Ruslana Lichtzier | Full Exhibition Text for Devin T. Mays, An Offering of Things
There are objects, as is the case with the objects affiliated with Devin T. Mays, that come to being with presence that insists on incompleteness. With no origin and no end, the objects—Light, Weight, Plastic, Bench—keep reappearing in different constellations. At times, their form morphs, at times they cease. And yet, regardless of the seriality of presence(s), they do not accumulate “about”; contumacious, they have no subject. Objects without a subject, they are unruly. Subjectless, they escape their condition of subjugation; they are not owned (do not confuse the artist’s name with the property of ownership). —present, contumacious, they are also, already, in the midst of a flight. Retreating from the white cubes to the wrecked landscapes of bygone cities, they are drifts in (un)becoming.
This may sound quite esoteric, and indeed it is. Even so, I intend to write as plainly as possible, not about, but alongside Mays’s objects as they come to presence and as they recede.[i]
Mays names what then becomes Art. He names Weight. He names Light. He names Plastic. Importantly, what he names as Light, and Weight, and Plastic, is that very thing. With naming, Mays transports that thing in language from its common place—it being a common noun—into a singular space; it becomes a proper noun and as such, it is unique. The linguistic transition from the common to the singular is accompanied with a material transport. Naming it, Mays transports the thing from there to here. Often this entails the transportation to the studio and then to the exhibition’s space, though at times, the transportation will be to the outdoors, and at other times it may entail the conveyance from there to there; Weight is also at 73rd and Woodlawn.
The double process of naming and transportation opens space and gaps in the objects’ episteme. Shimmering the mundane that is the sacred, the objects break off their previously assigned meaning and depart from the value system which encircled them. Occupying the double space of the common and the unique, the objects disavow the logic of capitalism. This disavowal, this bearing on negation, opens a space of singularity, which is the possibility for a different form of relations. It may be interesting to consider this process as a form of re-epistemologization, of becoming known as différance; on the inhabitation of two states that null one another and yet exist.
In conversations, Mays repeatedly strays from discussing the objects as being made. Instead, the objects are “conjured.” This is a technical definition. With being conjured up with naming, with the objects being not made, Mays performs a negational ritual to the properties of ownership, or, to put it another way, Mays performs, ritually, a refusal to property, to own and to be owned (“nothing is mine,” Mays would simply say). This performance, a ritual, is an element of—as Mays defines it—a “shamanistic practice,” which is to say, Mays practices shamanism as and in art. By extension, this practice, being shamanistic, expands to the ways in which Mays practices everything else in life. It is the conduit through which the objects are transported from the common to the singular (and to the common back). The conduit is formed with intentions that remain mostly unspoken within the discourse of contemporary art; with setting intention, with being present, while surrendering, with love. All are elements of spirit; all are based on trust (“I trust in trust”).
Mays requires trust materially, not unlike a painter who requires canvases or paper. This trust is imbued in the objects Mays conjures, and that which emanates towards the viewer, who must sense that presence to trust the object—or perhaps it is the other way around. At any rate, if one mistrusts the object’s presence, the object dissipates. Again, this is not a metaphor. Rather, it is a material and an immaterial effect of an artistic practice.
Trust is what transports the object away from its relation as a thing to be owned and traded, an actualized proposal that is nothing but a radical move on Mays’s part, specifically since it is done in the sphere of art. Radical, since it is trust that fractures the sphere of contemporary art which operates on neutralized capitalist constructs, that is, on an unquestioned, trusted set of beliefs. The material, and hence commercial sphere of contemporary art requires trust in the genius maker, unique objects, and armies of experts who decipher the works and speculate on their future value. Refusing this set of beliefs, Mays conjures presences of objects that refuse their current properties, refuse the property of property, refuse the proper.
“It would seem as though knowing has been in service for my survival”—
the artist pauses, clears his throat, corrects, repeats—“it would seem as though knowing has been in service for my survival.”
–Devin T. Mays, Impudence, 2019.
Two years ago, Mays produced Impudence in collaboration with his father, and I have been watching it all morning, on Vimeo, rewinding on repeat. The world, our lives, have changed so much that it is a cliché to say, “the world had changed so much,” and yet, I say it, since the break is fundamental. Watching, I am nearing the presence of the work.
The effects of the global and national events that occurred between November 2019—the time of Mays’s performance—and October 2021—the moment of this text—are too grand to be bracketed by words. And yet, the still ravaging COVID-19 pandemic which took the lives of close to five million people; the nine minutes and twenty-nine seconds during which a white police knelt on George Floyd’s neck, killing him on tape, and then the local and global waves of furor, the protests and the riots; Trump’s failed impeachment, Biden’s and Harris’s elections, the January 6 riot; the death of Supreme Court Justice RBG, and the renewed fight over abortion rights; the devastating brushfires in Australia, the repeated record-breaking heatwaves and fires in North America, hurricane Ida; the killing of the Haitian president Jovenel Moïse, the compounded civil unrest, the massive earthquake on the island, and then, the “Haitian migrant crisis” on the US-Mexico border; the explosion of Beirut’s port, and then Lebanon’s electric grid going dark this summer; the Taliban’s renewed control over Afghanistan after the US retreat; the war on Gaza; I could keep going. It seems as if time began to move faster, as if it accelerated, and with this new velocity, the seismic breaks produced by the ongoing world events send shockwaves upon our bodies and we do not have time to heal. Amid this ongoing catastrophe, there was a single death that split my heart, as well as Mays’s, as well as many others’. The artist Greg Bae passed on July 19, 2021. (This is not an obituary for his death.) In the video on Vimeo, Greg stands in the corner, watching Mays. His delicate expressions and minor movements express a deep attention; concerned, amused, curious, he stands there, wearing his blue-beige jacket. The jacket that now is in Mays’s care.
How can I write of breaks? And if it is to breaks that I am to relate, how am I to do so? How can I relate? To what?
The chosen conduit for the collaboration between Mays and his father, Dexter was Fredrick Douglass. As Mays’s father recalled it, Devin asked him to “demonstrate Douglass.” Taking up the challenge, Dexter T. Mays decided to converse on the subject of the 19th-century photographic portraiture of Black subjects vis-à-vis Fredrick Douglass’s writings and likeness. In his demonstration, Mays mobilized “impudence,” a term used by Douglass to describe a status of a person outside their social place, as a form of past futurity. Impudence became the title of the performance, and as such, its conceptual frame. This allowed one to deduct that the work is about representation. And yet, an early moment in the performance suggests otherwise.
While introducing the project and its conduit, Fredrick Douglass, Devin T. Mays says, “I wasn’t concerned about why…” pausing mid-sentence, the artist stops his pace, rubs his forehead, and looks down. Dexter T. Mays enters the floor, gently touches his son’s elbow, sits on Bench. Devin T. Mays then clears the throat, and yet his voice insists on slightly breaking, “I wasn’t concerned about how or why I will make Douglass make sense….” he resumes but pauses once more. At this point, the audience around Devin T. Mays, among them many of his friends, seems to become concerned, as if they want to help him, as if it is Devin who breaks. Devin T. Mays continues, “I wasn’t concerned about how or why I will make Douglass make sense in a room full of Newport boxes.” He halts again, wipes his right eye, sniffles and goes on, “I wanted to cry, I wanted us to try.”*
While Dexter T. Mays centered on Black representation, Devin T. Mays repeated time and again that he was not concerned with making “Douglass make sense.” Instead, repeatedly breaking his speech, he evokes a cry. Why does Devin T. Mays reorient our attention from making sense to crying?
Frederick Douglass’s primal scene, the scene of his origination as it is presented in his biographic work, is located in Aunt Hester’s cry, or rather, in her scream. Fred Moten wrote extensively about Douglass’s narration of this originating violence as that which became the primal scene of Black expression. Moten writes: “I began to consider that the scream’s content is not simply unrepresentable but instantiates, rather, an alternative to representation. Such consideration does no such thing as empty the scream of content. It makes no such gesture. Rather, it seeks after what the scream contains (and pours out), and after the way that content is passed on—too terribly and too beautifully—in black art” (Fred Moten, Black and Blur: consent not to be a single being, (Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press), 2017, Preface, ix). In contrast to his father, Mays insists on that which is unrepresentable, even if this insistence is made in a minor note. Moreover, Moten’s words shed light then on Mays’s insistence on indifference to making sense of Douglass. Refusing to give reason, refusing to explain, Mays heals that which makes no sense, that which is constituted through the ongoing break. The presentation of the unrepresentable, the performance of the break, the refusal to cohere, all made possible only with radical acceptance of difference. As is Moten, Mays is “trying hard not to succeed in some final and complete determination either of themselves or of their aim, blackness, which is, but so serially and variously, that it is given nowhere as emphatically as in rituals of renomination, when the given is all but immediately taken away” (Moten, Black and Blur, Preface, vii).
*The transcript provided here is based on the video documentation and my own comprehension; some words are not fully audible, in which case I imposed my own interpretation, as it is with this last sentence.