14.3 / Bag Lady in Flight / Sampada Aranke

Black One Shot stages brevity and precision in response to the art of blackness, contemporary and/or prescient. At 1000 words a pop, these pieces divest from academic respectability to inhabit the speculative, ambivalent, irreconcilable ways of black forms, and move through the fires this time. Seditiously, we are object forward, conjuring up the necessary intimacy generated between a critic and their object and keyed to the channels and frequencies of blackness. We hold fast to the given/taken works, the cultural productions without reduction, the condition of knowing all-too-well, and the imagining of something otherwise. Object love in the time of pandemics and insurrections. 

b.O.s. will run the course of summer 2020, come what may. We invite you to follow and share hard. Thanks to all the contributors and special thanks to Abram Foley, Aurelie Matheron, and Irenae Aigbedion of ASAP/J.

– Lisa Uddin and Michael Boyce Gillespie (Editors)

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David Hammons, Bag Lady in Flight, c, 1975-76 (reconstructed 1990). Shopping bags, grease, hair. Photo by Ed Glendinning. Courtesy of the Eileen Harris Norton Collection.

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Bag Lady in Flight (1975) is a body of history’s making. Composed of grease, hair and shopping bags, she is made of quotidian, undervalued detritus that David Hammons works into a wry commentary on the substances, smirks, and sensations of Black life. Curators and scholars alike have interpreted Hammons’s use of these and other materials as objects of Black life in the U.S. and as objects that initiate Black gathering.1 Here, I consider these engagements in relation to art history and its possessive investment in whiteness.2 In Bag Lady, Hammons works through these materials to activate both this art historical violence and other historiographic possibilities in one swift gesture.

Bag Lady is blackness in flight, fanned out, and emphatically marked by grease. Described by Hammons as a centered “negative space,” her pubic fold rhythms out into triangular ripples across the bottom nape of her left side; a composition of Black hair that, as Hammons has elsewhere noted, is always already racialized.3 Grease covers the bag like sweat covers skin, evidencing her exertion across the plane. Despite being weighed down by associations of her various components as low-class and unkempt, she is already in the air, in motion, and we are lucky to catch a glimpse. She is as ubiquitous as a paper plane and as singular as a piece of gallery art. She alerts us to the arbitrary conditions of value that are racialized, gendered and classed.4 A paper bag, whose original shape is intended to hold and carry, is flattened and folded to compose her corporeal contours. The embodiment presented reconstitutes how a body is seen, as both a container of sensations and a conduit of valued meaning. Bag Lady’s embodiment maneuvers the arid constraints that position her as merely a screen for white projection. She flees these conditions and offers a cheeky and searing indictment of white fantasies. With folds, stains, and handles, her fanned-out wings hover above the ground as if to remind us that, even when encumbered, she is always above it all.

Image courtesy of Kris Kuramitsu

Two women are active here, albeit in radically different ways and poses. One is inspired by the white women in early photographic experiments on motion. Long-legged and machinic in her descent down a flight of stairs, she appears in Marcel Duchamp’s Nude Descending Staircase No. 2 (1912) as an abstracted, idealized representation of femininity.5  The other woman is partially anonymous by stereotype. Homeless, she carries her baggage everywhere and appears in art’s histories as a constructed body composed of “objects made black.”6 By composing this figure of  Black homeless woman, Hammons stages a commentary on how a white imaginary is enabled by this very figure whose subjectivity stages the limits of and exceeds whiteness writ large. Blackness, in Hammons’s hands, is the always alreadymade that structures Duchamp’s readymade.7 Hammons’s deployment of a Duchampian language is not a whole cloth exaltation. He deforms and misuses that language by bending, stretching, and poking holes in its sacredness making the work as everyday as water, a paper bag, bottle caps, and basketball. Indeed, by using readymades as an ordinary objects, Hammons speaks to the ordinary status of the artist himself. A rematerialized wink at Duchamp’s Nude turned 90 degrees, Bag Lady highlights how Duchamp’s legacy has been canonized by the gatekeepers of art history. These evangelical followers elevate the artist to an historical relic, measuring those after him at heaven’s gate to determine who may proceed and who is condemned to hell.8 Hammons works to both reify and dislodge Duchamp from his canonical place. And in so doing, we might think of how Hammons uses Duchamp to secure his own place in that history, as well as the histories that have nothing to do with Duchamp at all.

Elena Filipovic insists Hammons understands that art history is but a history of that which can be photographed – and that he turns to the camera for his method of composition.9 Bag Lady is a result of Hammons’s use of the camera as a historiographic device and as an apparatus of sight itself. Rather than translating his work from one medium to another, per Duchamp, Hammons allows the camera to shape his sense of sight in order to see his object historically. He does not take a snapshot of Bag Lady and then work off that photograph as a model. Instead, he looks through the viewfinder as an extension of his own eye and then turns back to the piece to make adjustments based on that perspective. This awareness of photography’s solidifying of one’s archival place is manifest in Hammons’s sculptural technique. This lens-based object produces a way of seeing how history might eventually see you. As such, Hammons prepares a place for himself and for Bag Lady within history, albeit improperly.

Hijacking a historical and visual language only to deform it, Hammons mobilizes a distinctive disobedient commentary on how blackness constitutes the very ground upon which a white avant-garde becomes legible. Hammons’s sightly method of composition identifies a commitment to being historically seen outside of the white supremacist manifestations of propriety, surveillance, and study that haunt the photographic medium. Bag Lady’s very body takes up space as unruly and unsightly while simultaneously breathtaking and wondrous; her comportment reaches across the social and art historical limitations placed upon her body. The seer and sitter are bodies that enact blackness through sight, material, and form. It is in this way that Bag Lady makes room for improper aesthetic practices and takes historical flight.

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This is one of five essays from the fourteenth transmission of b.O.s. (Black One Shot). Read the other essays here:

b.O.s. 14.1 / Somesay-Someday / L.H. Stallings

b.O.s. 14.2 / Glenville / Allyson Nadia Field

b.O.s. 14.4 / Claudette’s Star / Matthew Barrington

b.O.s. 14.5 / Habla Lamadre / Courtney Desiree Morris

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Lisa Uddin is author of Zoo Renewal: White Flight and the Animal Ghetto (University of Minnesota Press, 2015), and has recent writing in the volume Race and Modern Architecture: A Critical History from the Enlightenment to the Present (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2020), ASAP/J, Los Angeles Review of Books, and Postmodern Culture. She’s here for the freedom.

Michael Boyce Gillespie is the author of Film Blackness: American Cinema and the Idea of Black Film (Duke University Press, 2016). His recent work has appeared in Black Light: A Retrospective of International Black Cinema, Flash Art, Unwatchable, and Film Quarterly. He hopes that people are still outraged in November.

Endnotes

  1. For work on how David Hammons’s material choices activate Black social meaning that is particularly crucial to my study, see Huey Copeland, “A Seat at the Table: Notes of an Institutional Creature,” October, No. 168, (Spring 2019): 63-78; Elena Filiopovic, David Hammons: Bliz-aard Ball Sale (Cambridge: Afterall Books/MIT Press, 2017); Tom Finkelpearl, “Ideology of Dirt,” in David Hammons: Rousing the Rubble, ed. Alana Heiss, (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1991): 61-89;  Kellie Jones. “In the thick of it: David Hammons and hair culture in the 1970s,” Third Text 12:44 (Autumn 1988): 17-24; Kellie Jones, “Interview with David Hammons,” in Eyeminded: Living and Writing Contemporary Art (Durham, Duke University Press, 2011): 248-259; Abbe Schriber, “‘Those who know don’t tell’: David Hammons, c. 1981,” Women and Performance, Volume 29, no. 1 (February 2019), pp. 41–61; Robert Farris Thompson, “David Hammons: ‘Knowing Their Past,” in An Aesthetic of Cool: Afro-Atlantic Art and Music (New York: Periscope Publishing, 2011): 92-105; Tobias Wofford, “Can You Dig It? Signifying Race in David Hammons’s ‘Spade’ Series,” in L.A. Object & David Hammons Body Prints (New York: Tilton Gallery, 2011): 86-135.
  2. George Lipsitz, The Possessive Investment in Whiteness: How White People Profit From Identity Politics (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2006).
  3. In a 1994 rare talk, Hammons had this to say: “This is ’74 in Los Angeles at the Barnsdall Community Art Gallery…[T]his is, hair, and paper bags and rubber bands. I became fascinated with hair as a media to express a culture’s identity…because it is so pure in its form…I decided to put this negative space in the center because I looked through a camera and it looked interesting. Through a 35 millimeter camera….I put the grease on it cuz it had this…Jackson Pollock look.” David Hammons, “Artist Talk,” March 3, 1994, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, mp4a, 48:32, courtesy of Jeff Gunderson, Librarian and Archivist of the Anne Bremer Memorial Library, San Francisco Art Institute.
  4. Hammons worked frequently with bones, paper bags, and grease in the 1970s. At the time of their making, these works were not for sale and thus did not accrue immediate art market value. He notes, “This was after I had taken off  for a couple of years and come up with an abstract art that wasn’t salable. These things were brown paper bags with hair, barbecue bones, and grease thrown on them. But nothing was for sale. Other black artists here couldn’t understand why you would do it if you couldn’t sell it.” Kellie Jones, “Interview with David Hammons,” in Eyeminded: Living and Writing Contemporary Art (Durham, Duke University Press, 2011), 249.
  5. If, for Duchamp, Nude was born out of a world where “[t]he whole idea of movement, of speed, was in the air,” then Bag Lady’s flight is an atmospheric rupture that the 20th century’s avant-garde could not have foreseen. Katherine Kuh, The Artist’s Voice: Talks with Seventeen Artists (New York: De Capo Press, 2000), 83.
  6. Huey Copeland, Bound to Appear: Art, Slavery, and the Site of Blackness in Multicultural America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013); Sampada Aranke, “Objects Made Black,” Art Journal, Volume 73, No. 3 (Fall 2014): 86-88.
  7. I borrow this poetic gesture from Huey Copeland’s discussion of Lorna Simpson’s work: “In Five Rooms, blackness is “alreadymade,’ capable of being evoked with the lightness of touches.” Copeland’s analysis seems directly appropriate to Hammons’s work, which also takes up the Duchampian language of the readymade but only to direct us towards its historical precedent: the formation of blackness as alreadymade in a genealogy of subjects turned objects for commercial trade. Copeland, ibid: 99.
  8. It is worth noting that Hammons has steadily composed work in reference to Duchamp with works that range from his uptake of the famed artist’s “readymade” in works like Bliz-aard Ball Sale (1983) to his 2007 artist book in which he re-bound a 1997 softcover edition of The Complete Works of Marcel Duchamp by Arturo Schwartz with a leather cover embossed with the words Holy Bible: Old Testament, thus ironically sacralizing Duchamp, whose wisdom continues to guide the art world. Elena Filiopvic’s illustrious book on David Hammons’s 1983 work Bliz-aard Ball Sale has proven critical to this study.
  9. Elena Filopovic, ibid, 75.
Sampada Aranke
Sampada Aranke is an Assistant Professor in the Art History, Theory, Criticism Department at the School of the Art Institute, Chicago. Her work has been published in e-flux, Artforum, and Art Journal. She has written catalogue essays for Sadie Barnette, Faith Ringgold, Kambui Olujimi, Rashid Johnson, and Zachary Fabri. She's currently working on her book manuscript entitled Death's Futurity: The Visual Culture of Death in Black Radical Politics.