By Sarah Fay
When our eyes flick to an artwork, before we formulate intellectual responses, we react with an unconscious emotion. It can be love or hate, perhaps a mild annoyance at not really understanding what is in front of us, but we tend to know whether we like it or not.
In part, this is to do with the aesthetics of the art. The right combination of colours and forms can be stunning, it attracts us to the work. The image that is created by the artist has the potential to be beautiful or repulsive to its audience. Nevertheless, this reaction is not easily controlled by the artist, and instead of just an aesthetic input it is also the sum of a viewer’s subjectivities influencing how they react to the image in front of them. Our emotional response to art is inherently an intimate one, derived from our own individual experiences.
Yet what challenge does this create, when a variety of people’s thoughts and remarks are embedded into the piece itself?
Glenn Ligon’s Notes on the Margin of the Black Book (1991-1993) provides just this challenge. Ligon displays the pages of Robert Mapplethorpe’s photographic study Black Book (1986) next to numerous reactions that the artist had collected. Mapplethorpe’s photographs were the cause of much controversy due to their apparent eroticisation of the black male form and its engagement with sexuality. Race and sex so incredibly embedded in the idea of the subjective experience, so often causing a very emotional response. However, Ligon does not focus on one side of the debate or another, the reactions installed next to the photographs are a variety of the positive and negative.
The placement of the text next to the pages of Black Book challenges our initial emotional response. To engage with Ligon’s artwork we must read and consider the ideas surrounding it. We become aware of a discussion and debate that is external to our intimate ideas. The numerous responses eliciting the relationships of the black man to the various people of society, from the philosopher to the religious evangelist to the drag queen.
Moreover, the impact of the text is perhaps even more interesting when it is noted that it was first shown in the famous 1993 Whitney Biennial (the political and diverse one). A recurring theme within this biennial was its artist’s engagement with the contemporary happenings and protests of identity politics. The beating of Rodney King shown on loop and newspaper clippings pasted onto walls. The text used by artists exhibited, Ligon included, brings in the outside to the internal intimate sphere of the art world. The use of text in the art gallery is so frequently just factual, the labels and signs that point towards images, that by usurping the medium for the art itself gives their own work that element of authority. A limitation to subjectivity.
The intimate is made external in Notes on the Margin of the Black Book, highlighting our subjectivity and making them apparent in the fluorescent light of art gallery rooms.