TEN THINGS I KNOW ABOUT JAMES LEE BYARS
1) “The Death of James Lee Byars,” a performance piece by James Lee Byars, carries very simple instructions: ‘Quietly lie down and quietly get up.’
2) If James Lee Byars were still alive, today would be his 82nd birthday. Instead, he died in 1997 at the age of 65. In life JLB already insisted that he could be a ghost (an announcement for a show proclaimed: THIS IS THE GHOST OF JAMES LEE BYARS CALLING), so in death we can consider this consideration’s potential doubled. Of course, JLB cannot know his own death, but I, as someone else, can at least know of the death of James Lee Byars. Only in death can one become irreplaceable.
4) James Lee Byars was both a dandy &—along with Eric Orr—a hunter of the void. There is a seeming contrast between his flamboyantly performative mode and the poetic silence that much of his work insists upon (as an audio piece proclaimed: “PERFECT IS MY DEATH WORD”). In public he wore monochromatic tunics & robes of gold or red, all the while making himself visible among a crowd with a large black top hat. Despite the gravitas so much of his work requires (& inspires), there’s something ridiculous about his presence— & Byars himself would, ubdoubtedly, even insist upon this. Though, like Bataille realized, we must consider that laughter perhaps extends out of horror, not joy.
5) Without being able to find much in the way of details, I find myself obsessed with a set of images from a video that shows a white cobra, in a glass cage, writhing over the catalog for his 1993 show The Sun, The Moon, and the Stars. How could I resist? Snakes & books are two of my favorite figures. Without even realizing it until this precise moment, I’ve stolen the image of the cohabitation of a snake and a book for one of my own texts.
6) With this thought I am forced to reconsider Byars’s legacy: the fact that, despite the spectrum of work that one can locate inside of James Lee Byars’ oeuvre, it might be the book itself that shines as Byars’s true medium. Looking back to Mallarmé’s conception of Le Livre, The Book, sitting simultaneously as concept, totality, performance, text. Byars’s books often deny the ontological status a book entails: they were, with regularity, devoid of pages, only a sentence long, made of stone. The book haunts Byars’ oeuvre as much as his own specter does. Once, he wrote 100 books that sing to the stars, all on stone.
“The Book of 100 Perfects,” Mary Boone Gallery (New York, 1985)
7) There is also Byars’ insistence of space. He would place a single object, large or small, inside of an echoing hall of excess, and the object would breathe out to maintain atmospheric perfection. He would cover walls in red fabric and, upon entering, one could do nothing but feel the question.
“The Red Tent,” Zeitgeist (Berlin, 1982)
8) A taxonomy of Byars’ preferred shapes: the sphere, the stele, the star, the cube, the ring, the crescent (the moon).
9) In his repeated use of “perfect” as a modifier (the perfect book, the perfect silence, etc) Byars is demanding his immortality to an art audience. For the perfect work of art is the definitive work of art, and the definitive work of art becomes immortal. Instead of letting anyone else decide whether or not any of his work was “worthy” of immortality, Byars decided ahead of time, acting-out an authentic sovereignty with vain indulgence. But is this vanity to be reprimanded? The world of art has become, since the latter half of the 20th century, simultaneously arbitrary & predicated by market force: an act of autonomy—especially in deference to the institutional structures already in place (lest we forget: Byars often made it a point to participate in art events he was not specifically invited to, including performing on the streets outside of housed Biennale)—must strike one as a truly transgressive act.
10) In Cairo in Egypt in 1997 James Lee Byars died, like everyone, alone. He owed multiple craftsmen money for many objects he had had fabricated. He was not worried. No one, yet alone the man himself, can know his own death, so what is there to worry about.