The Frenzied Cacophony of Adam Pendleton

Adam Pendleton’s Who Is Queen? bristles with colossal unrest. Covering the Museum of Modern Art’s (MoMA) central atrium, the installation’s towering presence is buttressed by a five-story black scaffold, a skeleton-like container that enshrines a bricolage of two-dimensional works on silkscreen as well as wooden sculptural works. The centerpiece of the installation is a dialogue between two films: “Notes on the Robert E. Lee Monument Richmond, VA (figure)” (2021) and “Film Notes on Resurrection City” (2021). A third film, “So We Moved: A Portrait of Jack Halberstam” (2021), intermittently intervenes in the narrative, screening daily at 12:30 and 4:30pm. Cast in a crisp, theatrical white light, Pendleton’s installation transforms the atrium into a stage for riotous unfolding of a total work of art; a tempestuous assemblage of film, sculpture, and sound that immerses visitors in the unstable throes of protest and struggle.

The installation’s thesis pivots on a collision between two sites of protest and resistance. “Notes on the Robert E. Lee Monument Richmond, VA (figure)” (2021) studies one of today’s most recognizable icons of Confederate violence, which 2020 Black Lives Matter protests transformed into a visual archive of dissent. Meanwhile, “Film Notes on Resurrection City” (2021) turns to another site of protest, the titular Resurrection City, a grassroots tent city and anti-poverty demonstration erected at DC’s National Mall in 1968 following the assassination of Martin Luther King. 

But on the screen at MoMA, these two moments in history glide together into one picture of the longue durée of struggle. In fact, after going into the exhibition relatively unaware, it wasn’t until a close look at the museum’s wall text that I realized that I had been watching two distinct films. But rather than viewing this lack of firm distinction between the two films as a curatorial or artistic failure, I approached it as a generative osmosis. As they slip and slide together, the films reveal an honest picture of history and struggle that is jumbled and impure rather than neat or easy to follow. The camera transitions seamlessly from archival footage of Resurrection city to contemporary footage of the Robert E. Lee monument. Gaps between space and time that supposedly separate the two films are collapsed by their visual congruency: both films are shot in black and white, suggesting the nostalgia of an earlier time. Though grayscale is endemic to the footage in “Film Notes on Resurrection City,” the lack of color in “Film Notes on the Robert E. Lee Monument” diminishes its contemporaneity, inaugurating a blur between the two historical moments that Pendleton takes as his point of departure. 

Installation shots of Adam Pendleton: Who Is Queen? (photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

In fact, monochrome — a staple of Pendleton’s oeuvre — structures the entire installation. In the text-based silkscreen works that decorate the scaffold, monochrome both obscures and makes meaning. In a catastrophe of the written word, dense layers of black and white graffiti-like lettering crowd the panels, piled successively on top of one another. We are left with the textual equivalent of the scream: words and sentences are broken into letters that vie for visibility, layers and layers of text seem to shout at us, refusing the ease of legibility that our eye craves. Buried in this thick buzz of calligraphy, I was reminded of the graffiti that has come to crowd the base of the Robert E. Lee monument Pendleton takes up in his film — that restless display of words that has become one of many signifiers of rebellion against the ordering logic of white supremacy. 

Called from Richmond to Washington to the galleries of MoMA, oscillating between these distinct but indistinct moments in history, I also found myself cartwheeling between multiple experiences of time, a quickening and slowing that left me in a whirlpool of movement and stillness. Through the montaging of active video footage and still photography — most often portraits of people at the encampment — history becomes both massive and immediate in scale. Time pirouettes before our eyes as footage of Civil Rights marches flash between images of Freedom Riders. Then the film dips to the graceful speed of intimacy as the camera rests on careful portraits of Resurrection City dwellers and protesters. At times, the camera dares to intrude upon the stony visage of Robert E. Lee, lingering for several close-up shots. This intimacy felt almost uncanny: rendered vulnerable by this steady, discerning gaze, the monument seemed for a moment almost stripped bare of its power. 

The disjointed temporality affected by these visual arrangements explodes in Pendleton’s accompanying sound collage, a contrapuntal cacophony of struggle that engulfs the audience in layers of music, spoken word, chanting, and speech. A contemporary musical arrangement by Hahn Rowe titled “Yellow Smile” (1994) stretches across both films, carrying with it the tense lyricism of violins and electronic sound. In “Film Notes on Robert E. Lee, Rowe’s piece overlaps with a clashing of two distinctly resolute sounds: a 1980 recording of the poet and revolutionary Amiri Baraka and a 2014 iPhone recording from a Black Lives Matter demonstration in Manhattan, which carried me to my own memories of various protests. Baraka’s polemical cadence intersects with and is cut by a tide of the crowd, and poetry erupts into the sound of protest en masse. We are thrust into a tidal wave of sound from today and yesterday as history crescendos and decrescendos. In the frenzy of Pendleton’s rhythm, history doesn’t simply settle for repeating itself. Rather, it jolts forward, stammers, pauses for breath, weaves around itself. It is a time that refuses settlement or order. While I initially endeavored to keep up, ultimately, I surrendered to the disorder, allowing the installation to wash over me in all of its chaos.  

At 4:30pm on the day of my first visit to Pendleton’s installation, time slowed again and made way for “So We Moved: A Portrait of Jack Halberstam,” which follows the radical life and work of the Columbia University Gender Studies professor. The film was bracketed off from the two Film Notes, preceded by its own introductory text: a poem by T.S. Eliot from which the title is derived. Eliot’s presence at the opening of the film is illuminating: Halberstam has engaged substantially with the poet. In his 2020 book Wild Things, Halberstam theorizes Eliot’s Four Quartets as engendering a “sense of a disorderly orientation to time and to life.” This sensibility erupts in Pendleton’s film, which luxuriates in the slowness required to paint a portrait. At the same time, the film left me eager, yearning for a new vision of the world that Halberstam demands is possible. “I believe in the collapsing order of things,” Halberstam remarks. “Instead of refusing the tag of monstrosity … embrace it.” The visual and sonic uproar of Pendleton’s installation answers this invitation. It insists on a monstrous politics and aesthetics of disorientation, contorting time, space, image, and sound to offer what is perhaps a prelude to the destruction of the very order upon which our world rests. The scaffold climbs up MoMA’s interior walls, devouring the museum and consuming the audience in a tumult of activity along with it. 

Adam Pendleton, “Untitled (WE ARE NOT)” (2021), silkscreen ink on canvas, 120×144 (image courtesy the artist, via the Museum of Modern Art)

The anarchic aesthetics of Pendelton’s work offers us much to revel in. At the same time, I found myself wondering whether the installation was entirely successful in its ambitions towards being “total work of art.” Though the premise of the exhibition prizes the multitude over the singular, the chorus over the soloist, the installation struck me as prioritizing film above the other relevant media. To a degree, film has the unfair advantage of having more “going on” — image, sound, and movement. But this distinction between media is only accented in Who Is Queen?; while the film overflows with sonic and visual stimuli, the scaffold seemed comparatively underutilized. As rich as Pendelton’s text-based panels were, the scaffold itself felt full with lots of negative space, a lack which became particularly obvious given the scaffold’s hugeness and its contrast with the white walls of the gallery. The problem of media was brought into sharper relief by what felt like a lack of integration between the film — which looms large across a single wall — and the rest of the installation. Chairs face the screen, encouraging viewers to sit and experience the films from a stationary position. But the installation requires activity from the viewer: experiencing it fully required me to navigate the room and shift through multiple perspectives of observation, getting up close to get lost in the details and then stepping back, craning my neck to see the uppermost registers of the scaffold. Sitting to watch the films and then standing to take on the rest of the installation, this tension between active, participatory experience of the total installation and more passive spectatorship of the film felt unresolved.

The space itself comes with its own unresolved questions. Importantly, Pendleton’s exhibition is textured by a third site of protest: MoMA itself. For months, activist coalitions in New York have recently been staging continual protest at the museum for its upholding of toxic philanthropy and the ties of several of its board members to the prison industrial complex and the Israeli occupation of Palestine. Pendleton’s project assumes a particularly fraught relationship to these institutional politics. Not only does the project occupy a building — or perhaps more accurately, a monument — embroiled in protest, but Pendelton also conducted extensive museum-based archival research at MoMA and at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis to make the project possible. At the same time, the premise of the project is rooted in institutional critique — its radical proposal contingent on a contrast between the confines of the museum and the wildly uncontainable form of the installation. Given the increasing calls for a world beyond museums and monuments, Who Is Queen? is caught in the crosshairs. Yes, the project is unsettling on its own terms, but also mired in the tensions of the very thing it devours.

Adam Pendleton: Who Is Queen? continues at the Museum of Modern Art (11 W 53rd Street, New York, NY) until February 21, 2022. It was curated by Stuart Comer, Danielle A. Jackson, Gee Wesley, and Veronika Molnar.

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