Anna-Rosja Haveman

"James Lee Byars’ Ephemeral Performances and Volatile Letters"

Thursday, December 14 // 17.15h // JGU Fakultätssaal Philosophicum


In this paper James Lee Byars’ The 5 Continent documenta 7 (1979), consisting of both letters and performances, is examined in order to reveal how his artistic practice and this piece in particular encompasses both material and intellectual counterparts and how these are inextricably related.

The concept of sublimation can be related to both Byars’ fleeting performances as well as to his volatile letters. The performances of Byars are often predicated on creating conscious situations, according to Byars the primary material of the artwork can be the elusive thought itself. The idea of The 5 Continent documenta 7 was to protest against the documenta’s Euro and American centric perspective and was a fictional proposal to include artists from five continents.

In addition to the ephemeral performances, the trail of materials left behind is of equal importance in conveying the concept. Byars carefully orchestrated his mysterious persona, through events as well as through encrypted messages in letters. As counterpart of The 5 Continent documenta 7 performance Byars sent 300 large tissue paper sevens as letters. Although the letters were made from a vulnerable material, they were nevertheless intended to be touched in the process of unfolding. Time, however, has imposed an irreversible increase in fragility and limited the tactile experiences for most people with the letters nowadays. The letters pose curators with the dilemma of confining the letters to the realm of visual contemplation in order to protect the material remains, which contradicts the original challenge the tactile mode of viewing imposed on the objecthood of art.

Instead of illustrating a dichotomy between concept and matter, or the contrast between a manifestation of thought in ephemeral or solid form, The 5 Continent documenta 7 foregrounds how James Lee Byars consciously considered that “content as well as the form are part of the style.”[1] The concept of the work becomes inseparable from the material network of references around it, whereby sublimation can be considered as a characteristic of James Lee Byars’ style.

[1] James Lee Byars, Interview conducted by Leendert van Lagestein et al., 1979, Art History Collection, University of Groningen.

Anna-Rosja Haveman (Amsterdam, 1993) is staff assistant to the director of the Groninger Museum, prof. dr. Andreas Blühm. She is co-curating the museum’s upcoming David LaChapelle exhibition, as well as assisting prof. dr. Blühm with the course that he teaches at the University of Groningen. She completed her Research Master Art History at the University of Groningen with a thesis about the neglected history of Corps de Garde, an alternative art space in Groningen (1976-1984). In the research carried out during her study she developed the expertise among others on the material of ‘dematerialized’ art forms, agency of archival documents related to the personal memory of artistic experiences and curatorial approaches to ephemeral artworks. In addition to the historical focus of her research, the collaboration with artists is essential to her practice. She co-founded the Livingallery, an initiative organizing exhibitions with young artists. She was co-author of the 2017 Graduation Catalogue of the Frank Mohr Institute and writes for the Dutch art journal Metropolis M.