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Video still from Wu Tsang »Untitled«, 2020. Courtesy of the artists and Galerie Isabella Bortolozzi

Notes on Good and Evil

July 16, 2020
Text by Eugene Yiu Nam Cheung
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Video still from Wu Tsang »Untitled«, 2020. Courtesy of the artists and Galerie Isabella Bortolozzi

We are all capable of doing good and evil. The works of Wu Tsang, Diamond Stingily and Vaginal Davis, presented in the Isabella Bortolozzi Gazette, encourage progressive allies to inspect their balancing of the two.

As a child I believed history could be mapped onto two parallel lines – one representing good and the other evil. Things I might have considered good: the Allied victory, the conception of universal healthcare, the birth of social media. Things I might have considered evil: the conquest of Ancient Greece, atomic bombs, 9/11 and so forth. Eventually, these two camps collapsed into each other – learning of evil compelled my belief in good, though it became impossible to ignore evil’s presence in the »doing of« good. Indeed, they became so intimate I could no longer find a clean rift between them.

I have told this story many times, and many times over people have baptized this realization as my loss of innocence. Accepting this definition, however, feels like cheating the truth. To believe I was born of and into innocence is to distort my connection with a contract that has always laid bare a condition of being. That is, the psychic war between good and evil is an eternal skirmish: innocence is the lie that cheats you into thinking you were ever unblemished. Our navigating good and evil (and certainly what we might »consider« good and evil) is the same moral elastic which expands and contracts when histories are contested, meaning the line between the two is seldom clear. Sanja Grozdanić frames it best when she writes that »the distance between good and evil is a short distance, but steep.« In other words, can one move between these warring camps without stumbling, or even misjudge which side they’re actually on? What if evil is not a clear aberration but a parasite buried in things we deem good or falsely benign?

Admittedly, it feels frivolous to review the Galerie Isabella Bortolozzi Gazette in a year defined by calamity. I have never felt less enticed by art – an expression far more trying to understand than the platitudes given by whatever politician in whichever parliament, whose agendas we can measure with more certainty. But perhaps the Bortolozzi Gazette is simply a newspaper, and like any paper we should wade through its stories to study what its articles hope to represent, how these artists annotate our present.

The opening scene of Wu Tsang’s »Untitled (2020)« presents a saxophonist in an ultramarine chamber, their profile accented by soft vermillion light. They play for us a theme:

e, b, a – g, a, b, d, f#, e – d, c, b, b, b – b, c – a, f, e – d, b –

The melody repeats, the scene fades, reopening with a mid-shot establishing the saxophonist in concert with a bassoonist and trumpeter. Dressed in silk gowns on a triangular stairway, they remind us of angels on a summit. And though their formation echoes, also, the Holy Trinity, their music is less divine than mortal. It’s a melody afflicted by grief – slurred and elegiac – a tune not of anguish but of being having been. Soon they stop and heaven melts, the camera descends onto a cityscape. This return to earth lands in a room lit by a constellation of orange globes, where a floating turntable separates two people who begin to converse:

Why have we not decided to [take] the state
on in its kind of martiality?

You think that’s a way of thinking about the
history of the music? A virulent attempt to
overturn Western civilization, without the need
for mass violence?

If you’ve been told historically [that]
you’re incapable of the basic thing that
defines human being… that you don’t
have the capacity of love, then that
produces its own project of self-love… all
of the music that follows from slavery
[lays] the sonic conditions for global self-
love.

Does the magic of the music we’ve just witnessed owe itself, in any way, to the rotten core of slavery? Is this music both the product of evil and its negation? Perhaps Tsang is offering an addendum to this impasse – that it would be a grave error to assume a specter of the enemy does not reside within. Today, this reading might remind us of those libertarians so besieged and blinded by their own prejudice they’re unable to locate their propensity for oppression, a thought which only intensifies as I listen to Diamond Stingily in her sound work »On The Phone With Ainte Pearl«. A particular fragment stays with me: »I accept full responsibility for the shape my life has taken. I let people go away or stay and am still ok. I acknowledge that reality is not obligated to me. It remains unaffected by my wishes or rights.«

The power of this passage lies in my own lack, in my failing to define its tone. Is it defeat, resignation, hope or revolution? None, some or all of these? Who has the power to elude the reality Stingily speaks of, a version of life so full of exclusion and torment? I’m reminded of the academic Frank B. Wilderson III, who writes »…as Saidiya Hartman says, ›A Black Revolution makes everyone freer than they actually want to be.‹ A Marxist revolution blows the lid off of economic relations, a feminist revolution blows the lid off patriarchal relations; a Black revolution blows the lid off the unconscious and relations writ large.« Within this Afro-pessimist imaginary, and in dialogue with the alternate world Stingily gestures towards but never names – a place where black realism is centered – I wonder how she might respond: »true anger is meant to communicate with the other… true anger asks for change but allows the other to change or not… true anger coexists with other feelings. True anger needs no response.«

This sensation of being throttled by good and evil is paused when I watch Vaginal Davis’ videos. In »Pandemic Pandora: Petrolio« (2020), the first of two works shot on iPhone, Carlo Buti’s stornello »La Piccinina« plays as the artist slowly pans over the cover of Pier Paolo Pasolini’s unfinished novel »Petrolio.« While in »Pandemic Pandora: Cloris« (2020), Davis narrates her high »on the new drug from Amsterdam… Cloris… like the actress Cloris Leachman,« all the while fixed on the image of a naked man – mirrored and reflected to look like a debauched flower – face down and sprawled on an optical illusion. Of course, the semiotics of evil can be easily read into both videos – Pasolini’s production of queer cinema leading to his assassination, and a white man whose most primal state becomes the fixture of a bad trip – but to do so feels much like sterilizing these works’ humor, their potency. As I watch these videos I’m laughing uncontrollably, but like any decent joke it’s best to spare you the reasons why.

At this point in viewing the gazette, I hit that familiar feeling. I don’t know which side of the ravine I’m on anymore. Have I slipped and fallen in between? Will anybody tell me if these notes manifest aspects of my own good and evil? I hope so. Should I look back on this time in history, I’d like to think that Davis’ closing lines in »Cloris« captures my subjectivity best: »This drug is amazing, it’s making me see things that I’ve never, ever, seen before… though there are some bad aftereffects of the drug…it can cause you to bite off your face. Oh my goodness, I hope I don’t bite my face off! Because I’ve taken too much Cloris… Oh… why did I take Cloris?! It’s really affecting!«

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PW-Magazine is a bilingual online magazine for contemporary culture.