That Which Is Fundamental
A review of Julius Eastman: That Which Is Fundamental at Slought Gallery
By Abby King and Dan Willmott
This is an article with two voices; looking to convey the life of a man with far more than one can convey. Abby King and Dan Willmott are an artist and musician duo. Together, they’re reviewing Slought’s multi-media exhibition in conjunction with Bowerbird’s concert series on the composer Julius Eastman.
It’s funny how a person can come into focus, their blurred image sharpens. In a bedroom, placed above precariously stacked amps and behind a field of fifteen guitar pedals is a portrait thumbtacked to a wall. The photo shows a man smiling in front of a snowy parking lot. The image was cut out of a concert program from 2015. The man is Julius Eastman.
Just after this author could ask the other about the Smiling Man’s identity, a two part exhibition on Eastman and a four part musical series was organized by two Philadelphia institutions. It’s not a minor undertaking but a robust series of programs and a well curated exhibition of artists inspired by Eastman’s work and life, with full support of the Eastman Estate. Now we were going to learn more about the man in the photograph and how he continues to elude his followers.
Julius Eastman was a composer, a member of the Minimalist movement. He was also a gay African American man. This is at the core of who he was, why he is remembered by many and forgotten by more. The Eastman story becomes more complicated when you add that he died in 1990, homeless and alone.
Though much of his music was lost when he was evicted from his home in the East Village, his work has gained traction in the last 5 to 10 years. There’s been an attempt to bring Eastman back into the canon. What further complicates this is both Eastman’s complete lack of interest in capitalist trappings and possessions and the overt sociopolitical implications as to why he was overlooked in the first place. The exhibition at Slought tackles these questions and poses more.
Tucked in a West Philadelphia gallery, Slought, is the show Julius Eastman: That Which is Fundamental. An exhibition with a dual approach to the composer. At first glance, the initial room, A Recollection, is a biography of Eastman’s life, the usual suspects of articles, photographs, and archival evidence. A second glance, aided by the curator Tiona Nekkia McClodden, breaks the assumption. The biographic materials are not presented in a linear way and a visual timeline of Eastman’s life is nowhere to be found. This article will take their note and will not be giving you the Eastman life story because as McClodden mentioned in our interview, we just don’t have a complete picture and we aren’t going to pretend we do.
His obituary in the Village Voice is among the items, originally published 8 months after his death. The wall of Eastman’s portraits show many sides: an intimidating academic with his arms crossed, another smiley spectacled face, a whimsical photo of Eastman waist deep in water. They’re all of the same person but from drastically different angles. It’s the revival of a ghost we don’t know how to lay to rest.
On a reflecting wall, oversized prints of Eastman’s musical scores hang above binders containing more of his musical notation. After some explaining and a second look, the scores take on weight and become a key to understanding his music. Eastman's scores are rife with numbers, colors, and streams of stemless notes. There's a glut of written queues, ranging from Stay on just two pitches, sing these notes as slow as possible, to SHUFFLING FEET ON FLOOR (like sanding), Random sounds made up of sounds used previously in this piece, and LOUD ARGUING. They occasionally reference what instrument the piece should be performed on. Eastman provides the performer with more implication than instruction, in that sense it becomes a challenge for musicians to nail down. There’s no one way to perform his songs.
Eastman was political in his approach to composing and in his identity as a gay man of color in a predominately cis white male culture. He was a person that made minimalist music but didn’t fit the mold of a minimalist composer. Minimalism, as a movement, shifts from ‘goal-oriented’ (look to this Kyle Gain piece for more) forms of Western Classical music. Minimalism forfeits this style for one hyper-focused on one or more elements of the classical tradition, such as, what does a ‘normal’ classical piece sound like played at 1/10th of the speed? What do we hear differently in a note when it’s played 100 times in a row? Or 500 times? In Eastman’s Evil Nigger, there is a slow layering of motifs across 4 voices, until it seems almost every combination of notes has been played and lingers throughout the piece. His music is borne out of minimalism, investigating the effect of exhaustion on the ears.
The second half of the dual exhibit is an attempt to get at a man through a contemporary artistic response. The show Predicated is advertised as, “an exhibition in conversation with the work of Julius Eastman, explor(ing) notions of absence, trace presence, duration, the politics of exhaustion, as well as the interplay between composition and improvisation through video, sculpture, and, photography.” The diversity of voices and mediums gives ample space to explore both the identity politics of Eastman as well as his composition’s more visceral effects.
One piece, Double Quadruple Etcetera Etcetera I & II is a multi-faceted exploration of Eastman. Sondra Perry’s video work is a black and white whirlwind, transforming key elements of minimalist music to movement. For nine minutes two figures flail about, their bodies obscured as if by an erasure tool in photoshop. It’s simplistic, repetitive movements are obviously exhausting to the performers. The way Perry removes the body makes it all the more exaggerated. On a separate level, it speaks of the identity of Eastman, not fully knowing him or the dancers but searching for them. In the artist’s statement she writes, “ The body is not erased, it’s just not visible to you...Instead of thinking about an erasure, thinking about a removal. The removal with intention.”
In Eastman’s case, there is an historical erasure despite the persistent knowledge he and his music existed. Watching Perry’s piece is kin to a live Eastman performance. I chase to see and capture the dancer and before I can, there’s another movement, another note. The performance will always be about the whole and never one singular moment.
In a smart curatorial move, McClodden allows the artists to create the linguistic framework for their own works. Each piece is accompanied by the words of the artists. In giving the audience the words of each artist, the lack of Eastman’s voice is even more stark. The curator allows the artists to give context for their own pieces, a luxury not afforded to the late composer.
Jonathan Gardenhire’s statement directly addresses the lack of visual representation of Eastman’s identity in Untitled (A Mighty Fortress is Our God/Imperfect Man.) Gardenhire writes, “ I really wanted to think about who Julius Eastman was...I realized that there was so much discrepancy in how people saw him, and in some accounts that I read, even perhaps how Julius saw himself.” Gardenhire’s digital collage reconfigures Eastman using his portraits, his scores, and black male nudes. Rather than distill Eastman Gardenhire’s layers read as a fictional archive dangling in space, just out of reach.
Another use of portraiture as a point of reimagining is in Texas Isaiah’s work, My Grandson’s Stretch. The photograph is of a somewhat silhouetted black man in white with his hands above his head. Isaiah writes, “I look at it as almost like literally a note on exhaustion...But also something that could be read multiple ways, given the context of what the black male body has been figured as within America in the last couple of years. This gesture of hands up, this gesture of exhaustion.”
Isaiah’s piece reminds me of Eastman’s titles such as, Gay Guerrilla or Crazy Nigger, the political framework gives a duality to the compositions. Eastman’s work can be felt as exhaustive minimalist experiments, political interpretations of his own identity, and the oppressive space for black and gay members of society. You can see Isaiah’s portrait as the tired stretch of a body, or as a reference to Black Lives Matter campaign, Hands Up Don’t Shoot. Both can be true.
Other notable pieces include a dance hall mashup video by Yulan Gran. The piece investigates dance halls as a “space for activation, from which rises performance between audience, the performers, and the musician.” The active participation of the audience is similar to an audience member at an Eastman show, if not quite as sweaty.
Another piece that touches on Eastman’s intellectual dance with an audience is Carolyn Lazard’s, Score for Convalescing I, 2, and 3, for which she produced hospital gowns with directions printed on them. The instructions on each garment are a mental performance piece, allowing her dance to be for anyone, including the physically disabled. The commands printed on the fabric are as ambiguous as Eastman’s margin notes, like “Decide what and who is outside of you. Sort out the continuous stream of matter. Or remain entangled.” Lazard writes that these serve as, “ a site from which to imagine, or the text as the place that opens up the possibility if a whole set of actions that are yet to be realized.” The artist constructs a mental dance for others to explore and invites another level of audience accessibility into the work.
Predicated is a smart contemporary response to Eastman. The inclusion of so many artists of color and women also seem a challenge to those still being left out of a historical gaze and the canon.
Not quite bridging the two exhibitions is an archive tucked in the back of Slought. In my conversation with the curator she exhibited the archive as a challenge to visitors to dig for themselves. This addition, besides making it all the more obvious there’s love and labor put in by McClodden and Bowerbird, is another nod to the complicated figure of Eastman.
We cannot really know who Eastman is. His work requires our involvement as much as his. Eastman is mysterious, cut from history, a poetic force we must claw to find. As McClodden, Isaiah, and Gardenhire all suggest, we can only find the man in slivers, in notes in the margins. But if the exhibit is itself only a sliver of the man, it's clear that what remains, speaks volumes.