Some of the most rewarding experiences in Venice take place while getting lost in the labyrinth of the city. So it happened that taking the wrong vaporetto led us to the Chiesa di Santa Maria della Visitazione, one of several disused churches functioning as exhibition venues during the 2019 Venice Biennale. Fortunately, “The Death of James Lee Byars” (presented by the Vanhaerents Art Collection and on view through November 24, 2019) was high on my list of must-see collateral art projects. In a city so romantic and surreal in architectural beauty (and overcharged with energy), the sense of quiet contemplation induced by crossing the threshold of a church creates the most receptive state for viewing Byars’s stunning gold memorial to absence. Byars was renowned for exploring the theme of disappearance throughout his career; and this, his most personal and final attempt, is a stunning triumph.
Created in 1994, while the artist was dying of cancer, The Death of James Lee Byars is regarded as his most emotionally charged work. Installed in this opportune setting, it is both simple and grand, consisting of a four-walled chamber, open on the side facing the altar and completely covered in sheets of gold leaf. It is bare of any other objects or ornamentation, except for a shape marking where the artist’s body once lay for a fleeting performance in which he “rehears[ed] his passing from this world.” The installation’s aesthetic appeal resonates universally with its emphasis on beauty and absence. For those familiar with Byars’s work, it furthers his legacy of conceptual vigor, exploring the unknown and unknowable. His use of gold connects with an interest in spiritual illumination, alchemy, and magic—as well as with his preference for wearing gilt-lamé suits. Five Swarovski crystals, placed at his head, hands, and feet in reference to the Vitruvian man, commemorate where the artist had lain. That connection, bringing together the body, architecture, time, religion, and the universe, perfectly sums up Byars’s work and legacy.
It’s always a risk to alter the experience of a work without the artist being alive to weigh in, but here, on the 25th anniversary of Byars’s iconic memorial, the addition of the sound installation Vocal Shadows (2019) thoughtfully honors the original work and further transports the visitor. Created by Lebanese composer and visual artist Zad Moultaka (who had never met Byars), the 16 loudspeakers on pedestals, arranged in symmetrical lines, emanate lament, beginning with whispers and building to the sounds of ritual mourning and the afterlife, with quotations from the Egyptian Book of the Dead. The audio, in cycles of eight to 12 minutes, subtly fills the space, establishing a dialogue while never overshadowing the shimmering golden chamber.
Byars is quoted in the exhibition materials as saying, “I hope that people will experience my way of practicing my own death as something useful themselves.” Sculpture has often served to memorialize, with artists visually interpreting personal relationships and loss. Rachel Whiteread most directly connects with Byars’s work, with a focus on materiality and the presence of the body through absence. Her Untitled (Pair) (1999)—Minimalist, gloss-white sculptures—are actually cast mortuary slabs, originally designed to display the body while capturing and draining its fluids. Sensual, ethereal, and somewhat ambiguous in form, the painted bronze casts were created from one another—one slightly concave, one convex—with the possibility to interlock and complete each other. Patricia Cronin’s Shrine for Girls, a collateral project at the 2015 Venice Biennale (in another perfect setting, the Chiesa di San Gallo), is a memorial to girls who were written out of history and never had a chance to experience life. Piles of clothes placed on altars referenced fatal situations in India, Nigeria, and Ireland, and the project is now traveling to those countries. Cronin’s Memorial to a Marriage (2002–eternity), an over-life-size mortuary sculpture carved in Carrara marble, depicts the artist entwined with her now-wife Deborah Kass in a perpetual embrace (the work predates the legalization of same-sex marriage); a bronze version waits for them in Woodlawn Cemetery. And The Life of Christ, Keith Haring’s final work, created while he was dying of AIDS, includes carved altarpieces of his signature imagery, cast in white gold. Two of the nine editions are permanently on view in a side vestibule at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in Manhattan and at Saint-Eustache in Paris. These works reflecting on death allow the artists to live on and extend Byars’s profound reflection on the transience of human existence.
This installation of The Death of James Lee Byars in the city of gold follows the presentation of the artist’s The Golden Tower in Campo San Vio at the 2017 Biennale. Intended as a colossal beacon and symbol of ascension, the 65-foot-tall, rather phallic, gilded sculpture seemed more spectacle than the current contemplative work. Byars was known to have a special affinity for Venice, where he lived on and off for the last 15 years of his life, and he is said to have expressed a desire to be buried there. Placed beneath paintings of saints and the Virgin Mary (assumed to be the work of Pietro Paolo Agabiti), in an early 16th-century church overlooking the Giudecca Canal, The Death of James Lee Byars may come close to fulfilling the artist’s wish.