October 18th, 2003
Laurence A. Rickels
During 2001, while a fellow at the American Academy in Rome, Lyle Ashton Harris pursued two kinds of photographic projects: mythological- allegorical tableaux that were completely staged, and black-and-white snapshots of Romans, including players and fans at soccer matches. The former bear comparison with Fellini; the latter with Rosellini. (How soon we forget that Rome is the other capital of cinema.) Another kind of reference, the figure of Hadrian, the last great pagan emperor with the most lasting influence in legend, art, and architecture, inspired Harris while he was doing Rome. In Rome, then, he read Marguerite Yourcenar’s Memoirs of Hadrian (1951/54), which, as the shared title announces, his latest body of work metabolizes. Harris’s Memoirs of Hadrian is a mid-career show that (like Fellini’s 8 1/2 in its context) tries to contain and reflect on earlier work in the new setting. The current series draws on Harris’s first bodies of work, the black-and-white and color photographs, in which the artist portrayed himself and his friends in various kinds of historical/hysterical drag; the 1996 photographed collages comprising The Waterin3 Hole; and the two-sided Polaroid portraits first shown in 1 999 (“Recent Portraits), in which he used the cross-process technique he employed again for the twelve 20-by-24- inch images of Memoirs of Hadrian. By combining a color negative and a black-and-white positive, Harris produces a chocolate brown image in which highlights are suppressed and deep shadows solarized.
Eight images are self-portraits of the artist as prizefighter in various states of the battering he exchanges with an adversary located on our side of the picture. Four images interpose a collage of materials (including 3-by-3-inch Polaroids) affixed to a stained Plexiglas surface between camera and the barely but still discernible figure of the fighter. In sequence, the images suggest a fragmenting mediation of self in the time it takes to re-member self in time that is history.
Central to Yourcenar’s novel (as to Harris’s series) is consideration of an inevitable one-sidedness (or fragmentariness) attending the project of remembering and memorializing a life. In Yourcenar’s novel Hadrian addresses his epistolary memoirs to one of his chosen successors, Marcus Aurelius. In Harris’s series we see only the artist in a fight scene in which the other is both excluded and implied. But the underrepresented other in Hadrian’s retrospective is not the recipient of his memories in a letter, but rather Antinous, the beloved youth, Hadrian’s companion, who drowned at age 19. Yourcenar sets up Hadrian’s life as so “big picture or, in her words, “true self’ that it is bigger than the two of us: self and other. In other words, Yourcenar presents a picture of a life big enough to fit Hadrian, the emperor who renewed Roman power under the aegis of world peace; but her portrait is also super-sized to lose Antinous, or relegate him to an underworld crowded with many shades or shadows. Specifically, Hadrian’s remembering is maintained within the greater frame of illness, his refuge and his experimental laboratory, which includes and looks forward to his own death.
When Yourcenar underscores that she chose to write Hadrian’s memoirs and not his journals, she further underscores the radical separation she proposes between Antinous and Hadrian, who were otherwise connected only in love, that is, in misunderstanding and misrecognition. Hadrian embodies the survival of both adolescence and its dialectical partner, midlife crisis, whereby his Genius and not his Demon gains ascendancy. Antinous represents, as teen suicide, failure in living a limitation and temptation over which Hadrian triumphs. Yourcenar portrays Antinous as exotic: part Greek but with just enough Asia to sweeten and cloud the composite picture like honey added to wine. The journal form that Yourcenar explicitly rejects in favor of the memoir form befitting a man of action would indeed fit the brooding sensibility of Antinous. Teen journal-ism enters Harris’s fragmenting Memoirs in the four images layered with or incorporating collage elements reminiscent of scrapbooks. Harris thus spreads the honey of Antinous, the image or stain of his ethnic exoticism as of his posthumous significance as deity who mingles “with the wine of life a bitter honey from beyond the grave. Harris’s spread presents Hadrian’s memoirs as organized around the break other gives self- or as mediation mediated by that which it mediates.
Tourist-trapping “embellishments introduced throughout the grounds of Hadrian’s Villa in 1958 inspired Yourcenar to conclude that she “was there when irreversible loss interrupted the transmissions or traditions of visual history. Her image for the incongruity that in time loses even the loss of history is the “studio set to which the ancient site has been reduced as though in preparation for a movie set in Ancient Rome. But in her narrative she cannot in fact exclude the protocinematic effects of Hadrian’s excessive works of mourning. The trauma of Antinous’s loss causes Hadrian to inhabit a stricken world of projection repetitively stuck in the groove of this loss. “I … then would pause before the effigies of the beloved dead…. The statue, once interrogated, would relapse into darkness; a few steps away my lamp would reveal another image; these great white figures differed little from ghosts…. Nevermore should I escape from their cold and silence, henceforth closer to me than the warmth and voices of the living.”
Harris’s turn to collage in 1996 and then again in 2003 could be considered reminiscent of works by Larry Clark or Richard Hawkins if the photographic surface did not assert itself as open and shut encasement of a reproduced or internalized collage. The collage itself has then the status of a film set within the finished and projected film. Because Harris’s self-portraiture admits that the other (who, at the latest in the meantime, is lost) is always in our face, Memoirs of Hadrian must enter the fragmentary in-between zone associated with the medium of projection. The Polaroid medium, which is the internalization of the process of development, is multiply self-contained (just like Hadrian’s Villa even pre-1958) but precisely not to the point of promoting a phantasm of liveness. The Polaroid Corporation introduced instant movies at the same time that video recorders became “available for filming. We know the result of that contest or match. But the pre-digital video medium kept not one of its phantasmatic promises. Instant film would have lasted at least a lifetime, the basic period of remembering or commemoration that, however, gets extended with each renewed contact with its transmission as memoirs.