Sharon Hayes does, indeed, have much she wants to say. Words fill her exhibition-cum-installation, which occupies the entire third floor of the Whitney. The 42-year-old New York artist refers to her works as “speech acts,” and across her largest museum project to date, she orchestrates various kinds of verbal expression into a complex and involving chorus of compelling, interrelated—and sometimes contradictory—voices.
As soon as visitors step off the elevator, they are confronted by a 100-foot-long muslin curtain, appliquéd in black with the partially legible phrase now a chasm has opened between us that holds us together and keeps us apart. With its portentous yet vague sentiments, the banner works as concrete poetry and as an embodiment of the separation it spells out: It literally blocks your way. Past this barrier, spoken-word LP covers, dating from the 1950s to the early 1980s, are hung in double rows stretching halfway around the gallery’s walls. They provide a historical context for Hayes’s efforts by referencing news, political speeches and celebrity interviews from the past. Another wall bears a huge grid of some 600 photocopied flyers that announce various left-wing actions, ranging from a 1975 gay-liberation dance to a June 2012 demonstration against the NYPD’s “stop and frisk” policy.
Far more incisive are several video and audio works that show the artist at her most affecting. Gay Power (2007–12) combines 16mm footage of a 1971 forerunner to New York’s Gay Pride march with a video of Hayes. In the former, shot by a women’s film collective, we hear a voiceover by one of its members, feminist icon Kate Millett, reminiscing about the day’s events. Meanwhile Hayes offers a more impassive and philosophical account. Though still inspiring, the activities depicted in the faded historical footage feel heartbreakingly innocent and optimistic in retrospect. A series of six “Voice Portraits” (2012) present silent video projections of women—some quite mannish—from several generations talking with obvious passion. Even without sound, Hayes manages to conjure the power of speech.
In a pair of installations, Hayes contemplates the ways in which the meanings of words depend on the speaker. We Knew We Would Go to Jail (2003–12) features three successive pairs of young adults, facing the camera and having stilted and obviously scripted conversations about political activism—an odd distancing device that casts youthful idealism (or, if you prefer, naïveté) as something theatrical or fictional. In Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA) Screeds (2003), four screens in a small room sequentially show Hayes reciting the letters Patty Hearst sent to her parents while she was held hostage by the SLA in the mid-1970s. Offscreen, someone feeds Hayes her lines, or corrects her imperfectly memorized oration, as the artist doggedly continues the rhetorical masquerade, trying on the words of a long-past radical fringe with disconcerting earnestness.
Two works that depend solely on Hayes’s own voice, Everything Else Has Failed! Don’t You Think It’s Time for Love? and I March in the Parade of Liberty but as Long as I Love You I Am Not Free (both 2007–08), record the artist’s performances on the streets of Manhattan, speaking into a microphone or megaphone in epistolary fashion to an absent lover. Mixing the deeply personal with political concerns and the anguished emotions of life during wartime, these works become self-portraits of a passionate citizen, for whom love and activism appear to constitute a continuum. And, of course, they do.
Words, in Hayes’s exhibition, allow conversations across generations, across history and across conventional modes of address. The personal is most certainly the political; the public is sometimes indistinguishable from the private; and the ear, the artist remarks several times in her exhortations, is the only orifice that cannot be closed.
—Joseph R. Wolin