Adam Pendleton Brings Opera (and Malcolm X) to Frieze
Adam Pendleton is sitting in his Sunset Park, Brooklyn, studio, reading me a seemingly free-associative text that will end up in an unexpected place: A pop-up experimental opera (of sorts) that the artist is staging this Saturday at Frieze New York. The text itself is a strange marvel—rhythmic and wild, obscure and hypnotic. It was originally performed by the artist as part of The Revival, a 2007 Performa commission, where its confounding parade of phrases—forest, fat chance, erotic—were interrupted by a gospel choir singing the word “glory.”
If Pendleton decided to quit his career as a visual artist, he’d still have longevity as a poet. The written word, and books, have always been central to the 33-year-old artist’s practice, even as his work has taken disparate physical forms: silkscreened mirrors, multimedia performances, minimalist sculpture, immersive interventions, D.I.Y. historical preservation, and an unconventional and evolving artist’s-book-cum-essay-compendium, Black Dada Reader, which will get a mass-market release this fall.
Pendleton has a true bibliophile’s passion for printed matter, both what it contains and how it can convey information. He might take an image from a book and blow it up until its specificity is all but lost. Sources are often obscure; installation views of exhibitions jumble with loaded images from political history. Words are enlarged or cropped into jittery fragments.
“Once I bring something into the space of my work, I’ll turn it over, and do many different things with it—slowly,” Pendleton says. “There are all these overlapping references from the paintings to the performance. And I think my interest becomes: How do these things function together? Can they function together?”
His latest interdisciplinary work, three scenes/the voice, will debut as part of Frieze Projects. For the sixth year, the program is overseen by Cecilia Alemani, whose curatorial conceit this edition is modeled after a 1968 show at the Rome-based Galleria La Tartaruga. That exhibition, “Il Teatro delle Mostre,” provided a platform for 20 Italian artists to stage one-day-only projects.
“That exhibition was a revolutionary and experimental model,” Alemani says, “one that gave carte blanche to artists to use the gallery space in a unique way, but on the other hand was an extremely orchestrated effort by the gallery owner, Plinio de Martiis, who oversaw the schedule.” Alemani’s own rotating schedule of pop-up presentations includes work by Ryan McNamara, as well as restagings of projects by Giosetta Fioroni and Fabio Mauri.
Pendleton is seizing on the fly-by-night nature of the commission, which, he says, offers a unique opportunity: If you were given one day to do something, what would you do?
In his case, that means corralling opera performer Alicia Hall Moran, two gospel singers, and a string quartet into an art fair booth that has been outfitted with a wall-sized backdrop and custom-printed carpets that appropriate text from Malcolm X’s classic 1964 speech “The Ballot or the Bullet.”
That text has not lost any of its righteously angry, electric frisson in the ensuing decades. In it, Malcolm X rails against Democrats who fail to support the black communities that elected them; he advocates fiercely for control over local Detroit communities and businesses; he tells his audience that, if police protected by dogs are enforcing segregation, then they’d be within their rights to kill the dogs. “Now in speaking like this, it doesn’t mean that we’re anti-white, but it does mean we’re anti-exploitation, we’re anti-degradation, we’re anti-oppression,” Malcolm X says. “And if the white man doesn’t want us to be anti-him, let him stop oppressing and exploiting and degrading us.”
Pendleton’s appropriation of the speech presents portions of its transcript in geometric frames, making it impossible to grasp the text as a whole. He’s been sampling and reworking elements of the 1964 address for the past year or so, including for a series of large-scale silkscreen-ink-and-spraypaint pieces. And he plans to keep absorbing it; there’s a chance, he says, that some of Malcolm X’s verbiage could end up in a future libretto for an operatic work.
As for how three scenes/the voice will actually play out at Frieze, Pendleton is still not entirely sure. He has intentionally refrained from having all of his musical collaborators practice together in advance of Saturday. The string quartet members, he says, don’t actually know what the environment they’ll be playing within looks like. Pendleton is thinking of it as a kind of open rehearsal in real time, rather than a series of polished performances. “It’ll change throughout the day,” he says. “I don’t want it to be finite or fixed. Part of it, in a strange way, will be me, as an active listener, making adjustments. And there’ll be an exchange between these traditions—opera, gospel, classical music—that everyone will be trying to flesh out.”
The centerpiece of the roughly 10-minute long performance will be the operatic rendition of Pendleton’s poem. Did his solo singer for the project have trouble adapting the rather eccentric source material of his libretto, I wondered? “There’s something irrational, I think, about an aria being based on this language,” he says. From Pendleton’s perspective, that’s a cause for celebration, not concern.
He continues to be fixated on a deceptively simple question: “When does something mean something?” For the artist, there’s no single moment of revelation; meaning shifts in and out of focus. That makes Pendleton’s work rewarding to return to—the same way one might revisit a book whose rich, perhaps frustratingly elusive arguments make it all the more seductive.