"There's So Much I Want to Say to You"
The Whitney Museum
945 Madison Ave.
Through Sept. 9
"Every time things get hard, you tell me I'm American. Why can't you be my country?" When Sharon Hayes speaks these words, they're laden with a desperate, needy timbre: part of her 2007-2008 performance "Everything Else Has Failed! Don't You Think it's Time for Love?", Hayes stood on 51st street and spoke to a mysterious, vanished lover, presenting monologues somewhere between protest, theater, and street-corner rant. "You're in all these strangers, and it's cruel." Hayes, a multidisciplinary artist based in New York, is concerned with private lives and public speech, as manifested in the bruising world of American political discourse. Her 2009/2012 installation "Yard (Sign)" recreates real-world lawn signs, contrasting gloss-coated campaign banners ("Stanley J. Wilson, Travis County Tax Assessor Collector") with the handwritten messiness of personal pleas ("Free Huey"; "We Do Not Endorse This Candidate"; "Enough"). Her 2012 piece "Join Us" (made with Angela Beallor) shows a personally-curated archive of progressive protest flyers: at once an inspiring array of efforts and a stultifying reminder of semi-lost causes. And, in a 2003 piece, Hayes records herself fumbling through a reading of Patty Hearst's 1974 dispatches from the Symbionese Liberation Army, highlighting a moment when harrowing, personal vulnerability collided with global media conversation.
All of these can be seen at Hayes's mid-career retrospective, on view at the Whitney Museum. The archival projects are strong in their own right, but the best work in the show draws directly from the energy of protest. In "Gay Power" (2007/2012, in collaboration with Kate Millett and Women's Liberation Cinema), we see unedited footage from a 1971 gay-rights march: presented beautifully on real film, the immediate, tactile warmth of marching bodies and dappled sunlight finds a countermeasure in thoughtful, present-day voiceover narration. Also drawing from the media of that era, "I Saved Her a Bullet" (2012) shows a freeze-frame of Anita Bryant, at the precise moment in 1977 when a gay-rights activist shoved a pie into her face.
In America, gay rights have gone from a fringe concern to a major issue, capable of swinging elections or ending political careers – it's in this way that individual conceptions of homosexuality influence American policy at large. It's strange to think that, for example, the trajectory of a drone attack in the Middle East could somehow be traced back to someone's blurry thoughts on sexuality and personal desire, but that really is where we're at right now. Hayes is open about her own sexuality (as she told those passers-by on 51st street, "My truth is that I am a gay American"). All at once, her approach feels uniquely inspired, and like a wholly logical extension of her time and place: charting the intersections of politics, desire, and personal truth, in an age when those little struggles of love, want and need have transmuted into struggles for peace, justice and freedom.
I think (I'd like to think) that eventually, people will look back on this moment – an odd time when peoples' politics were inscribed within their lovers' bodies – and wonder why our society thought to place such cruel limits on something as beautiful as love. As Hayes put it in one of her performances: "I march in the parade of liberty, but as long as I love you, I am not free."