(image source: www.acad.ab.ca)
During a residency at Alberta College of Art & Design in 2007, New York artist Glenn Ligon filmed his version of the last scene in Edwin S. Porter’s 1903 silent film ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’. After the film was developed, the footage returned damaged and the results led to the ghostly film ‘Death of Tom’. This looped film was featured in Ligon’s recent exhibition at the Illingworth-Kerr Gallery alongside ‘Untitled (Minnesota Massacre)’, a series of 19th century painted panels the artist discovered in storage at the Glenbow museum.
Based upon stage versions of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s original story ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’, Edwin S. Porter’s silent film introduced early 20th century film-viewing audiences to one of the first narrative depictions of race relations in film. During a recent artist talk, Ligon showed documentation of the making of ‘Death of Tom’, wherein Ligon and other actors restaged the scene of Tom’s death and the visitation of 'little Eva' as an angel. He called the completed film’s damaged footage both a “failure of representation”, and an “excavation”. The resulting film, screened within a small black box of a theater, is of eerie, abstract beauty. White shapes upon a black screen seem to shiver, breathe, and struggle to define themselves. Jason Moran’s accompanying music plays to this struggle. Shapes crackle like static, are pulled like wool, and pulse skittishly as Moran’s errant themes become melancholic, pick up hopefully, and stumble as the screen flickers and becomes blank. Moran plays to each damaged scene, each chord pulled gently by slight suggestions of tone or mood. The obscured actors have morphed into tiny threads of light, their human presence visible as streaks of coherent film, shifting and stretching like the shadows of shoes glimpsed from beneath a door.
As the film continues to loop, each time introduced by fragments of the original titles, Moran’s score adapts different versions of itself, its mood shifting palpably. The music seems to age, loosen, lighten, and become heavier, placing itself within and upon the film as an accompanying, then central character. Moran is known for improvising compositions from the phonetic and melodic textures of looped recordings of songs and conversations; a hypnotic structure which brings to mind Steve Reich’s ‘Different Trains’ performed by the Kronos Quartet. The role of Moran’s music in Ligon’s film is both a narrator and activator of versions, possibilities, adaptations, and conversations about the film.
The first notes of Moran’s score as it accompanies the fragments of the film’s title instantly evokes “silent film”, a style within a period of film’s history instantly linked to narratives of oppression which, as writer Jon Davies observes, have “tainted the entire American narrative cinema, whether explicitly or implicitly”. What becomes apparent is that Ligon’s film subtly demonstrates how this history retains its presence through mere suggestion of the silent film refrain.
Leaving the black box structure, a slide projector automatically flips through snippets of text collected and arranged by Ligon. The texts evoke another theatrical version of history. Its dramatic tones describe “The Great Tableau”, “The Great Moral Exhibition of the Age!”, and various “Life Like View”s of violence, its tastefully withheld details “left to the imagination”. The slides, emphasized by the sounds of Moran’s music coming from the tiny theater, are projected upon a high white wall where a makeshift set of stairs allow viewers to see what is on the other side: several large paintings propped or fastened to wooden supports, which depict naïvely-rendered and stagey scenes of conflict between Native and white figures. These figures are all set against outdoor village or landscape scenes which evoke a style in between the sideshow backdrop and the outsider artist’s intimate, fleshy tones.
The placement of the stairs and small size of the platform from which to view these works forces the viewer to strain to try and see much of the paintings’ details, and each new angle cleverly obscures other paintings from clear view. This need for a better viewing angle, particularly as these paintings are both oddly beautiful and grotesque in their glimpsed violent acts (one of the paintings shows a child nailed upside-down to the outside of a house), implicates the viewer in the act of shameless gaping. This is fitting, as these paintings, collected by the Glenbow in the 1960s, are fragments of a 19th century traveling panorama used to display and entertain crowds with a dramatically heightened view of the 1862 Sioux / Dakota uprising against white settlers in Minnesota. In his artist talk, Ligon relayed that the Glenbow felt the panels were “difficult to deal with”, keeping them stored and out of view of the public for the majority of their stay at the museum since their acquisition.
Both ‘Death of Tom’ and ‘Untitled (Minnesota Massacre)’ explore the residual power of distorted, damaged representation, creating entirely new stories out of already-obscured historical texts, and playing with our continued susceptibility to dramatizations of those texts. Ligon’s collaboration with Jason Moran explores this sense of innate history through a much more direct positioning of the artist against and within the text, leading to an installation which continually manifests, as Ligon suggests: “its own structures and desires".
*Review by Kim Neudorf
Coburn, Tyler. Glenn Ligon: I Am… Art Review (London, England) no. 29 (January/February 2009) p. 56-65
Davies, Jon. Glenn Ligon’s Death of Tom. Xtra September 2008. 5 December 2009