PRINT December 2021


Wu Tsang, Anthem, 2021, 5K video, color, sound, 20 minutes. Installation view, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York. Beverly Glenn-Copeland. Photo: David Heald.

THE GUGGENHEIM MUSEUM’S iconic architecture includes an oculus, a circular skylight that lets in the sun and suggests the eye of a celestial overseer. In 2021, the museum covered this aperture for a series of Covid-era video and performance works (by Sky Hopinka, Steffani Jemison, Lucy Raven, and others) in its darkened rotunda. Among the participating artists, Wu Tsang made particularly moving use of this occluded vision, filling the structure’s dim spaces with sound. Placing speakers throughout the museum, Tsang delivered an auditory experience that gave visitors a heightened awareness. Shifts in position along the inclined ramp brought subtle changes in attention and mood, suspending the listener between the work’s primary audiovisual channel—a video of singer and musician Beverly Glenn-Copeland, projected on an eighty-four-foot curtain—and isolated sonic snippets in the surrounding curves and crevices. Rather than the all-in aspect of seeing something (or being seen), the sounds here, described by curator X Zhu-Nowell as “ethereal,” offered an ever-changing situatedness. The listener was always moving toward something and away from something as those things shifted in time, producing a gradated subjectivity. Viewed from this spiraling pathway, the rotunda’s central visual work was brilliantly fragmented.

Anthem managed to draw something monumental out of the ephemeral. The towering curtain was stunning, Glenn-Copeland’s titanic scale commensurate with the impact and importance of his work. Reintroduced to some audiences in recent years, Glenn-Copeland’s music and voice offer clarity, wisdom, precision, power, and knowledge about the relationship between difference and oneness. His recordings, from his eponymous 1970 folk-jazz album to Keyboard Fantasies (1986) to Primal Prayer (2004), trace a fearless journey through genres—singer-songwriter, New Age, and others undefined. Like many, Tsang has found the musician’s work sustaining during the catastrophes of our era, describing it as an imagined “anthem of a place that we could all exist in.”

Wu Tsang, Anthem, 2021, 5K video, color, sound, 20 minutes. Installation view, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York. Beverly Glenn-Copeland. Photo: David Heald.

Anthem is an excellent example of Tsang’s major artistic strengths: her facility for installation, her carefully de-normative uses of the materials and capacities of mass-media production (the best lenses, incredible video resolution, a feeling of finish), her directorial yet collaborative approach. Glenn-Copeland joins the suite of inspiring and unusual artists, thinkers, and otherwise interesting agents who populate Tsang’s works, including writer and philosopher Fred Moten, performer Tosh Basco, choreographer Ligia Lewis, and singer Kelela, to name only a few. Tsang executed this work with her regular team of production collaborators, including Kelsey Lu, Asma Maroof, and Daniel Pineda.

In the video, Glenn-Copeland, appearing in a suit against a blue background, improvises with voice, drum, piano, hands, and breath to create rhythmic patterns and simple, evocative repetitions in a nearly twenty-minute loop. Given the density of linguistic content in his own musical work, this, too, served to fragment Glenn-Copeland, reducing his capacity for meaning-making to the fundamentals of his instruments. A video in an adjoining gallery showed Glenn-Copeland and his partner, Elizabeth Glenn-Copeland, in dialogue with the camera, speaking about spirituality and other matters in direct address. In the rotunda, Tsang and Glenn-Copeland wielded sound in a way that preceded an authorial voice. Glenn-Copeland transitions to song with an a cappella rendition of the spiritual “Deep River,” an authorless—or rather multiply authored—religious song of Black America that, like many of its kind, speaks simultaneously of distance, longing, and escape. It’s well known that in the antebellum era, Christian imagery such as the crossing of the River Jordan might have served as an instruction or map for an analogous exodus that couldn’t be explicitly named. “Deep River” is documented in an early-twentieth-century anthology of “Jubilee” songs and has been recorded by some of the most consequential voices in history—Marian Anderson, Paul Robeson, and Mahalia Jackson among them. Glenn-Copeland’s rendition of this material movingly offered a glimpse of freedom beneath that veiled oculus. For a moment, the blue-tinted curtain became a deep vertical river pushing through the center of the institution. Anthem serves not only as a unifying song for the territory Tsang coordinates but also as an antiphonic call-and-response its inhabitants may use to speak to one another outside of official language.

Malik Gaines is a member of the performance group My Barbarian and an associate professor of performance studies at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts.