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Diana Campbell Betancourt is a curator working predominantly across South and Southeast Asia. Since 2013 she has been the founding artistic director of the Samdani Art Foundation and chief curator of the Dhaka Art Summit in Dhaka, Bangladesh, a transnational art event that has grown in size and scale ever since its first edition in 2012. Backed by...
China, home to 802 million internet users, is subject to sophisticated online censorship. This shrouded state of affairs, unsurprisingly perhaps, serves to reinforce stereotypes around conformity elsewhere. Any realm, digital or otherwise, subject to such strict scrutiny must necessarily be bland and uncritical, right? I was mulling over such...
KEWENIG is pleased to announce James Lee Byars. The World Question Center. James Lee Byars (1932—1997) is considered one of the most distinguished personalities of 20th century art. In particular with his performances, he opened up new terrain for his time and ahead of present-day contemporary art, crossing artistic boundaries that had thitherto prevailed. Byars' most radical body of work was performative and ephemeral. It stimulated interrogation, question and doubt.
The exhibition borrows its name from James Lee Byars' action The World Question Center carried out at the Wide White Space Gallery in Antwerp in 1969. The one-hour film-projected onto a large screen in Oratori de Sant Feliu-represents a brief extract of Byars' life-long obsessive exploration of the idea of 'Question'. The performance was broadcast live on Belgian television as part of Byars' 1969 project to gather the 100 most significant questions in the world from the 100 most brilliant minds of the time. 'If the critical questions around the world were gathered, would you then have a picture of the contemporary problems of earth people?' (Byars in a letter to Isi Fiszman).
In The World Question Center Byars confronts his interlocutors-mostly artists, curators, public intellectuals, scientists, politicians- either present on set (e.g. Marcel Broodthaers), or contacted over the telephone (e.g. Joseph Beuys, John Cage, Walther Hopps, Marshall McLuhan, Cedric Price), with a 'question-to-question' instead of a common question-to-answer situation: 'Could you present us a question that you feel is pertinent with regard to the evolution of your own knowledge?' The reaction of most interlocutors is as much confused as the question itself and gives rise to confusion.
The various questions ('What is question?') and minimal statements ('a question is in the room') in the artist's work are explicitly enigmatic and cryptic. They oftentimes recall the practice of Zen Masters, whose questioning aspired to including 'great doubt' (kóan). Inspired by Eastern wisdom gained during his regular visits to Japan between 1957 and 1967, and blended with Western philosophy and mysticism, Byars considered that the art of proposing a question is of higher value than solving it. 'Answer' represents the antithesis of Question's openness: 'By attaching question mark to any statement I fill that statement with life and move it into the realm of art or poetry [...]'. Questions like 'Question is Big Art?', 'Is all speech interrogative?', 'What is the speed of an idea?', 'Which questions have disappeared?', are illustrative for Byars' artistic pursuance of sensing the lightness of Question-as an absolute immaterial form of art-in order to transcend what he called 'the obsolescence of language'.
The inspiration Byars found in the sensual, abstract and occult practices of Japanese Nō theatre and Shinto ritual clearly manifests itself in the artist's eccentric outfits, collective robes and ceremonial settings as seen in The World Question Center. The mise-èn-scène is nothing but eccentric: a circular shaped composition of people in Byars' signature garment, a collective light-pink robe, and in the middle, James Lee Byars with two beautés at each of his sides. The setting reflects Byars' conception of the body as generator of knowledge, where the dress functions as the carrier of collective psychic communication.
As much doubt there is in every vain of James Lee Byars' works, the amalgamation of the ceremonial function of Shinto monks, the liturgical function of Catholic priests, and the ritual function of native American shamans into a comprehensive set of values, is a powerful visual and intellectual message to the spectator. 'But do you get the question?' As Byars told us 'The question is the answer'. The world is determined by questions not by their answers, for if they do not raise new questions, they are useless, because they mean stagnation. 'I can repeat the question but am I bright enough to ask it?'
James Lee Byars (1932—1997) took part in several exhibitions at Kewenig gallery since its beginnings in 1986 near Cologne. The World Question Center and the parallel running exhibition The Palace of Perfect, together represent the first exhibition dedicated to James Lee Byars since his death, running simultaneously in Berlin and Palma.
James Lee Byars' first exhibition took place in 1958 at the MoMA in New York. In 1960 he received the William Copley Prize at the Cassandra Foundation in New York. This was followed by exhibitions at the Willard Gallery, New York 1961, the National Museum of Modern Art, Kyoto 1962, Carnegie Museum, Pittsburgh 1964, Gallery 16, Kyoto 1967. In 1969 he was an Artist in Residence at the Hudson Institute in New York and founded the The World Question Center. In the same year, Anny de Decker met Byars in New York and invited him to his first exhibition in Europe at their Wide White Space Gallery in Antwerp. From here, Byars' career took its international direction with exhibitions and performances: 1972 at documenta 5, Kassel; 1974 at the Palais des Beaux-Arts, Brussels; 1977 in the Municipal Museum Abteiberg, Mönchengladbach; 1978 in the Kunsthalle Bern; 1982 in the Westfälischer Kunstverein, Münster; 1983 at the Stedelijk Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven; 1984 at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston; 1986 in the Kunsthalle Düsseldorf; 1989 at the Castello di Rivoli, Turin; 1994 at the IVAM, Valencia; 1996 at the Henry Moore Institute, Leeds; 1997 in the Fundação de Serralves, Porto; 1999 in the Kestnergesellschaft, Hanover; 2000 at the Toyama Memorial Museum, Kawajima; 2000 at the Museum Schloss Moyland/ Museum of Contemporary Art, Antwerp/ Museum Fredericianum, Kassel; 2004 at the Schirn Kunsthalle, Frankfurt am Main, the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, and the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, North Adams; 2007 at the Museum of Modern Art, New York; 2008 at the Kunstmuseum Bern; 2011 at the Museum of Art, Pittsburgh; 2013 at the Museo Jumex, Mexico City; 2014 at the Museo Marino Marini, Florence and MoMA PS1, New York; after which his sculpture The Golden Tower was part of the 57th Venice Biennale in 2017, the M HKA—Museum of Contemporary Art, Antwerp, recently presented a comprehensive retrospective on the artist in 2018.
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