In Four Quartets, T.S. Eliot writes: “For most of us, there is only the unattended moment, the moment in and out of time.” (“Dry Salvages”). It is those “unattended moments” that I am in pursuit of, but rarely encounter, when visiting exhibitions. The late American artist James Lee Byars, whose work I have always admired and continue to exhibit (I have a major Byars project underway at the Phillips to be announced later this year), pursued the “perfect moment” for more than forty years.
Klaus Ottmann performing James Lee Byars’s The Perfect Smile at the Musée d’Art Moderne et Contemporain in Strasbourg, December 2004
In the late 1950s, the young Byars left his hometown of Detroit to live in Kyoto, Japan, where he remained, with interruptions from 1958 to 1968. There he learned to appreciate the ephemeral as a valued quality in art and embrace the ceremonial as a continuing mode in his life and work, which became inseparable. During these formative years, he adapted the highly sensual, abstract, and symbolic practices found in Japanese Noh theater and Shinto rituals to Western science, art, and philosophy. His pursuit of the “perfect” originated from a unique synthesis of Oriental practices, conceptual art, minimalism, and fluxus, infused with aspects of the happening, body art, and installation art. For Byars, perfection was an impossibility, except for the auspicious moment (kairos) where life and death, happiness and tragedy, are one.
In 1994 Byars presented one of his fleeting performances, The Perfect Smile, to the Museum Ludwig in Cologne as a gift with the request that it be exhibited like any other work in its collection. In accordance with his wish, the performance was borrowed and reenacted for the first time since his death, for the retrospective of his works, which I organized in 2004 for the Schirn Kunsthalle in Frankfurt and the Musée d’Art Moderne et Contemporain in Strasbourg. It was performed by me or by the museum’s staff once a day in front of a black wall. The performance consists of a very subtle movement of one’s mouth to indicate the briefest smile possible, before it vanishes.
Two weeks ago, visiting Light Show, an exhibition at London’s Hayward Gallery, I was standing in front of three columns of pulsating light by the Welsh artist Cerith Wyn Evans, and experienced one of these rare auspicious moments, an evanescent burst of happiness and, yes, love, that lasted no longer than a few seconds as each column grew brighter until it reached an almost religious degree of intensity before slowly fading into darkness.
Cerith Wyn Evans, S=U=P=E=R=S=T=R=U=C=T=U=R=E (‘Trace me back to some loud, shallow, chill, underlying motive’s overspill…’), 2010. Hayward Gallery, London, May 2013. Photo courtesy of Oli Scarff
There are three great themes in James Lee Byars’s work: Life, Love, and Death, but it is Love that is at the heart of Byars’s notion of the Perfect. There are two philosophical concepts of perfect love: in Spinoza’s amor Dei intellectualis, the love of God is the highest form of knowledge, which is accomplished by the simple act of man loving himself; in Kierkegaard, Abraham’s perfect love of God, expressed by his preparedness to sacrifice his son, is at the core of Kierkegaard’s theory of the leap to faith. In both cases, it is a marriage of love and certitude (knowledge that does not require objective proof) that results in a perfect moment.