Wednesday, March 07, 2018

Edgar Arceneaux “Library of Lies” and “Until, Until Until . . .” at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts through March 25, Asks the Question: Is Truth Furniture in a Dominant Narrative Structure

Frank Lawson (actor) in Until, Until, Until. . .
In February, at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, Edgar Arceneaux presented a performance piece in connection with an installation “Library of Lies.”  The wooden labyrinth cabin-like structure is filled with bookshelves and books.  Some books are wrapped in black plastic, more interesting books are covered in crystalized sugar. As we look at crystalized confections, our moves reflected in mirrors—the shelves are caught in a maze making t is hard to figure out which stacks were visited and which were not. The only books with any certainty were the books with Bill Cosby’s face on the covers.
Artist, Edgar Arceneaux seated in Library of Lies at YBCA
Just the name, “Library of Lies,” (through March 25 at YBCA) makes the patron fact check her thoughts . . . just in case. Several years ago, Arceneaux, who is an artist whose work is not confined to one genre—theatre, mixed media, architecture, writing, watched a performance by Ben Vereen at

Ronald Reagan’s Inauguration at the White House. It was a tribute to vaudeville legend Bert Williams (1874–1922). In blackface, Vereen sang ““Waiting for Robert E. Lee,” and then sang another song, “Nobody “ as he removed the paint. The only problem was, the ABC network just aired the first half which distorted Vereen’s intention and message. The response from Black community was outrage. Vereen was called a sellout and a “Tom.” It was a horrible time for the artist whose work, had audiences seen the entire piece would have realized he was not insulting Williams’s legacy or memory.

Silence or omission is just as bad as an outright lie. When Vereen learned about the project he was supportive and even invited the artist who was to portray him to his home to help him with the dance.
In Until, Until, Until . . . (2015-17) the actor, Frank Lawson, looks just like Vereen. The work is more than a re-creation of an historic moment. The live-action play and immersive multimedia art installation gives audiences a chance to query a particular historic moment from multiple perspectives: the present, the past, Vereen’s and the audience at the White House that evening.

As cameras document the rehearsal and later the performance we see multiple Vereens performing; the effect is past and present merging. This is one of the many beautiful moments in an emotionally disturbing work. Perspective is key, as is memory. Is Vereen’s correct or the camera? What about the viewers who just saw the ABC rebroadcast with Vereen as Bert Williams singing “Waiting for Robert E. Lee” in blackface? The TV audience think they have the truth when we see they did not. If this is just one of many instances when fake news distorts or changes reality irreversibly, we see how fragile information is and how easily it can be changed intentionally. The lie becomes the truth. (Sounds like Orwell’s Ministry of Information in “1984”. Facts are shredded; yesterday does not exist if it does not serve the state’s interests).

“Vereen’s biting commentary on the history of segregation and racist stereotypes in performance was lost on viewers at home” (press notes). When the scene with Williams singing “Nobody” as he removes the black paint is omitted, we lose important commentary and Vereen loses his credibility.
Before the curtain rises, there are free cocktails. Vereen at the bar helps serve. When the lights go up—the lounge becomes a stage where Vereen is rehearsing his steps— Arceneaux says later it is Vereen’s memory telling him to speak more convincingly.  There are empty chairs on stage which the audience later fills – not enough for everyone, others stand, some with drinks in hand.  Guests at the White House we look out into the empty audience; we now a part of the spectacle. We watch Vereen sit at his dressing table, we see the makeup come off, watch him rise, speak, sob . . . tears streaming down the actor’s face and then he walks off.  There is silence. He doesn’t return.  We sit and wonder. We look around confused. Is the performance over? Where are the directions for this part? Why are the cameras still rolling?

Artist Event
Conversation:  YBCA presents an evening of lively conversation between two longtime friends and collaborators, artist Edgar Arceneaux and art historian Julian Myers-Szupinska on Friday, March 16, 7 p.m. in the YBCA Screening Room, .  Admission is free with same day gallery admission.  Venturing far beyond mere observation or criticism of the works presented in the exhibition, they will discuss the nature of their artist-historian collaboration and deliver a fresh look at their shared world of art. Using as a point of departure a small but charged set of historical and popular archival images, film clips, writings, and music, they will share their insights on the ideas and themes embedded in these objects and ephemera.

While there don’t miss another exhibit also in the lower gallery:  Yishai Jusidman, a Mexican artist of Jewish heritage’s “Prussian Blue”
Yishai Jusidman’s Prussian Blue is a series of paintings rendered almost exclusively in one of the earliest artificially developed pigments used by European painters—Prussian Blue. The chemical compound that makes up this pigment happens to be related to the Prussic acid in Zyklon B, the poisonous product deployed at some of the Nazi concentration and extermination camps. By a strange turn, traces of the pigment remain to this day in the walls of the gas chambers. Such stains are quiet, disturbing, and palpable reminders which Jusidman’s paintings re-engage with a profound effect.
This exhibition is organized by Museo Universitario Arte Contemporáneo (MUAC) in Mexico City, and is making its United States debut at YBCA.

Yerba Buena Center for the Arts is located at 701 Mission Street, San Francisco, Tix: 415-978-2787,


Wanda Sabir:  Could you please address the reason why you felt compelled to present the complete story, to exonerate the name of fellow artist, Ben Vereen?

Edgar Arceneaux: “The intentional omission of the second part of the tribute foreshadows a future parade of partial truths normalized in a society where the truth has multiple lives, all of them irrelevant. I am speaking specifically of Trump, but "fake news" is not new."

EA:  “I was compelled to make [Until, Until, Until . . .] because of a coincidence really. I was commissioned to do a performance by Performa out of NYC and thought I had an idea for what I could do. But then I ran into Ben at a kid’s birthday party. I mention that I was not invited to the party partially as a joke, and that it’s also true. I was not invited nor had any idea there was such a party, yet there I was in front a man that had done one of the most memorable works of performance I had ever seen in my life. I thought that if serendipity was showing me something that I should pursue it and see where it leads. Once I learned about the effects that his performance of ‘Nobody’ had on his life and career, I was struck with a risky opportunity and a burden. If I told his story the way in which it was intended to be seen, would I suffer the same fate as Ben? He made me promise that I wouldn’t allow that to ever happen to him again, and with a resolute heart I said "I promise."

WS:  What does Vereen say about the re-staging, screening of his full-work, as well as the sculpture -- "Library of Black Lies" (2016) where you say the intentional maze or labyrinth is an opportunity to "find what is lost [in oneself]."

EA:  “Ben Vereen has not seen the library and black lies yet and I’m uncertain if he is even aware of it. But he was quite moved to see the performance for the first time in Los Angeles this past summer. He expressed his gratitude and also offered to work with my actor Frank Lawson on some of the dancer's moves, which we did, two days later and it was surreal to watch the past in the present colliding on stage.”

WS:  Why did you find it necessary to catalog and present the Lies with such formality (smile).
Who gets access to Black Lies? Who operated the facility? Where does one get a card? How are Black Lies and artifacts arranged? Is it a circulating space? If so, how long can a patron check out a Black Lie?

EA:  “​Great Questions. The black lies are more metaphorical then literal. The term is meant to be poetic, [except] in some specific instances, like Cosby as being about misdeeds and criminality. What do we do with the Cosby show now? ​Can we separate the art from the man?

“Within the narrative of the library, and who owns it, I meant it to feel like a cabin in the woods meeting a geode. Wanted to builder to remain a mystery so you could image who the person might have been who built it, based on what’s left behind, and how its organized. Along the way, within the labyrinth library, or labyrinth, you get lost along the way so you can find yourself in the middle. Both the self-reflected in the mirror and our shadow side.”

WS:  Is everything we read a Black Lie? Who is your archivist? Is the Library Growing? If so, how can one contribute? ​addressed above. ​

I am also really interested in the sugar metaphor. As black people, "sugar" is both traded and treasured like salt. Both are detrimental to our health once we land on these shores: sugar diabetes and hypertention. (Vereen has diabetes.) My father died from renal failure, another one of those environmental toxins -- present traumatic slavery syndrome).

EA:  “Oddly enough. I didn’t start w the sociological effects of sugar or its metaphors. I began working with sugar close to 15 years ago because I was looking for material that could exists in multiple states simultaneously. Sugar can exist as a granule and a liquid gelatin or crystal. I was excited about the Crystal because it has geometry to it. Not all sugars are sweet. And it exist as a basic building block of ourselves, the cells in our body. The power of juxtaposition is that when you put two things together that are unrelated they begin to say things, things that they would not on their own.

"When I juxtaposed [sugar] to history and in particular African-American history, you begin to come to some of the conclusions would you described above. As an artist I rely on their prior knowledge that I believe if you were will bring to it. But it’s my job to pivot on what you know to explore something that you may not have considered. The destruction of the book renders it unreadable or readable but the crystals give it a new life. Not just an aesthetic life, but the crystals themselves express a paradox. We consider crystals to be frozen in time but in reality they actually grow organically like the roots of a tree. So well after the crystals are dried they can still inhale and exhale the moisture in the room.

"This is the metaphor of transformation but in what direction is the question. Between the states of building and destruction there is an in between the crystals on the books is that in between. Is the viewer’s job to decide where that’s going. Building up or falling down, is it a ruined or a beautiful transformation; I hope that the viewer can possess both of those things hold them up side-by-side and consider that they are both simultaneously. Does that seem perplexing to want that as a goal for a work of art?”

WS: The work suggests a fragmentation, what Dubois calls "double consciousness" or a split or auteur self, which black people tend to send ahead (the facsimile more welcome that the woman or man. Please talk about The Library and how you conceived it and its integration into "Unil Until Until."

EA:   “These are two separate words that I was developing at the same time. Both use mirrors and reflections refracture transparency and partial views as a way of exploring history. In the library I am doing this with architecture. With until until until I’m doing it with narrative in the format of play and an art installation.

“Both works are meant to envelop the viewer and transform them from the beginning and the end of the experience. This has less to do with the notion of a double consciousness and more to do with the journey of self-exploration that could if intended explore the perils of a dual identity. I hope and both works to show a Third World beyond the dualistic thinking.”

WS:  There is an intention structured into your work, which mirrors Vereen's intention in honoring vaudeville legend Bert Williams (1874–1922), a man many African Americans were ashamed of. What does Bert Williams mean to you, an AA performance and visual artist? Juxtapose this with Ben Vereen, "Chicken George," juju man, Ifa warrior like Williams who made it work, despite the hostilities he faced in Hollywood? If black men are characters, where are they safe when not performing?

EA:  “There’s a lot in those questions. During the lifetime of Brett Williams I am not convinced that people were ashamed of him. He was one of the most celebrated performers [or] entertainers and an all America. He produced his own films and in some instances none of the black actors besides himself in black face. You know that’s what audiences wanted but no one else had to wear a black face. That’s how he got his movies made.”


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