Bringing James Lee Byars Back to Detroit: Triple Candie Interviews Triple Candie About Their Latest Project

'In 1978, Byars famously declared, “I cancel all my works at death.” The exhibition takes him at his word.'

Installation view of 'James Lee Byars: I Cancel All My Works At Death' at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit. (Photo by Corine Vermeulen/MOCAD)

Installation view of ‘James Lee Byars: I Cancel All My Works At Death’ at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit. (Photo by Corine Vermeulen/MOCAD)

It’s hard to know where to begin with Triple Candie. There are too many good stories, and a lot of them are pretty complex. Best to keep it short. Shelly Bancroft and Peter Nesbett founded it in 2001 as a gallery on West 126th Street in Harlem. For a few years they did all sorts of unusual art shows. (Their website has an archive.) Around the middle of the decade, things got really weird: the shows continued, but without art. They organized “David Hammons: The Unauthorized Retrospective” (comprised of photocopies), “Cady Noland Approximately: Sculpture and Editions, 1984–2000” (exactly what it sounds like) and a survey of Lester Hayes, an artist who does not exist. In 2009, they moved to West 148th, and then in 2010 they closed, decamping for Philadelphia. Though they no longer have a space, they have continued to organize shows at various venues. Their latest, “James Lee Byars: I Cancel All My Works At Death,” is at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit through May 4. It’s marketed as “the first comprehensive survey of the plays, actions, and performances of James Lee Byars,” and includes no work by the enigmatic artist, who was born in Detroit in 1932 and died in Cairo in 1997.

Hearing about the show, I asked Triple Candie if I could interview them. They were interested, they said, but they suggested an alternative: interviewing themselves. Why? They explained:

Why interview ourselves? Well, if we could play every role…every role…in realizing our projects and bringing them to the world we would. We would be the directors of the institution that presents them, the curators he/she hires, we would make the “art” presented, we would design the exhibition, write the wall texts, design and edit the catalogue, and develop the promotional materials. Then we would critically review the shows and publish the reviews in a magazine/newspaper/blog that we owned. In time, we would write essays contextualizing individual shows and/or Triple Candie’s work historically. That would be our ideal scenario. It is impossible for so many reasons right now…time being one.

Sounded good to me. The interview they have been kind enough to conduct with themselves follows below. —Andrew Russeth

Detail of 'James Lee Byars: I Cancel All My Works at Death.' (Courtesy Triple Candie)

Detail of ‘James Lee Byars: I Cancel All My Works at Death.’ (Courtesy Triple Candie)

TRIPLE CANDIE: Where should we start? Let’s see, how about with the press release?

triple candie: That sounds right.

TRIPLE CANDIE: It says that “James Lee Byars: I Cancel All My Works at Death”is the first comprehensive survey of Byars’ performances in a U.S. museum. Is that true?

triple candie: It is also the first major Byars exhibition in a museum since his death in 1997.

TRIPLE CANDIE: You know you are not alone in this claim. MoMA PS1’s press release for “James Lee Byars: ½ an Autobiography,” which opens in June, states it’s “the most comprehensive survey…organized in North America since his death.”

triple candie: That might be possible but it is mostly bits and pieces, which is what you are going to get with a Byars survey that focuses largely on the objects: a room of detritus. You are probably aware that the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C., is organizing an exhibition for the summer of 2015, curated by Klaus Ottmann, a Byars scholar. They are also claiming that the show is “the first major retrospective…in an American museum.”

TRIPLE CANDIE: It is a Byars moment, I suppose.

triple candie: Seems to be, but our being in this moment is coincidental. We commend MOCAD for their prescience. They got there first.

TRIPLE CANDIE: How did the show come about?

Triple Candie: MOCAD has started commissioning projects that explore Detroit’s artistic legacy. The Mike Kelley homestead is one example. Byars was born in Detroit but as an adult lived mostly in Japan and Europe. Friends say he hardly ever spoke of Detroit. He spent his life trying to reinvent himself and his working-class origins in Detroit were an inconvenient fact.

Installation view of 'James Lee Byars: I Cancel All My Works At Death' at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit. (Photo by Corine Vermeulen/MOCAD)

Installation view of ‘James Lee Byars: I Cancel All My Works At Death’ at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit. (Photo by Corine Vermeulen/MOCAD)

About seven years ago, MOCAD set out to organize a Byars survey with the Kunsthalle Bern. The show opened in Switzerland. A catalogue was published that listed MOCAD as one of three venues. MOCAD’s president even wrote the catalogue’s foreword. But the show never appeared in the Motor City. It’s marvelous if you think about it—though we imagine the museum was not happy at the time—because this “not-appearing” is very consistent with Byars’ own performances. The catalogue, an historic document, indicates that something happened that didn’t. Great. Someday people will probably believe it did.

Last year, MOCAD hired Jens Hoffmann as its “permanent” guest curator and one of his first tasks was to find a way for MOCAD to bring Byars back to Detroit. He called us. We proposed a show that underscored the artist’s absence from Detroit but we were also thinking about the very real possibility of the Detroit Institute of Arts’ collection being sold-off. The show would be devoid of art—not Byars’ nor anyone else’s. But this is the way we’ve worked since 2005.

TRIPLE CANDIE: Then it isn’t a proper Byars show?

triple candie: Yes it is.

TRIPLE CANDIE: Meaning it is sanctioned by the estate?

triple candie: Well, that’s a good question. We told them we were going to curate a show but that we wouldn’t need to borrow anything from them and we wouldn’t stage re-performances.

TRIPLE CANDIE: But this isn’t another empty gallery show…

triple candie: That’s right. Visitors step into a large abandoned theater, strewn with rubble. There are costumes, props, scripts, posters, even a casting area. There are seven videos. The premise is that an amateur theater company named Triple Candie has occupied one of Detroit’s many crumbling buildings to put on a play about Byars’ plays. You know, he called his performances and actions “plays.” The objects on display were all conceived of and made by the Triple Candie for a reason: In 1978, Byars famously declared, “I cancel all my works at death.” The exhibition takes him at his word.

Enter Triple Canopy

Triple Canopy: What’s going on here? Why wasn’t I invited to this interview?

triple candie: Get lost!

Exit Triple Canopy

TRIPLE CANDIE: That was weird. Who was that?

triple candie: An imposter. Let’s move on.

Detail of 'James Lee Byars: I Cancel All My Works at Death.' (Courtesy Triple Candie)

Detail of ‘James Lee Byars: I Cancel All My Works at Death.’ (Courtesy Triple Candie)

TRIPLE CANDIE: Where were we? Oh, right [looking at notes]: The show is written and directed by Triple Candie and dramaturged by Jens Hoffmann. My understanding of a dramaturge is that she is someone who queries the intentions of a theater director and who provides historical contextualization. I assume then that that’s what Hoffmann did.

triple candie: Yes he did. We invited him to perform that role. We’d never worked with anyone in that way before.

TRIPLE CANDIE: Other than the fact that Byars called his performances “plays,” why use this theatrical language or take a theatrical approach? Byars’ performances were so stripped down as to be almost a form of anti-theater.

triple candie: We needed to find a form that signaled the show’s re-interpretive intent. The history of theater is a history of reinterpretation, of simultaneously embracing and critiquing extant texts. We are trained as art historians but share a very skeptical view of art history. The show addresses its subject in a way other shows on Byars haven’t, or wouldn’t.

TRIPLE CANDIE:  Do you mean the way you altered photo-documentation, and the way you distressed the props and messed with his costumes?

triple candie: Yes. We think it [inaudible] and that in doing this we are trying [inaudible]. Does that make sense?

TRIPLE CANDIE: It does, but I’d like you to be more specific. With the costumes, are you suggesting that Byars was closeted? You glammed up the Pink Airplane by sewing pink boas to it. And you produced a performance titled “Hello Boys!” which I assume is based on Byars’ “Hello Beuys!”

triple candie: That’s just one of the many facets of the artist and his work that the show explores. There is also an investigation of Byars’ artistic ego, or rather his alter-ego, which is simultaneously light, perverse, witty, and frightening. It touches on Byars’ investigation of the relationship between belief and truth. At the same time, it criticizes his fanatic pursuit of perfection, or “perfect” as he called it.

Byars’ performances asked philosophical questions and were distinguished from other performance of the time in that they operated at the level of the metaphysical, not the personal. His sculptures are minor, art historically speaking, but his performances are major.

Detail of 'James Lee Byars: I Cancel All My Works at Death.' (Courtesy Triple Candie)

Detail of ‘James Lee Byars: I Cancel All My Works at Death.’ (Courtesy Triple Candie)

TRIPLE CANDIE: There are a number of elements in the show that I found quite funny, in a satirical rather than a parodic way. One is an altered photograph of Lucinda Childs performing The Mile Long White Paper Walk at the Carnegie International, in 1964 or 1965, I can’t remember which. Childs is wearing a costume made of white ostrich feathers. She is kneeling in the center of the Carnegie’s courtyard, arranging a long, accordion-like book. Under the porticos that surround her, you’ve collaged in a crowd of figures. It looks like these were cut from a book on Renaissance painting…

triple candie: A little later. They are post-Renaissance or Mannerist. They are from a book about Jacopo da Pontormo. Byars professed a great love of the Italian Renaissance, which you can see in his use of gold and abstract geometric forms. We see his work as more individuated, less bound to rules, more contradictory.

TRIPLE CANDIE: Hmmm, interesting. What I wanted to say is that a few of the figures watching Lucinda Childs from the eaves look enthralled by the moment, but many look bored. I thought that was great. I imagine that watching a Byars performance could have been underwhelming. Quite the opposite of what the audience would have experienced at the MOCAD opening. I heard that the police came and almost shut it down.

triple candie: That’s true. [laughs] We hired an actor to protest the exhibition. She had a bullhorn and as guests where arriving she was yelling “Why?!” “Why?!” “Why Byars?!” “Why would you do this to Byars?!” It was based in part on a performance Byars did in Europe titled “What” but it was also inspired by an incident we had with the curator Lynne Cooke back in 2006. She cornered us in our Harlem gallery and asked us over and over, “Why, why, why would you do this to Cady Noland?” Anyway, the megaphone was very loud and the neighbors complained.

TRIPLE CANDIE: So the exhibition does include a number of performances, just not re-performances of Byars’ work. Do you have an issue with the idea of re-performance?

triple candie: It has educational value—we understand that—but no, we’re not interested in it. People might think that we would be. The Noland show was as close as we’ve ever come but even then, the objects we exhibited were inherently wrong, and the show itself was fanciful, it wasn’t based on a previous exhibition.

TRIPLE CANDIE: Do you miss having a gallery?

triple candie: Yes.

TRIPLE CANDIE: Care to elaborate?

triple candie: No.

TRIPLE CANDIE: Okay, that’s all the questions I have. Thank you for your time.

triple candie: It has been our pleasure.

Installation view of 'James Lee Byars: I Cancel All My Works At Death' at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit. (Photo by Corine Vermeulen/MOCAD)

Installation view of ‘James Lee Byars: I Cancel All My Works At Death’ at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit. (Photo by Corine Vermeulen/MOCAD)

Bringing James Lee Byars Back to Detroit: Triple Candie Interviews Triple Candie About Their Latest Project