In the one hope, O Capitol of shade!
That Death like some new sun should rise and give
Warmth to their wasted flowers, and make them live
–Charles Baudelaire, “The Death of Artists”
With his intuitive use of seemingly mundane materials such as denim, mirrors, silk scarves and, frequently fabric flowers, Jim Hodges’ art, like the final lines of Baudelaire’s poem, seeks to represent loss, as well as breathing new life into its remains.
Co-organized by the Walker Art Center and the Dallas Museum of Art, Hodges’ mid-career retrospective Jim Hodges: Give More Than You Take reveals the poetic depths of Hodges’ investigations into ephemerality, memory and the on-going, open-ended melancholic reinterpretation of loss. While I saw Jim Hodges: Give More Than You Take at the Institute of Contemporary Art–Boston, the exhibition will open at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles on October 3.
Born in Spokane, Washington, Hodges came to New York City in the early 1980s during the height of the AIDS crisis. Experiencing both the loss of friends and, as a gay man, his recently joined community, Hodges began to examine and depict the extreme devastation surrounding him as much of his work became haunted by the specter of HIV/AIDS, as well as other losses.
Perhaps not a shock for you faithful Filthy Dreams readers, my taste in artwork dealing with issues such as HIV/AIDS tends to lean toward more in-your-face, outspoken political statements from artists such as David Wojnarowicz. I’ll admit subtlety has never been my strong suit.
However, Hodges’ art captivates in its restraint, resonating with powerful metaphors, organic forms and symbolism. Unsurprisingly, Hodges is often frequently discussed in relation to his friend Felix Gonzalez-Torres whose work takes a similar ethereal approach to representing loss and mourning.
Looking at Hodges’ exhibition, a nagging question kept popping into my head: how does one represent loss? In the introduction to their essay collection Loss: The Politics of Mourning, David L. Eng and David Kazanjian define loss, writing “’Loss’ names what is apprehended by discourses and practices of mourning, melancholia, nostalgia, sadness, trauma and depression” (2). With this complex definition of loss in mind, how does an artist faithfully represent loss, maintaining its shifts, alternative temporalities and multiplicities?
Walking through Jim Hodges: Give More Than You Take, Hodges’ art seems to come close to answering this seemingly impossible question. Combining Walter Benjamin’s ideas about history and Freud’s notion of mourning and melancholia, Eng and Kazanjian’s essay provides a useful entryway into the strength of Hodges artwork from its fluid representation of loss to its undeniably political relationship to history.
In Eng and Kazanjian’s introduction, the duo begin with discussing Benjamin’s seminal essay “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” detailing the division he makes between the historicism, which destructively and hopelessly desires to create fixed historical narratives, and historical materialism. As Eng and Kazanjian write, “Walter Benjamin’s ‘Theses on the Philosophy of History’ (1940) might be described as a treatise on the political and ethical stakes of mourning remains–mourning what remains of histories as well as histories of loss. According to Benjamin, to mourn the remains of the past hopefully is to establish an active and open relationship with history. This practice—what Benjamin calls ‘historical materialism’ –is a creative process, animating history for future significations as well as alternate empathies. For the historical materialist, to relive an era is not to ‘blot out everything’ one knows ‘about the later course of history’—simply to bring memory to the past. On the contrary, reliving an era is to bring the past to memory. It is to induce actively a tension between the past and the present. In this manner, Benjamin’s historical materialist establishes a continuing dialogue with loss and its remains—a flash of emergence, an instant of emergency, and most important a moment of production.” (1).
Like Benjamin’s historical materialist, Hodges’ artwork presents a continuing dialogue with loss through providing a rich yet nebulous artistic space for a “flash of emergence.” For example in his installation the dark gate, Hodges creates an at once emotionally resonant and physically oppressive immersive experience for viewers. Passing through Western-style wooden doors, the viewer walks from an extremely darkened room into a lighted chamber with one end filled with blades forming a circle. The tips of the blades are covered with a combination of Hodges’ mother’s perfume, as well as the cologne he wore when she died. Evoking sensory memory through smell, the dark gate allows for a continual revisitation or as Benjamin would say “flash” of the loss and memory of his mother. While indicating a past loss, Hodges’ installation surrounds the viewer, transporting Hodges’ loss unquestionably into the present.
Reading Benjamin in combination with Freud’s theories of the differences between mourning and melancholia, Eng and Kazanjian build an understanding of loss that allows for a constant reinterpretation of the lost object whether the death of an individual or a loss of an idea, such as the disappearing gay, as well as artistic, community during the height of the HIV/AIDS crisis. Analyzing Freud, Eng and Kazanjian explain, “Unlike mourning, in which the past is declared resolved, finished, and dead, in melancholia the past remains steadfastly alive in the present. By engaging in ‘countless separate struggles’ with loss, melancholia might be said to constitute, as Benjamin would describe it, an ongoing and open relationship with the past—bringing its ghosts and specters, its flaring and fleeting images into the present.” (3-4).
Eng and Kazanjian continue, “This condensation of meaning allows us to understand the lost object as continually shifting both spatially and temporally, adopting new perspectives and meanings, new social and political consequences along the way” (5).
Refusing strict interpretations, Hodges work leaves room for this continually shifting reevaluation of these losses. Symbolic memorials to lost friends, lovers and communities, Hodges’ A Diary of Flowers creates a makeshift memorial with a range of possible meanings. Pinned to the museum wall, A Diary of Flowers consists of hundreds of blue drawings of flowers on small yellowing cocktail napkins. A record of time, as well as potentially a memorial to those passed during this period due to AIDS, A Diary of Flowers allows for multiple political and social interpretations, engaging the viewer in, as Benjamin would describe, “an ongoing and open relationship with the past.”
As Eng and Kazanjian discover in their introduction, “… Benjamin calls on us to seize hold of elusive histories that have been obscured by the historicist’s genuine image, not in order to fix those histories and establish new genuine images or new eternal truths, but rather to allow lost pasts to step into the light of a present moment of danger” (6).
Allowing these past losses to step into the light, Hodges’ odes to loss, memory and time act as an essential catalyst for viewers to remember, experience and consider these lost histories whether the history of the ongoing HIV/AIDS crisis or his personal loss of his mother.