PRESENTED IN THE EXHIBITION “PRIMA MATERIA” AT PUNTA DELLA DOGANA, BYARS IS ELEPHANT IS JAMES LEE BYARS’ (1932-1997) LAST WORK, HIS FINAL EXAMINATION OF THE MEANING OF LIFE.
Reflecting on James Lee Byars’ work implies considering the way in which the artist uses dialog to create a quality of presence. At the 1993 Venice Biennial, when he distributed flyers of golden paper on which he had printed the aphorism “Your presence is the best work,” Byars marked the impact of the moment, the experience of the artist’s performance, his body, in creating the work’s immediate presence. His work in all its forms exists, then, on a spectrum between two perfect paradigms: on the one hand, the fleeting harmony between its different elements, and on the other, a complete form that is immediately intelligible.
This idea of correspondences can also be applied fruitfully to Byars’ habit of making all media equal: in his work, performance becomes sculpture, writing becomes painting. He is capable of completely altering his relationship to his viewers, as when he unfurled a giant cloth figure of the Holy Ghost in Venice’s Piazza San Marco during another Biennial, this time in 1975. A work can just as easily become the backdrop of an enigmatic but real ritual, as with Red Angel of Marseille (1993), composed of thirty-three red glass spheres made in collaboration with the CIRVA, the International Center for Glass Research. A trove of letters can also become a work, as with the constellations of golden fliers and red papers he’d sent to Joseph Beuys in the book James Lee Byars: Letters to Joseph Beuys, published by Hatje Cantz in 2000.
By blurring the boundaries between different artistic practices, Byars speaks to the aporia, the irresolvable internal contradiction, involved in making art. Clothed in gold lamé, Byars is a metaphysical magician, he who speaks wordless truths and expressionless presences and enacts disembodied gestures, as in his 1975 performance The Perfect Love Letter Is to Write I Love You Backwards in the Air. He compels us to consider serious questions surrounding the conditions of a work's existence and the spectacular conditions of his modes of apparition. Byars always adds a light-hearted element of jest. And ultimately, he tells us that the artwork is a living being that doesn’t know how to die and an order to the artist to “learn to die.”