Sharon Hayes can be a difficult artist to like. Her work often centers around “speech acts,” which the wall text in her current exhibition at the Whitney defines as “when speech functions not only as communication but as action.” Just beyond that text is an example: a barren area containing only a black platform of steps, a poster and a speaker that blares out one of Hayes’s speeches. In other words, there’s not always much to look at.
Hayes’s art is also both heavily political and explicitly personal. We’ve all heard the dictum “the personal is political” ad nauseum, but it’s rare that one finds the kind of emotional intensity that Hayes offers within the pristine space of a museum. It feels … unsettling. Like you’re not sure if you should be listening, and if so, like maybe you’d rather listen (and process and emote) in private.
Consequently, Hayes’s work also takes time — to come to terms with, understand, maybe even enjoy.
All of that is true for her solo show at the Whitney Museum, appropriately titled There’s So Much I Want to Say to You. But in addition to all of the speaking, there is, actually, a lot to look at in the exhibition: Hayes and artist Andrea Geyer have constructed a large wooden environment that includes platforms, nooks and video viewing areas. Hayes has installed posters, signs, photographs and videos. If you don’t take the time, however — a good chunk of time — to watch and listen, the show will simply wash over you, rather than burrow in.
The visual content is mostly very good. Along three walls, Hayes has installed a series of record covers from spoken-word LPs. The records comprise an incredible collection (Hayes’s own) — from the more expected speeches by Malcolm X and Ronald Reagan and a profile of Jackie Kennedy to the more obscure, albums such asThe Essence of Americanism and Clichés of Socialism to Guess Who’s Coming Home: Black Fighting Men Recorded Live in Vietnam. The records ground Hayes’s practice in a long line of speech acts before her; they seem to head off those who would dismiss her as an overemotional woman with a pleading, political voice.
There’s also “Yard (Sign),” Hayes’s interpretation of Allan Kaprow’s seminal “Yard” installation from 1961. For her piece, Hayes collected and re-created photographed yard signs from around the country. Though not uniformly political, they are nearly all aggressive, as yard signs must inevitably be to succeed (hence the tendency toward all caps: NEW HOMES; NOT IN ANYONE’S BACKYARD; RECALL WALKER). They seem to be the perfect visual form for Hayes: an encapsulation of her ongoing thesis that where public and private meet is the most interesting cultural space, one ripe for exploration.
It’s hard to match the orchestrated potency of the yard signs, and other visual displays in the show fall flat. A series of new works titled Voice Portraits is particularly disappointing — they show videos of women speaking but without any sound. The conceit is a little too obvious and heavy-handed. Yes, we get it: the importance of speech. But there are subtler ways to tackle the issue of the silencing and displacing of women’s voices; in fact, Hayes does a much better job with another new piece, “Her Voice,” which loops written quotes describing female voices taken from newspapers of the 19th century to the present day. “Her ‘nagging voice’ is the reason she lost the male vote,” reads one. That can only resonate for anyone following current political battles, in which white straight Republican males continue to flaunt their ignorance and denial of science in the interest of legislating women’s bodies. It may be a truism, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t true: the personal is political, indeed.
All of this culminates in Hayes’s performances, of which there are several in the show. (There are also a number of videos and performances that Hayes facilitates, which are generally engaging, although they succeed to varying degrees.) Two of them play out over speakers, with attendant platforms for sitting and listening. These are Hayes’s speeches, highly constructed to feel patently earnest, often taking the form of love letters steeped in politics; “my loves” mix with comments on the Iraq war. Hayes’s high-pitched, dogged voice, which emanates constantly from these two speakers, permeates the entire floor at the Whitney, raising the exhibition’s emotional tenor.
But the most arresting Hayes performance, and unquestionably the most captivating work in the show, is the one video of her on view, “Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA) Screeds # 13, 16, 20 and 29.” Cordoned off in a small, dark room, the piece shows Hayes reciting the four declarations given by heiress Patty Hearst when she was kidnapped by the militant SLA in 1974. Hearst’s speeches were released in the form of audio tapes given to two underground radio stations, and they became increasingly radical: by the last one, she has changed her name and become a SLA rebel herself.
This is an obscure moment in American history, one many people likely won’t recognize without help from the exhibition guide (I didn’t). It may seem like an odd choice. But part of Hayes’s political and artistic talent lies in unearthing forgotten moments of the past and brushing them off for us to discover anew. Nearby in the Whitney show there’s a set of turntables that play journal entries written 40 years ago by a woman named Sarah Gordon, who was part of a student strike in 1970. In both cases, Hayes finds a way in — for herself and for us — through the voice of a woman directly involved. Personal narration becomes a means of opening up the past to a larger audience.
Hayes memorized the Hearst speeches for the SLA video, but only partially, and she’s given her audience transcripts to follow along. When she trips up or forgets a word or line, they call it out and correct her, like a director prompting an actor from the wings. The piece is brilliant for its dense layering of personal and political experience. Hearst’s drama is simultaneously reenacted, re-created and reembodied by Hayes, all while she’s battling her own frustrations and failures. And we don’t see the audience, only Hayes’s face in close-up. We watch every emotion and thought register on her face. We watched her attempt to do justice to Hearst at the same time that she battles the fallibility of her own memory. The construction here is far more complicated and nuanced than the wooden structure built to house it. It’s the architecture of our present lives built on the shaky foundations of what little we understand about the past. All of it encapsulated in Hayes’s pale, nervous face.
Sharon Hayes: There’s So Much I Want to Say to You is on view at the Whitney Museum (945 Madison Avenue, Upper East Side, Manhattan) through September 9.