ault’s words, afterlife “unites artworks, artifacts, texts, and publications as equivalent participants in a conversation about disappearance and recollection.”
Ault’s choice of words is illuminating, in particular, the words “conversation” and “disappearance.” The show is precisely “about” the constellations or conversations between the objects included. A sort of galaxy, the works included speak to one another but there is no forced narrative. The gallery lists the objects included in the show in a nondescript list:
A painting and three hand-lettered drawings by Martin Wong
A slide how by Matt Wolf
Three photographs by David Wojnarowicz
Three photographs by Danh Vo
An interview with Marvin Taylor
An apparition concerning Liberace
A sculpture by Robert Kinmount
A stereoscopic photograph by Alfred A. Hart
Two paintings and a multiform work by James Beginning
A photograph and a publication (and errant) by Martin Beck
A composite essay by Julie Ault
Artifacts and documents from The Downtown Collection
An anonymous ledger drawing
A crate of personal effects
The “interview with Marvin Taylor,” available as a printout, is the show’s secret hidden in plain sight. In the 30-plus-page conversation between Taylor and Ault, one gleans the meaning behind the collection. Taylor, an archivist activist, the archivist of the Fales Archive at NYU, and the archivist responsible for the creation of the Downtown Collection, explains:
Archives are the fossil remains of experience, because what disappears is the smell, the touch, all these aspects of living that are hard to experience from written documents. What we’re left with, basically, are things we can lookout—at least in traditional archives. There are other objects that archives cannot collect, and the museums tend not to collect as well, that bring us closer to that person. And I’ve tried to include those objects as well within the Downtown Collection, because I think they have embodied meaning. By embodied, I mean there is some physicality about them that your body or my body interacts with that tells us something we can’t know in any other way. This is also especially true of physical spaces. Something I’ve become very interested in is how do you engage within a physical space and understand how bodies interact there. In some ways, the archive can’t provide that, but only the physical space where actions took place can. And in other ways, perhaps, it can, if objects have enough aura.
I was moved by how beautifully and precisely the construction of Ault’s show is explained by Taylor’s description. His use of the word “embodied” describes succinctly something I have been calling “pre-verbal” and “visceral” for years. When an object is filled with experience, it can convey much more than any words can. Such is the case in Dent’s poems, where objects are allowed to represent or speak. Ault’s inclusion of David Wojnarowicz’s “Magic Box” — a container of 80 or so objects — has a similar effect. At first, I “read” the “Magic Box” as a box that held magical objects within it — a crystal, a prayer card, a small Buddha statue — objects that were spiritually transformative in nature. With this understanding, the objects became talismans, objects that could heal the artist. And yet, at the same time, next to such objects were also toys such as a bag of plastic insects and a stuffed snake. Furthermore, across the room is filmmaker Matt Wolf’s slide show of the Wojnarowicz’s “Magic Box,” presenting a never-ending loop of images of the objects from the box. Watching these images, the ideas I had gleaned from the objects were cancelled out as new conceptions were formed.
In fact, Wojnarowicz’s “Magic Box” is the centerpiece from which the entire show is constructed, as Taylor explains in his conversation with Ault: “[Along] with it (David Wojnarowicz’s collection) came the Magic Box, which perhaps more than anything changed how I think about what archives do, because traditionally, archives don’t take objects, or if they do, they take a few of them and they call them realia, which is a term I don’t really know the meaning of; I don’t like it very much.”
This exhibit, which presents us with so many objects, each filled with meaning and experience, renders us mute. And in this muteness, we are invited to stop and think again, to reconsider. That Ault does not provide an explanation or context beyond what the objects are allows us to form our own thoughts, to make connections while at the same time refusing easy conclusions. Ault’s afterlife, by complicating and resisting simple reductions, provide us, ultimately, with a means by which to see and read the world in a more nuanced and, therefore, empathetic manner.
Julie Ault: afterlife continues at Galerie Buchholz (17 E 82nd St, Upper East Side, Manhattan) through January 16.