Glenn Ligon in New York
I’m Turning Into a Specter Before Your Very Eyes and I’m Going to Haunt You

Issue no2
April - May 2019
Magisch Realisme

Art made by the American artist Glenn Ligon (1960, lives in New York) is usually associated with big text-based paintings in which the problematic aspects of normative racial and sexual identity politics are brought up. However, his mid-career retrospective exhibition Glenn Ligon: America at the Whitney Museum of American Art also allows to see Ligon’s work differently.

Although the language and the questioning of the representation still play a central role in the exhibition, I would say that his art is woven together using two main threads. First one is Ligon’s self-reflective position towards the big historical legacies. The second thread focuses on the modes through which the memory of those legacies operates and affects the individuals. The exploration of language and American visual culture allows Ligon to pose questions and comment on the given sociopolitical reality. Thus, his play with language is one of Ligon’s ways of engaging with the present. A present that is haunted by the past.

In one room the series of big, light canvases covered by dark grey words called Untitled (1990-2003) fill the space. After some time of looking at the paintings, the bits of sentences turn out to be quotes from various literary sources. Despite the strict linear structure of the text, the words overlap one other and become blurred, unclear, and somehow loose their capacity to carry meaning. In a painting from 1992, Untitled (I’m Turning Into a Specter Before Your Very Eyes and I’m Going to Haunt You), Ligon compulsively applied a sentence from Jean Genet’s play. The sentence says, ‘I’m turning into a specter before your very eyes and I’m going to haunt you’. An apt metaphor of how the past can be sensed in the temporality of Ligon’s art.

Echoing the visual narrative of slavery Ligon depicts himself as a slave in both of his series Runaways (1993) and Narratives (1993). Ligon uses the official slave narrative to bring himself to the past and to bring it to the present. By tying his own life directly to the past, his body and the historical document become a medium that re-mediates the memory of slavery. This memory is brought into life by turning the collective history (the public archives) into individual engagement with the past. Here, the relation to the past is not necessarily a historical one although it involves historical documents. It is too personal and too damaging for one’s personal history for it to be merely a historical art work. The memory of the difficult past is a phantom that stalks Ligon’s ‘being in the present’, thus his identity.

Ligon shows that historical documents can let the memory of disturbing pasts emerge. Those memories haunt the present in their constant movement between the collective and the individual. Glenn Ligon: America creates conditions for this very self-reflective art to show its power. But primarily, it shows and proves that Ligon’s art and art exhibitions in general can be a lieux de memoire.

Glenn Ligon: America
Curated by Scott Rothkopf
10 March – 5 June, 2011
Whitney Museum of American Art, New York

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Magazine
Metropolis M Magazine for contemporary art No 2 — 2019