ULYSSES JENKINS : his art of singing dreams

by Rosanna Albertini

His first retrospective at the Hammer Museum, Los Angeles

February – May 2022

ULYSSES JENKINS, Inconsequential Doggerel, video 15:21, 1981
The human capacity to imagine is an example of our connection with remote fields of energy. If human consciousness is able to capture, and therefore understand, these realities, then imagination and visionary consciousness are linking us to other types of reality. MALIDOMA PATRICE SOME´ 

One day, maybe, we will believe that the expression ‘inner life’  is uniquely referred to production and reception tools. PAUL VALERY

FRAGILITY

Ulysses opened the door of OTHERVISIONS, an Artist Studio Workshop in 1983 and has not closed it since. Locations changed, not the soul of his art. In video or performing in person he made his own body the icon of a questioning person who happens to be an artist. His figure became the hub where stories of others: lives and collective memories pulled out of their land by force or natural disasters, displaced people of all colors and cultures. In Ulysses’ art they become visions of a human history floating on the thread of his voice or musical instruments, they embody rituals spread in the middle space between the moon and the seashore. Severed flowers and severed lives at the mercy of waves.

They are atomic veils separate from real things. The images of real things they reproduce, as you perceive them, become dreams. (From Epicurus, atomic materialist) In our case, atoms of light. In the artist’s mind the human substance flickers like a shiny fish through the stream of time. Strong, or gentle, who am I? “I was made of a changing substance, of mysterious time. / maybe the source is in me. Maybe out of my shadow / the days arise, relentless and unreal.” (Jorge Luis Borges)

ULYSSES JENKINS, Inconsequential Doggerel, 1981

Reborn into another world, the audio visual reality, Jenkin’s images often look ruined and fuzzy. Like migrants through the desolate desert of human understanding? I found myself absorbed by Jenkin’s art pieces with the same emotion and surprise I had in the mid eighties, in front of early video art, what we could see in Europe. For our eyes used to painted masterpieces it was a revelation: forms, words, sounds, brought back to the energy of conception, energy particles dancing without nostalgia over the memories of the still, little pebbles of thoughts blocked on pages, film, canvas, or walls. 

DREAM CITY, 1983 — Thirty minutes of a dynamic fresco unfolding scene after scene. A visual challenge. The tyranny of time, that shapes our perception of reality, moves toward a dream city that is people, human bodies. “You are your own hero.”    Bodies turn into metaphors, words merely sounding like musical instruments. Nothing, nobody escapes history. Yet artists dissolve all the bad things of Los Angeles, from smog to a dead black cat, a black man arrested, oil pumps, ambulances and poverty, into a symphony of images and sounds, another space, other visions.     One metaphor leads this human landscape whose meanings seem to be as ungraspable as the dreams’ flashes of stories: the naked man circling around with a lawnmower in the middle of a crowded stage. Artists perform as if he wasn’t there.     Tragedy of language, impotence of ideas. Flattening powers, destroying diversity. You don't like reality? It doesn’t matter. Dig your space in it. Keep dreaming.  

I was then and remain a writer, a person of books. I love paper so much that I even publish books that I make by hand as ancient monks used to do. I noticed though, videos are not so far from books: they are time based, therefore sequential. Time unfolds scene after scene as pages do, but the freedom of  combining words is cerebral, images and sounds fusion or alteration is physical, especially with phantoms of light.

Written words are “the Spirit’s dark mirrors.” 

“I who am the Was, the Is, and the Is To Come

again condescend to the written word,

which is time in succession and no more than an emblem.”  Jorge Luis Borges

I think Ulysses could describe in the same way his audiovisual art pieces without changing a word. Something that is clear to me now, and was not in the eighties. Technological novelty was throwing our brains astray. But it was my passion for writing that started a new collaboration with Jenkins. Condescending to the written world he asked me to help him with his mémoir that became a book in 2018: DOGGEREL LIFE, made by my hands. He spent his artist experiences with musicians, performers, other artists, from Harry Gamboa to May Sun, names are many, as life moved his steps around, from one to another wave. Was he asking for my collaboration? I felt honored. The work we did was a merging pond of two lives trying to transfer personal stories on the same boat, and to find a common language. He became my brother.

RESILIENCE

Ulysses created his manner among other artists who saw themselves like “the artists of humble infinity.” Check it out, this is not a lecture of art history. Look for Studio Z in the seventies. “They needed no platform, no underground, no avant-garde.” No rules the only rule. Also, El Anatsui’s motto today, he tells it while stroking the fabulous skins he made with found poor materials, helped by volunteers in his studio in Ghana, up to 40 persons each day. He has a large audience, the Los Angeles artists of Humble Infinity  didn’t, and were ignored for a long time. Conceptual and economic validity of their work was denied. Yet, the passion persisted. From ‘others’ they became ‘Othervisions, an artist communal studio workshop, a place to become ourselves, our work, our dreams, our futures. Loosely…the ability to flow as the wind, to ride in the tides, to shine like the stars and revolve in harmony with the planets, reaffirming our ritual models. … We remember it as an attempt at a true relatedness to the Infinite —- our Doggerel Period.’ (Ulysses Jenkins)

Back to his manner of operating, Ulysses found a griot in himself, a storyteller with shamanic powers and African rituals in mind, able to go beyond words, enlarging the crack between reality and the birth of images.

PEACE AND ANWAR SADAT, 1985. video, 21:34  Shrunk to the bones History fades in shadows. Who is the time History is made of? The artist’s answer is visual: History is eyes: stars looking down from the sky, hidden pupils in the sand, reflections into the human organs hit by vibrations of light. Therefore History is an echo: Ulysses’ voice rising from his guts. Words are also an echo, resonant sounds, ignored crowds, when a leader is killed, drowned in silence. Sound might be a shadow, a manifest feeling of existence sent to the universe, as if it could spread the vibration of the meaningless things that happen on earth, so quickly forgotten, so easily altered. Humans are sparkles of noise in the general chaos that we call life.  Art doesn’t cease opening puzzles, colors and movement are her language.
     “What are the important questions: what is that is not just beautiful but also ugly, not just good, but also evil, not just true, but also an illusion.” “Every something is an echo of nothing.” John Cage.  Jenkins becomes a living echo, his body an empty shell as if the griot in him had asked to turn into time, in the span of a dream. 

SURVIVAL

Deconstruction? Non linear narrative? Just words, old like theories that always seemed to me academic soap bubble rarely touching their subject matter: art.

A century of literature had already open the door to our need for compositions without a score, but Jenkins’ videos add something hard to obtain from words. They bring back the primeval power of sounds, the strength of physicality, of movement. Songs and dances and flashes of our collective life spread, implacable, the scent of a cruelty that Millennia of History couldn’t cancel. They regurgitate unwanted losses into our time of nonsense and intelligence, brutality and compassion. I’m not trying to estrange you from such art, the opposite. The poetry of an artist who doesn’t protest, doesn’t accuse, and shares his inner pain giving us the music, the sound of his feelings to the point that words do not matter anymore, is a present of kindness, a reminder of gentleness. Ulysses Jenkins reports, despairs, is saddened, never is angry. He often looks down. The big mess of our world is where he and we all belong. Absurd and beloved. Ulysses: “Do you have soap that gives good visible bubbles? I am making a metaphor.” One more, in these days of darkness? “Yes, for a video camera.”

My bar of soap bubbles became visual vocabulary in Ulysses Jenkins’ most recent video, which is fresh like a loaf of bread. Thanks to Ulysses’ generosity I offer to the readers and viewers of this blog

ETHNIC CLEANSING

By Ulysses Jenkins, video 6:21 2022

an artist outlook on our turn of history

This is the very first public presentation MAY 1, 2022

BIBLIOGRAPY

Ulysses Jenkins, Doggerel Life, 2018. Oreste & Co. Publishers, Los Angeles

Malidona Patrice Somé, The Healing Wisdom of Africa, 1998, Penguin Putman Inc. 1999, New York.

Jorge Luis Borges, In Praise of Darkness, A Bilingual Edition. Translated by Norman Thomas di Giovanni, Allen Lane – Penguin Book Ltd, London, 1975 (Elogio de la Sombra, Emecé Editores, Buenos Aires 1969)

Metamorfosi della Visione – Saggi di pensiero elettronico, Rosanna Albertini and Sandra Lischi editors, ETS Editrice, Pisa 1989, second edition 2000.

Paul Valéry, The Outlook for Intelligence, Translated by Denise Folliot and Jackson Mathews, Bollingen Series XLV Princeton University Press, 1962 first edition. First Princeton / Bollingen Paperback printing, 1989.

I also encourage you to read two excellent articles about the Hammer Retrospective published by the Los Angeles Times and The New York Times:

https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/story/2022-03-21/ulysses-jenkins-hammer-museum-solo-exhibition