Sharon Hayes’ current solo show at the Whitney Museum illuminates the psychological intensity of history and the political capacity of the personal. Its multimedia presentation interlaces fragments of fact and fiction. Calling it a solo show is actually somewhat misleading: Hayes worked closely with the influential second-wave feminist writer Kate Millett to research historical material, and she made the large-scale, overarching installation in which the other works are housed (titled Space Set/Set Space) in collaboration with the artist Andrea Geyer, who attended the Whitney’s prestigious Independent Study Program (ISP) with Hayes. We talked about this timely exhibition with the show’s curator, Chrissie Iles.
Artlog: How did you decide not to use any wall labels for individual works in the exhibition?
Chrissie Iles: It was Sharon’s decision, which she actually only made toward the end of installing the show; it just became clear that they wouldn’t be right. That’s what’s so wonderful about having a project-oriented exhibition—that you’re able to react as you go. That kind of process allows you to maintain the integrity of what the artist wants and how they want to convey it. It was an experiment. This kind of exhibition structure allows artists to approach their own work in new ways.
To label the works would make the space function much more like a “white cube.” This show isn’t a display of individual objects. The works are all very much in dialogue and can be seen collectively, especially because of the stage or platform on and in which they’re shown. We’re not against the “white cube” in an aggressive way, but we really wanted to transform the space to make dialogue possible among artworks and with viewers. Sharon’s work is very performative, so we wanted to create a performative space. Labels push it back to the “white cube.”
Artlog: How do you see the handout accompanying the show as fitting into the experience? Was it meant to be a collection of what would have been the wall texts?
CI: Sharon also decided on the pamphlet. The show is very much about different forms of speech, and the booklet is a part of that. Some of the works require additional information, such as I Saved Her a Bullet (2012)—you can’t tell that it’s an image of Anita Bryant. [The Oklahoma beauty queen and singer had a pie thrown in her face in 1977 by a gay rights activist. She headed the coalition Save Our Children, which sought to overturn a Miami ordinance banning discrimination based on sexual orientation.] We just wanted the handout to function pedagogically. I wrote the texts and Sharon corrected them.
Artlog: What was your relationship like with Sharon in terms of production and planning?
CI: The whole process actually began with me inviting Sharon to create a show and her coming back to me and saying that she wanted to create a large-scale structure. We had a series of meetings about what it would look like and how it would respond to the Whitney’s space and Marcel Breuer’s design from the 1960s. Everything was chosen very deliberately.
Artlog: What about Sharon’s relationship to material?
CI: Her use of plywood is very important. I told Sharon that it reminded me quite a lot of Donald Judd’s very conscious shift from bronze, metal, marble, etcetera, to the quotidian. It also recalls Simone Forti’s stage in a fascinating way; Sharon has a distinctly female perspective and she works collaboratively much like Simone Forti.
Artlog: What is Sharon’s working process like?
CI: She’s very sharp, very clear, and very logical. She’s fantastic to work with. When she’s working outside of the museum, she has just two assistants helping her.
I see the relationship between the private and the public as existing at the core of Sharon’s work. This core has remained the same, but she’s developed different, layered ways of expressing and exploring it. In Gay Power (2007/2012) Sharon and Kate Millett comment on Kate’s first-hand, rare footage of the second annual Christopher Street Liberation Day Parade. Sharon simultaneously brings in something very personal and something very political. Likewise, Strike Journal, May 1970 (2012) records Sarah H. Gordon reading from her journal chronicling her time at Smith College during the six-day protest against war and racism. In so doing, Sharon makes public something of huge historical and personal value—and further, it’s material that Sarah would never have imagined would be public in this way.
Artlog: It was incredible to see the historical footage in Gay Power, as well as the sometimes-touching, sometimes-unsettling snippets from the Gay Liberation Movement and the Symbionese Liberation Army.
CI: I think the layering of history is very important to Sharon. The 1960s and ‘70s feel very close for her—the suppression and the articulation. She’s opening up a space for dialogue between the past and the present. In Her Voice (2012), she takes descriptions of female voices from newspapers dating from the nineteenth century to the present. Sometimes it’s clear when a line is from a certain historical moment, but certain others seem more timeless.
Bertolt Brecht’s acknowledgement of the “fourth wall” in theater was a huge influence on the show. The first work you encounter is a 100-foot-long curtain blocking the rest of the works. It reads, “Now a chasm has opened between us that holds us together and keeps us apart.” The quote evokes Hannah Arendt’s characterization of living in the world as sitting at a table that both separates and unites those around it. Here, Sharon sets up a fascinating conversation between these theories, offering visitors the opportunity to basically come backstage and enter the show on a very profound and very involved level.
Artlog: Sharon is often discussed in relation to activism, yet, in the show, it seemed that she was exploring the more general idea of the “speech act.” What does she mean by “speech acts”?
CI: She uses the term to describe something that is performative and an act of speech, as opposed to a quotidian statement; every statement has a greater capacity for meaning, somewhat like Lawrence Weiner’s gestural statements from the 1970s. Sharon’s work is poetic like Weiner’s, but in a very different way. Is she an activist? It’s up to you to decide, but this isn’t Occupy Wall Street. Sharon isn’t going out into the street, but she is making performances. There’s often an ambiguity as to who’s speaking; is it Sharon or is it Oscar Wilde? Is she referring to an actual lover, or is she presenting a fictional narrative? She’s very interested in that space between what we know and what we don’t because we can ask more questions that way. She wants to draw us in.
I actually find her work very formal in her attention to scale and her treatment of material. Her work is beautifully emotive, and not strictly political. It’s very humanist in that it asks you to look at and recognize the other; it’s about human respect.