On ViewMoMA PS1
This Longing Vessel
December 10, 2020 – March 14, 2021
The Studio Museum in Harlem’s 2019–2020 Artists in Residence exhibition, This Longing Vessel, was conceived with an uncanny prescience. Decided upon well before the pandemic threw us into a time that has throbbed with longing, the title summons images of empty objects waiting to be filled.1 The ancient amphorae of Bacchus, the holy reliquaries of Christ, and yes, the slave ships of a rigorously violent modernity: each of these vessels yearn to hold and carry. And as these vessels reveal, this urgent desire to hold realizes its potential both through gracious embrace and vicious entrapment.
This Longing Vessel is animated by the double bind of closeness and enclosure. Occupying three galleries at MoMA PS1 while the Studio Museum renovates its building in Harlem, it is the culminating project for the museum’s artists-in-residence: E. Jane, Naudline Pierre, and Elliot Reed. The exhibition questions what it is to be Black and queer whilst trapped in the vulnerability of longing, to be hollowed or filled, to hold or be held (captive). Through vocabularies of Black ecstasy, pain, and rebellion, this cross-disciplinary group of artists gracefully re-enlivens the possibility of intimacy, of sharing, and dwelling in the feelings and presence of those we long for.
Cast in a rich purple glow and pulsing with sound, energy seeps out from every corner of the first gallery featuring E. Jane’s work. The vibrant frequency of the room gives sensorial form to the thematic substance of their multidisciplinary work, which contends with Black diva culture and the hypervisibility of Black femme performance on the internet. The artist embodies the Black diva in performances as MHYSA, a pop star alter-ego whom we watch take the stage in the video MHYSA—NEVAEH LIVE (Behind the scenes) (2020). Other Black divas are called into the room in the rapturous video LetMEbeaWomanTM.mp4 (2020), which traverses historical and contemporary footage of Black divas from Jennifer Holliday to Summer Walker. The video celebrates women who expand beyond the possibility of belonging to anyone or anything, while its title makes a plea to belong: let me be a woman. It beautifully captures the aporia of longing to be held and refusal to be grasped, one that inevitably led me back to the searing question guiding Sojourner Truth’s 1851 Black feminist manifesto: “Ain’t I a woman?”
Naudline Pierre’s luscious paintings are flush with a more tacit but just as ardent sense of craving. Stepping inside the silent gallery and its world of spiritually evocative scenes, I felt as though I had entered a chapel. Pierre’s paintings are at once quietly contemplative and swirling with vivid, colorful imagery. In a Divine Comedy-esque collision of heaven and hell, flames of the inferno seep into the clouds of paradise. Yet tenderness pervades. Winged Black women hold and watch over one another, suspended in vibrant, phantasmic dreamscapes. Pierre has painted an avatar of herself into these votive scenes, in which she appears reborn into a world of peace and safety. On the wall across from the entrance, a triptych of paintings features stoic Virgin Mary-like women cocooned in aureoles, vessels of sanctified intimacy. This sensation materializes from the lyricism of Pierre’s painting technique itself: the figures are rendered in translucent washes of green, yellow, blue, and purple, appearing to fall into the world around them. Pierre paints ghost-like, benevolent haints who transcend place and time. A poetry of the durational is folded into the scenes and tenderness is shown suspended in perpetuity. Longing for a divine, ancestral touch is laid bare.
Elliot Reed’s installation is cut with a similar haunting. I was gripped by the sounds of Reed's five-channel video installation Supernumerary (2020), in which the artist himself performs. A symphony of guttural screams, discomfiting laughter, gasping, and snorting rises from Reed’s body, which tenses, convulses, and at times conducts the string quartet that accompanies his cries. Simultaneously unintelligible and rich with significance, Reed’s noises transmit a shared pain, calling to mind the “provocative intensity of the scream … the apparently meaningless texture of extreme noise”2 that Édouard Glissant describes in theorizing semiotics of the plantation. The embodiedness of these torments becomes yet even more viscerally felt as the artist reads from his essay “In An Attempt To …” (2020) in which he recounts the stories of Gemmel Moore and Timothy Dean, two Black queer men who were sexually exploited and murdered by Ed Buck, an affluent white philanthropist. Reed remarks “As a Black queer man, I see my body and experience reflected in Moore’s image.”3 Reed positions himself as a vessel through which Dean and Moore can live again, affirming the possibility of an afterlife, of being intimate once again with those lost.
Writing of the slave ship, that vessel of abject brutalization, Fred Moten and Stefano Harney note “the hold’s terrible gift was to gather dispossessed feelings in common, to create a new feel … a way of feeling through others.”4 This Longing Vessel revels in this terrible gift in all its unmistakable force. Jane, Pierre, and Reed posit longing not simply as emotion but as a shared, embodied sensation that we feel through and with one another. It pulses in Black and queer bodies like the vocals of Jennifer Holliday, or the haptic resonance of an ancestor’s touch, or the gestures we make while screaming of the unspeakable terror of anti-Blackness. This Longing Vessel awakens a powerful chorus of deep-seated feeling that holds us close.
- Noted during a live-stream Studio Museum roundtable on December 7, 2020 “Artists in Residence 2019–20 Roundtable.” YouTube. Studio Museum in Harlem, January 12, 2020. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tXcbib-kIo0&feature=emb_title.
- Édouard Glissant, Caribbean Discourse: Selected Essays, trans. by J. Michael Dash (Charlottesville, VA: Caraf Books/University Press of Virginia, 1989), p. 123.
- Reed, Elliot. “In An Attempt To...” Studio Museum in Harlem, 2020. https://studiomuseum.org/sites/default/files/uploads/In%20An%20Attempt%20To..._FINAL.pdf
- Stefano Harney, Fred Moten, and Erik Empson, The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning & Black Study, p. 97-98. Wivenhoe, UK: Minor Compositions, 2013), p. 97-8.