James Lee Byars’s 1970 film, ‘Autobiography’, can lead to rising panic in the unprimed viewer. I watched it a few times, not entirely sure whether its blizzard of static was an exhibit or just the video entry monitor waiting for someone to approach the door. Then, for a split second, I saw a figure – white, wearing a hat – appear amid the fuzz.
The point of this scratchy little film is that it takes way longer than its one-minute loop for your blinking and thinking to synchronise. This isn’t time wasted. Acting as a kind of palate cleanser, ‘Autobiography’ serves as a handy introduction to this mini survey of Byars’s art, which is often deceptively slight. Full of allusions to life, death, purity and transcendence, it’s also shot through with off-kilter humour, light in tone even when physically heavy, like his ‘Tantric Figures’ (1960) – slabs of granite drilled with eyeholes to create gormlessly cute minimalist gargoyles.
The American artist, who died in Cairo in 1997 having spent much of his career in Europe and a formative decade in Japan, appeals to us today because of his whimsical zen-modernism, even though this gold suited, top hat-wearing provocateur did little to endear him to America during his lifetime. Along with works from the 1950s and 1960s, the gallery is showing one of the artist’s most celebrated installations, ‘The Angel’ (1989), a series of glass spheres, each blown in a single breath by a Venetian craftsman, arranged on the floor in a form that resembles the Japanese kanji character for ‘man’.
A velvet rope bars you from entering the room in which it sits. In other circumstances the VIP lounge vibe would jar but here it fits with the collision of purity and luxury that Byars’s art represents. This, after all, is the man who once ‘vanished’ by wearing his gold suit and lying down in a room entirely covered with gold leaf.