The National Gallery’s “Homecoming” and a Love Letter Between the Lines

Photo courtesy of the National Gallery of Art

You would have thought the National Gallery was a nightclub if you were walking on DC’s Constitution Avenue on the evening of September 8th – colored lights bled onto the sidewalk outside, food trucks stood at the ready for hungry twenty-four year olds, a DJ perched on the third floor played top 40 remixes, and bars stationed on the first and second levels were surrounded with folks eagerly waiting for a $20 cocktail. This was the relaunch of the National Gallery Nights series for the first time since the beginning of the pandemic, titled Homecoming, and was clearly catered towards a younger clientele with promises of food, booze, pop-up performances, talks, and trivia. And although I don’t usually find myself interested in writing about big, institutional galleries such the National Gallery, I admit I was intrigued.

The evening coalesced around the exhibition The Double: Identity and Difference in Art since 1900, which the gallery claims to be the first major exhibition to query contemporary artists’ use of “the double” as a means to pose questions about difference. In addition to artists that seem to find their way into any gallery invoking doubleness such in the exhibition such as Warhol, Truitt, Rauschenberg, Johns, and Hesse, more recent work by Kerry James Marshall, Glenn Ligon, Roni Horn, and Yinka Shonibare were also featured throughout the exhibit.

Objects, canvases, and subjects in double, each pair neatly positioned side-by-side, occupied the entirety of the space. The exhibit, curated by James Meyer, was comprehensive in representing the contours of doubleness as it functioned throughout the 20th century: 

“Artists have long explored doubling, but developments in modern literature, film, photography, and psychology since 1900, and the emergence of abstraction in modern art, have created especially fertile conditions for artistic doubling. Presenting works in a wide range of media by more than ninety artists, the exhibition examines the perceptual, conceptual, and psychological implications of the double in four sections: Seeing Double, a comparison of like and like that invites us to look closely; Reversal, involving forms mirrored, rotated, or turned upside down; Dilemma, a difficult choice between two possibilities; and The Divided and Doubled Self, including split and shadowed selves, personae, and fraternal, romantic, or artistic pairs. 

The art of doubling challenges us to look and look again”

And yet, as I wandered between the rooms constituting the exhibits and attempted to examine the adjacent pairs, my eyes kept returning to the interstice of white walls between the canvas frames, the wooden floor separating art objects, and the vacuum dividing aesthetic subjects. While the exhibit claims the double to examine difference as it has to do with formation of subjects, it seems to me a most important component is neglected: the process of relationality. To compare, to mirror or transform, to choose, to divide or double the self: these things are not binary operations but processes that examine the spatial, temporal, and affective relation between objects – in these inquiries into the spectral properties between the two points that make up each double, true binary logic falls short. 

While this has less to do with the curated art works of the exhibit itself and perhaps more to do with the exhibit’s logic it takes as a priori, rhetoric matters. Binaries logics have long disenfranchised the LGBTQIA+, Black, and Indigenious communities as it has too often relied on objective knowledge in exchange for situated, embodied, and assembled models of epistemology and subjectivity. Queer artist Roni Horn’s Things That Happen Again (1986), included in the exhibit, pursues such an epistemology through their use of “pair objects”, a double of cylindrically shaped units made of solid copper that become different artworks contingent on the objects’ orientation to each other. From the gallery room I stood in, the one adjacent to the space where the pair object was situated, I could see one unit placed conspicuously in the middle of the room – it was only until I entered the space and looked to my left, previously out of view, that I realized the unit was only half of the work. If queerness is an oscillation between the legible and illegible, and Horn’s assemblages function as queer metaphor by concealing half of the piece in particular spatial and temporal orientations while others permit its legibility. Roni Horn previously wrote that “water is the master verb; an act of perpetual relation”; in Things That Happen Again, the solid state of copper is transfigured into fluid in being both single and double: a Schrödinger paradox. What matters is not the objects themselves but the interval between our experiences of one and two. 

Photo courtesy of Robert Shelley/The National Gallery of Art

Returning to the night of the Homecoming, and having visited The Double, I nearly crashed into a moving, wooden fixture fastened with a mirror that was completely static earlier in the night. After realizing that I was not in fact stereotyping myself as the aloof and unaware twink, the fixture turned to an opening on the side – inside was a performer carrying the fixture, unable to see in the direction they were moving. This was a pop-up performance of Josiah McElheny’s Walking Mirrors performed by Deviated Theatre, a piece consisting of two performers inside and carrying a wooden apparatus, fitted with mirrors on its front and back ends, around a performance space.

The performance took place at the foot of the entrance to both The Double’s exhibit and another performance happening around the corner, so the performance received a lot of traffic. At numerous times over the performance, I felt anxiety over the fact that the performer might run into a child, some drunk twenty year old who had pregamed a bit too hard before the evening, or other viewers of the performance themselves that often got quite close to the performers. The performers offer our mirrored selves, our double, in exchange for their ability to see any potential collisions – as a result, I felt the tension between the ability to see myself in the apparatus’ mirror, my double, or to take care of the performer, stay clear of the apparatus, and lose sight of my reflection.

Walking Mirrors, like Horn, unveils the double as two threads that call for perpetual relation. Not just the spatial relation between my body and the mirror, but an affective relation that acknowledges the labor on behalf of the performer carrying the apparatus and takes care of the performer by ensuring their safe voyage.

The second pop-up performance that evening was a program of pieces performed by chromic.duo, the project of powerhouse musicians Lucy Yao and Dorothy Chan. The program combined electronics, acoustic grand and toy piano, and recordings of stories from New York City’s Chinatown as well as the duo’s own embodied experience as Asian Americans.

The music was overwhelmingly lush and felt as if an embrace, particularly poignant provided the vulnerability opened up by the intimate accounts of joy and grief offered by the audio recordings. Towards the end of the program, Chan prompts the audience to use our phones to scan a QR code on the program to view an augmented reality filter created by media artist Brian Ellis – through the screen, the room became one of augmented reality where sky lanterns filled the auditorium, an emergent third space between the endpoints of China and the USA. 

At some point, Yao asks (maybe the audience, maybe herself, maybe someone secret):

“Let it be a love letter

Let it be okay to live between the lines”

Between acoustic and electronic sound, forming identity in diasporic trails between cultures: Yao and Chan pursue a subject in an interstice that pushes back on classification and exchanges static dyads for fluidity. It reminds me of how Judith Butler writes at one point in Precarious Lives:

“Let’s face it. We’re undone by each other. And if we’re not, we’re missing something. If this seems so clearly the case with grief, it is only because it was already the case with desire” (p. 23).

Like Butler, Yao and Chan claim that relations are not simply influential, but even more compelling: they are made up and undone by them. With that, maybe the double was never just a double in the first place but a multitude of relations that brought each object of the pair into being. Maybe I wanted the National Gallery, like this performance, to ask us to be water or an infinite, shapeshifting plane. 

On the Metro home from the evening, I imagined what such a plane would be like – who I would love, who I could be, what I could call myself (would I need to call myself anything?). I imagined it would be a bureaucratic nightmare, and I smiled at the thought – a gallery federally funded by the USA may never dream of such a liberation.

Let us, then, be the dreamers of the empty space between repetitions that sows fertile soil for difference and kinship.

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