The National Gallery of Victoria’s triennial showcase of local and international contemporary art, design and architecture closes 18 April, but the NGV Triennial 2020 lives on as a weighty catalogue. This massive tome is divided into five individual books titled: Dossier, Illumination, Reflection, Conservation, and Speculation. In the extract below, from Illumination, Astrid Lorange takes a close look at American artist Fred Wilson’s politically charged chandelier, To die upon a kiss, in the context of its links to both literature and the current push to acknowledge that Black Lives Matter.
To die upon a kiss
by Astrid Lorange
How to describe To die upon a kiss, 2011, by Fred Wilson? Or rather, to begin, how has the work already been described?
‘Fred Wilson has long felt a compassionate connection to William Shakespeare’s Othello, whose powerful position as general of the Venetian army was undermined by prejudice, jealousy, and betrayal’, opens the description by the Detroit Institute of Arts. (1) It seems simple enough – the work’s title derives from the final speech of Othello, who, having stabbed himself, speaks two last lines as he dies: ‘I kiss’d thee ere I kill’d thee: no way but this; / Killing myself, to die upon a kiss’. But no connection to Othello is simple.
The character, as Fred Moten has written, presents an impossibility of and for Blackness: ‘Black folks are enjoined to take responsibility for white fantasy and solve a problem not of their own making’. The heart of the problem, as Moten says, is that ‘the beauty of the language of that role [Othello], [and] the depth of human feeling it bears … is still filtered through the protocols of blackface no matter who plays it’. (2) Wilson’s ‘compassionate connection’, therefore, while presented as a personal interest or commonplace sympathy, indexes a larger and more complicated history about the representation of Blackness in the white imaginary, and the inheritance of a certain kind of responsibility for Black people to identify, disavow, reclaim or transform the problematic of race (captured, for example, in the character of Othello).
The concept of race, and the colonial-capitalist project of racialisation, were necessary foundations for the construction of white subjectivity as the agent of modernisation and the idea of the white subject as the rightful owner of the modern world. The racialised other has been seen not only as the opposite of what whiteness has imagined itself to represent, but also as the constant threat to what whiteness considers its possession; that is, the actual and entire world. In Shakespeare’s play, Othello’s Blackness – and the question of whether his loyalty, duty and exceptionality might save him from the fact of being Black – is the central concern of the tragedy, indeed, isthe tragedy. If Shakespeare’s rendering of Othello marks an early example of the Black man as a figure of racial anxiety – as part of the production of race per se – Wilson’s reference to Othello gestures towards the ongoing-ness of the colonial world-making project and the long arc of history that connects the fictional general with his contemporary counterpart.
The Detroit Institute of Arts’s description continues:
To Die Upon a Kiss – the redemptive final words of the hero of The Tragedy of Othello, The Moor of Venice (ca. 1603) – features uniquely colored glass that changes from crystal clear to gray to deepest black, simulating the slow ebb of life, as well as the fluid concept of race. (3)
To set aside for now the question of redemption (of what it is, exactly, that is imagined to be redeemed by Othello’s dying words), I want to think about the last part of this sentence, which links the materiality of the sculpture – a very large glass chandelier in which the beads follow a gradient from ‘white’ to ‘black’ – to life and the racialisation of it. What does it mean for the passage from white (‘crystal clear’) to black (‘the deepest black’) to describe the life, or the ‘slow ebb’ of it? Does it correlate the beginning of life with crystalline clarity, and the end with deep blackness? Does it speak to a movement from something to nothing, or, inversely, from nothing to something? Is it death that is represented by the deep black glass, or life? And, if this same passage, from white to grey to black, also signifies the ‘fluid concept of race’, what is the relation between the ‘slow ebb of life’ and race?
One interpretation of the phrase ‘fluid concept of race’ emphasises fluidity; that is, imagining that the shifting logics of racialisation prove that at heart, all humans are in common. Another interpretation might place an emphasis on the concept of race itself, and on the idea of Blackness that forms the foundational anti-Blackness of the colonial project and its economic engine of racial capitalism. For the former, the glass chandelier might look like a symbol of unity; for the latter, the same object might stand as a visual representation of the terrible interdependence of the concepts of white and Black – the inauguration of whiteness as that which arrives because of and after the fact of anti-Blackness.
I write this at a time in which, across the world, people are in the streets protesting anti-Black racism, carceral capitalism and police violence. In the wake of these massive, collective actions, the question of how Black life and Black art are simultaneously fetishised, exploited, devalued, criminalised and commodified has been asked directly of those institutions that would seek to both benefit from and publicly stand against the structures and logics of white supremacy. How, for example, might a museum confront its status as an institution that, via practices of collecting, categorising, canonising, narrativising, anthropologising, historicising and objectifying, delimit what is included and valued in official accounts of culture, meaning and sociality? What can a museum do in order to challenge these practices, to denounce them, to dismantle them, to fully move itself towards a different project of social and cultural life? Could it do so and even remain a museum?
Of course, such questions are hardly new: they did not arrive with the recent protests of 2020, which themselves did not arrive from nowhere. The struggle against anti-Blackness is as old as the concept itself, and the fight for justice is as old as injustice itself, just as the question of the possibility of a different kind of museum, or of the necessity for the destruction of the museum as we know it, is as old as the institution itself, a product of a certain kind of modern public life and testament to a certain belief that history can be forged (that is, that history is something made and therefore something that can be faked).
This is a partial extract from ‘To die upon a kiss’ by Astrid Lorange.
1. ‘Fred Wilson, To die upon a kiss, 2011’, Detroit Institute of Arts, accessed 8 July 2020.
2. Fred Moten, ‘Letting go of Othello’, The Paris Review, 1 Nov. 2019.
3. ‘Fred Wilson, To die upon a kiss, 2011’, Detroit Institute of Arts.