James Lee Byars

Galeria La Máquina Española

In the first room of the gallery, painted entirely black, at the exact center of the front wall, the letters IS were painted in gold. Was this tangible and absolute affirmation a question or a mere redundancy—a tautology in the question: is IS IS? Or was it a paradox in that the present affirmation of IS cannot be affirmed or defined, because it is indefinable?

The vernissage was officiated by James Lee Byars (who on another occasion wrote “I am an am”), dressed in a suit of gold, his head covered in black scarf and top hat, positioned between the IS and the end of the room. This entrance opens onto the gallery’s principal area; one passes through the door and down some small stairs to a lower level, which is divided by a partition into two perfectly symmetrical halves. On the floor here, as on the walls and the ceiling, completely lined with black velvet, low-level illumination allowed a glimpse of two perfect spheres, 35 centimeters in diameter, covered with gold leaf and symmetrically placed in the center of each of the rooms, almost as if one were a reflection of the other.

Byars’ work “inhabited” the spaces, imbuing them with a strange and magical quality. In IS, 1992, floor and ceiling were turned upside-down, subverting the conventional perception of space, which became a black hole. The void between the spheres produced an echo. The spheres referred not to stasis but to action, and the space opened itself up to an unanswerable question. Yet this question “is” in its circularity, in its duration, in the contemplation of it. Or was this merely the experience of the time that elapsed in contemplation? Were the spheres identical or just similar? What distinguishes identity from similitude? Are two perceptually equivalent spheres two or one? One thing can only be identical to itself, even in its perfection (Ludwig Wittgenstein). Two things are never identical, they are similar.

IS, like other works by Byars, is as sensually seductive as it is anachronistic and paradoxical: IS is the paradox, the displacement of meaning. It IS specular. IS, being identity between two equals, spaces, and perfectly similar spheres (similitude is a mystery, said Lao-tse), is a journey, and as such it is experience and reflection. It is the reflection of presence (gold) in an atmosphere where color as absence (black velvet) is memory and time.

The invitation card was also part of the work. A square black envelope, roughly the size of a human head, with an equally square inscription of deeper gold characters in the upper-left-hand corner, without beginning or end, announced IS. The envelope contained a perfect one-inch square of black velvet, the size of the contour or trace left—while time is—by a finger upon touching, or by a kiss.

Perfection is transition. A bridge. The Buddhists say: announce perfection until it appears. Byars announces perfection in order to create a new chronology in each particular moment. Time is not made of ends but of beginnings and borders, and a border always implies a world on the other side. An end also indicates the next thing to happen; as such, it indicates a path that connects the two sides; and the dark and the light sides are always united. As in Eastern philosophy, the universe depends on the battle between positive and negative, active and passive forces. The influence of Eastern culture, principally Japanese, is essential to Byars’ work, but he also refers to ancient Egypt. The ceremonial aspect of his works is dispossessed of all self-complacent theatricality. In IS, gold and black velvet create a funereal space where the word and the act are in the temporal space of silence.

Mar Villaespesa

Translated from the Spanish by Vincent T. Martin.