whitney 2014: crowded shows and the life and death of malachi ritscher
Joeff Davis, Malachi Ritscher, Iraq War Protest, Chicago, 2003. Included in the project Malachi Ritscher by Public Collectors. Image taken from the Whitney 2014 Biennial Website.
Last week, while I was visiting CUNY, I made some time to get down to the Whitney Museum to see the Biennial. This year was notable because the show was split three ways. Each curator got her own floor and each took a wildly different approach. The fourth floor was given to Michelle Grabner, a professor and artist. That was probably the most jammed part of the show with art on the walls, floors, and ceiling. It was also the most educational. Basically, Grabner found artists who explored all kinds of materials. For example, Sheila Hicks, one of my favorite fabric artists made this huge rope column. There were also some interesting gems, like a few shiny abstract canvasses mottled with salt by Carissa Rodriguez. Each work was an education in what you could do with particular materials. The floors by Stuart Comer and Anthony Elms were about youth and what one might call “intellectual concerns:” ethnography, politics, etc. For example, there was some strong work dealing with gay subculture, such as Tony Green’s work, Paul P. ‘s watercolors and Elijah Burgher’s pencil drawings.
The critics constantly complained about the whole show. I think it is better to admit that art has massively expanded and that there are multiple centers of gravity. Overall, you’ll be overwhelmed, or bored by the spectacle. But if you slow down, you’ll find that there is a lot to be enjoyed depending on what you want from art.
For me, there was one very moving part of the show, an exhibit by the group Public Collectors dedicated to Malachi Ritscher. He was a Chicago resident who was an avid free jazz fan and antiwar activist. He was notable for two things. First, he created an extensive library of recordings from the Chicago creative music scene. Second, he killed himself in 2006. To protest the Iraq War, he lit himself on fire on the Kennedy Expressway. He recorded that as well.
Malachi’s life and my own crossed many times. I am also a free jazz fanatic and sat next to him many times. I would go to the shows that he recorded. I actually recognized some of the shows whose recordings are in the exhibit. I am pretty sure that I am at least in one them and I am certainly an audience member in many other recordings that are part of Malachi’s library. He documented me. A brooding graduate student, I never introduced myself. But still, he was part of my world.
Later, I would dedicate part of my academic career to recording the antiwar movement. I spent quite a bit of time going to major cities, like Chicago, and conducting surveys and long form interviews with activists. Malachi is probably recorded in my materials. Maybe he filled out a survey. Maybe he was interviewed by me or my research partner. Or, more likely, he is part of an audience that I documented with a photo or audio recording.
The Ritscher exhibit deeply moved me. Malachi and I cared about the same things. Malachi and I passed by each other many, many times over a nine year period. Our lives have been stamped by the city of Chicago and its culture. We were even employed by the same organization – the University of Chicago.
But our stories diverge. He chose a path that I find hard to understand. Faced with the brutality of war, he did something brutal to himself. I have not walked in his shoes, so I won’t pass judgment. All I’ll say is that I remain viscerally shocked by his death. I mourn the loss of him and his knowledge. I responded to the war in a different way. I became the documentarian, the recorder of events.
Ending this post is hard because there simply is no end. I just don’t know what to think of Malachi’s musical contribution, or his suicide, or the crossing of our paths. Perhaps all I can now is dig out my copy of Emancipation Proclamation, which of course, was recorded by Malachi Ritscher.