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MIAMI BEACH — About a third of the way into Claudia Rankine’s Citizen — a stunning book of poetry-cum-memoir that won a National Book Critics’ Circle Award — a spread of work by Glenn Ligon appears. Reproductions of two pieces from the artist’s “Untitled (Four Etchings)” (1992) fill the pages, featuring phrases from Zora Neale Hurston’s 1928 essay “How It Feels to Be Colored Me” in black block letters that become increasingly smudged and hard to read as your eyes move towards the bottom of the page. Ligon did not know these reproductions were in this book. Citizen was published (by Graywolf Press) in October 2014, and sometime afterward, he discovered it. He read the book and was so floored that he sent Rankine a “blind, crazy email,” in his words. “This book explains so much to me about how I feel,” he wrote to her. The two had never met.
Yet Rankine knew Ligon — not personally, but intimately through his artwork. “Unbeknownst to Glenn, I had been stalking him for many years,” she explained on Friday morning at Art Basel Miami Beach, where the two came together for a public conversation. Moderated by curator Hans Ulrich Obrist for the fair’s Conversations program, the talk was also part of a new series conceived by Obrist that will feature individual artists sitting down with someone who has greatly influenced their practices. In this case, Ligon had chosen Rankine as his inspiration, but the feeling was clearly mutual.
When he read Citizen, Ligon explained, “I realized there was a conversation going on that I wasn’t aware of.” The artist’s work has long involved the painting, printing, and otherwise pulling and reworking of texts from different sources — “a kind of resistance to received meanings, but also a kind of collaboration,” is how Ligon described it. But those texts have mostly come from people he never knew, writers he doesn’t have access to, such as Hurston and James Baldwin. Reading Rankine, who is roughly his age and shares something of a similar background, was a revelation. “You think you’re making work in a bubble, but the bubble is actually pretty big.”
Rankine, for her part, is constantly referencing or paraphrasing other writers, artists, and theorists, building on their ideas to arrive at her own. This process is laid out in Citizen, which mixes personal vignettes with cultural criticism, images of artworks, quotations, and more. It’s also evident in the way she speaks — in the answer to the conversation’s first question alone, Rankine cited two people, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and Juliana Spahr. Throughout the conversation she went on to mention many more, periodically turning and examining the pages of a hefty notebook that she had filled with handwritten jottings.
A good portion of the hour-and-a-half-long event focused on artistic process, but the most opportune moments were devoted to race. Ligon spoke meaningfully of having to “unlearn” that art meant whiteness and of his frustration with artists of color being left out of the canon. Prompted by Obrist, he told the story of a friend who, upon being asked if he was a political artist, replied, “No, I’m a citizen” (a beautiful resonance with the title of Rankine’s book). Rankine picked up the thread, elaborating on how the concepts of transcendence and universality are “owned by whiteness. The culture at large has a narrative that if the artist is white, what they’re making is art,” she said. If, on the other hand, they’re a person of color making work that engages with real life, the work is marginalized as “political — to keep it outside of the category of art, of universal and transcendent work.”
For both Rankine and Ligon (and, notably, for others in the cultural sphere), the time is ripe to shift our societal gaze away from a focus on blackness and towards the construction of whiteness. This is the purpose of Rankine’s new project, the Racial Imaginary Institute, which she will fund using the $625,000 she was awarded this year as a MacArthur Fellow. “The idea is to set up a space, an actual site, where we can have talks like this, about the way in which race informs the imagination,” she said.
The institute was inspired by a trip to the bookstore of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Upon entering the shop, Rankine asked a salesperson, “Do you have any books on how whiteness exists in the art world?” The answer was simply, “What?” “You know,” she responded, “books about whiteness, how whiteness works … ” (and here she riffed in greater detail than I was able to get down in my notes). “That doesn’t exist,” replied the salesperson, who “looked at me like I was insane,” Rankine said.
The poet tried several other art museum bookstores and met the same response again and again. She did eventually find some texts — including one by Martin A. Berger — but she was dismayed at people’s cluelessness. “If we continue to buy the idea that whiteness itself is not a race [and] has not been constructed, we continue to buy into our own collusion,” she commented. “We have allowed whiteness to hold onto universality without questioning how it’s constructed.”
Rankine hopes to gather all kinds of creative practitioners and thinkers at the institute; Ligon is involved in helping to figure out who to invite and how to find it a permanent home. Rankine is insistent that the project be located at “a site that has the legitimacy of Gagosian Gallery,” a place of institutional acceptance, so as not to be marginalized from the start. “Hopefully it will eventually be co-opted into the norm — that would be ideal,” she mused.
As she said this, my mind jumped across the floor of the Miami Beach Convention Center to the other end of the fair: the booth of Blum & Poe, where a large light box by Sam Durant hung on a wall facing a public entrance. “END WHITE Supremacy,” the piece blares, in reproduced black handwriting against a glowing red background. When I had first seen the work, the day before, I had been pained by its apparent impotence. Its presence within a central node of the global art market, which has a deep investment in the status quo, aka white supremacy, had seemed to sum up so perfectly the quandary of the politically engaged — or citizen — artist. But after hearing Rankine express her hopes for the co-opting of her institute (and after a Twitter conversation with art historian Jessica Bell Brown), I found myself reconsidering. Maybe most visitors to Art Basel Miami Beach would see Durant’s work and ignore it, even scoff at it. But maybe one person of color would see it and feel more welcome in this absurdly moneyed, white space. Maybe another person would even buy it, buoying Durant and his critical work in the process.
Ever since Donald Trump’s election, I’ve been worrying constantly about the right way to approach the mountain of problems our country faces. But the answer perhaps is that no single right way exists; there are many approaches, and we may as well try all of them, given the enormity of what we’re up against. We need politicians and organizers who can instigate fundamental policy changes; we also need artists like Ligon and Durant and poets like Rankine, and we need them at art world gatherings like Art Basel Miami Beach as much as we could use them at the Flint Institute of Arts. In their conversation, Obrist asked Ligon and Rankine about the election, and both responded by referencing a piece that Toni Morrison wrote after George W. Bush won the presidency. “This is precisely the time when artists go to work,” Morrison says. “There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear. We speak, we write, we do language.”
The importance of language — of art — was reaffirmed during a pause in the conversation, when Rankine read a poem to the rapt audience. She had written it after the passage of President Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act, and then, coincidentally, it fell out of a book she picked up shortly after the election of Trump. I would never have dreamed of writing a poem about a health care law, and I marveled at how seamlessly Rankine interwove the monumentality of the legislation with its quotidian importance. She read:
we understood the private options would still keep us
alive longer we understood the private options
would treat the disease not the symptoms
the private options meant access to specialists
to privacy to elective procedures to a team of doctors
to radiology imaging to brand-name drugs we understood
the impossibility of real equality but this single shift
toward a national community we thought
despite being founded on genocide and sustained by slavery
in God’s country we thought we were ready
to see sanity inside the inhumanity we thought
the improbability of the face on capitol hill meant possibility.
The conversation between Glenn Ligon, Claudia Rankine, and Hans Ulrich Obrist took place at Art Basel Miami Beach 2016 on December 2 at 10am. The fair continues at the Miami Beach Convention Center (1901 Convention Center Drive) through December 4.