ST. LOUIS — It’s impossible to know when love begins. At best, we are mildly aware of its onset — a subtle brush of the hair, a lick of the lips, a quiet nudge of the hip, a gaze that lasts too long or not long enough. What we do know is that love finds us; we cannot search it out. Spanish poet Federico García Lorca wrote of lunar romance: “How the owl is calling. / Ay, it calls in the branches! / Through the sky goes the moon, / gripping a child’s fingers.” His lyrical words wrap themselves around a young, innocent type of love. Poet Drew Krewer, editor and cofounder of literary mag The Destroyer, writes words that drift through abundant airs, gracing on slick, uncertain surfaces of love, lust, and longing, recalled from memory. “I want to leap, for him to catch, for a balloon party with love. / I want it all, I want some more, I want the roses and the arms” is the closing line of his poem “Age 5 | FLASHDANCE (1983) | 1:25:04–1:29:43.” Both of these poets, and countless others, speak of love in its obtuse forms, perhaps once removed, a longing that is not a memory but rather a hazy moment cut against the sharp form of orderly, chronological time.
Love is so endlessly fascinating that attempting to round it out, wrap it up, and map it completely through a three-part exhibition titled The Progress of Love, which has been taking place concurrently at the Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts in St. Louis, the Menil Collection in Houston, and the Centre for Contemporary Art in Lagos, Nigeria, seems almost defeatist. The three-city exhibition presents an array of European, American, and African artists exploring the narrative arc of love through personal, political, cultural, historic, technological, and economic lenses. Love is an ideal in its early stages, a journey through the ethereal, and then it ends, scattering ashes of past memories about gray skies. The third part of the show, at the Pulitzer Foundation, focuses on the end of love and its aftermath through works by British-Nigerian artists Zina Saro-Wiwa and Yinka Shonibare, MBE, French artist Sophie Calle, and American-Jamaican-Nigerian artist Temitayo Ogunblyi.
In her videos, Saro-Wiwa mines the depths of intense emotional processes and the experience of grieving a loved one. “Mourning Class: Nollywood” (2010) is an array of now-antiquated television monitors flashing close-ups of a womens’ faces, all of whom are actresses in Nollywood. They are both recognizable and too close to properly distinguish. The videos portray the women acting out moments of mourning. Some of the disembodied, mediated faces are reminiscent of Tony Oursler’s projections onto materials and objects, calling to mind the evocative nature of fragmented body parts. The actresses’ act of crying shows just how real these feigned emotions become when presented for a willing audience. This is contrasted with a video, “Sarogua Mourning” (2011), of Saro-Wiwa herself crying real-life tears, finally mourning the death of her father 16 years after he was killed for his work as a writer and human and environmental rights activist against the Nigerian military regime and Royal Dutch Shell. Here, fiction and fact converge in a single moment that reflects the cultural confluence of Nigeria’s entertainment industry and human rights abuses.
Occupying a long, hall-like space is a work by Sophie Calle that’s emblematic of her hyperanalytical, highly emotional signature style, “Take Care of Yourself” (2007). For the poignant project, she publicly shared an email break-up letter that she received from a boyfriend. His closing line was a simple: “Take care of yourself.” She asked more than one hundred women to respond to it, offering their takes. The work is much in the vein of her project “The Address Book” (1983), in which she discovered an address book on the street, photocopied its insides, sent it back to the original owner, and then wrote to each of the people listed, asking them to submit memories and other personal objects. Calle enjoys the tension that arises from sharing other peoples’ intimate moments or private property without their explicit permission. Her tread into personal space is debatable, at times appearing oddly disrespectful to strangers. Yet as Joan Didion once famously said: “Writers are always selling somebody out.” The morality behind Calle’s work seems unimportant compared to its ability to touch the viewer, carefully plucking at their heartstrings.
“Take Care of Yourself” reminds me of the ability of social networks to quickly elicit empathy, compassion, agreement, and many other varying emotional responses to situations that would otherwise be discussed privately, away from crowdsourced feelings. All social networks rely on one’s ability to differentiate between what is public and what is private, and to honestly trust the power of sharing. In fact, this entire project could have been based off of a Facebook post — if Calle had posted something and allowed comments, responses, likes, and questions, it would have mirrored what she did in this piece.
The responses Calle received vary from interpretations of the letter to a proofreader’s correction of its many errors (the original letter is in French) to that of a parrot named Brenda, which shreds the letter and then repeats one of its lines: “I have never lied to you.” In essence, Calle is utilizing a social network without any technological mediation. The breakup seems like it was long and painful, and the ex-boyfriend is not pictured reacting to this wholly public share. Did he respond to her privately? In dating an artist like Sophie Calle, however, the ex-boyfriend must have already suspected that their relationship would have an influence on her work. Perhaps this was part of the reason he dated her in the first place. When one walks the tightrope of art and life, allowing them to blur in such a manner, there are no precious moments.
Projects by Yinka Shonibare, MBE, and Temitayo Ogunbiyi explore the end of love through the lens of cultural history rather than personal experience. Shonibare takes as his subject matter the relationship between the beginning of the British Empire and contemporary multicultural society in Great Britain. In his 16-minute-video “Addio del Passato” and the accompanying chromogenic prints of “Fake Death Picture (The Death of Chatterton—Henry Wallis)” (both 2011), he investigates Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson, one of Britain’s greatest naval heroes. In the prints, he reimagines Nelson as the Romantic poet Thomas Chatterton, who committed suicide by arsenic. The person dressed as Nelson wears a bright green top and blue bottoms of African print textiles and lies on a green sheet postmortem. The video presents the aria from Giuseppe Verdi’s opera La Traviata (The Fallen Woman). This version is dedicated to Frances Nisbet, Wilson’s wife, whom he cheated on and was thus estranged from. Here, she is played by a black opera singer in a 17th-century wig of white hair, wandering about a colonial mansion, singing about the demise of their love. The British Empire meets its postcolonial future in these layered, art historically influenced works.
The final work in the show occupies space at the end of a long hallway. “Lovely Love Text Message Books” (2012), by Ogunbiyi, presents a simple junk food vending machine that sells pamphlets offering solutions to love problems for a surprisingly reasonable fee of $1 each. The pamphlets cover all sorts of questions and themes, including how to find a husband, text messages for early marriage, and even Easter texts. Combining the 1950s and ’60s Onitsha Market pamphlets, which offer advice on love and romance, with the cheaply produced “tips on sending quick communication” booklets that have become popular in Lagos since 2000, Ogunbiyi considers the lengths that those in search of love will go to for answers — and what price they will pay, both literally and metaphorically. Commoditization of something as fleeting as the initial sensations of love points to man’s desire for complicated answers packaged in a simple, reproducible, consumable way. Ogunbiyi’s work echoes a Pop art sensibility: true love is a commodity; it’s only a dollar away, and you can buy today.
The St. Louis leg of this exhibition offers viewers the opportunity to meditate on the end of love while considering its eventual renewed beginnings. Love doesn’t end just because two people part ways. If there existed a fourth part of this show, it might consider taking on more philosophical questions, perhaps asking why we fall in love. But love is just that — a matter of the heart, not of the rational mind.
The Progress of Love continues at the Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts (3716 Washington Blvd, St. Louis, Missouri) through April 20. It was also on view at the Centre for Contemporary Arts (9 McEwen Street, Lagos, Nigeria) until January 27 and at the Menil Collection (1533 Sul Ross Street, Houston, Texas) until March 17.