James Lee Byars at Yorkshire Sculpture Park
Picture: Jonty Wilde
James Lee Byars
In September Yorkshire Sculpture Park launched the Chapel as a unique exhibition space with a captivating installation by the late American artist James Lee Byars (1932-1997).
Built in 1744, the Chapel is now open to the public for the first time since its deconsecration to showcase The Angel (1989), a work comprising 125 spheres of Murano, hand-blown glass, each executed with a single breath. The work presents key interests that preoccupied Byars throughout his life. The sphere was of specific importance to the artist, as he felt it symbolised perfection – a central concern of his later practice. Byars worked in materials that he considered to be eternal and, therefore, beautiful: glass, marble, silk and gold were key in his communication of the Perfect. A further selection of sculpture, incorporating these ideas and motifs explored by Byars throughout his career, is shown in the Bothy Gallery at YSP. This important exhibition opened on 19 September and will now be extended until 3 January 2010, furthering the opportunity to experience a significant installation by this intriguing artist known for challenging performance and sculpture, and contributing to Byars' canon of posthumous works.
Byars life was inseparable from his art: he rarely appeared in public wearing ordinary clothes – he always wore a hat and suit, and often covered his face with a scarf or mask. Clothing also became a way for him to express his ideas of the collective experience, seen in his performed work Four in a Dress (1967). McEvilley, a close friend of Byars, proclaimed that the artist 'was not human' and describes him as possessing an indefinable 'otherness' – his every movement was a considered action, steeped in ceremony and theatricality, learned by observing priests during Shinto rituals. Similarly, the traditional art of Japanese Noh theatre with its use of ceremonial dress, the questions it posed, and the demand for elegance, informed many of the artist's early plays. The manner in which Byars approached his work was bound within the concept of Question. By attaching a question mark to a statement, he felt that it moved into the realm of art and poetry. He considered that he had a responsibility to raise questions through his performances and in his physical works the question is still treated as an independent principle, without the need for an answer. In 1994, the artist staged The Death of James Lee Byars at Marie-Puck Broodthaers' gallery in Brussels. Dressed in gold and lying down in an entirely gold room, the artist creates the illusion that he has disappeared: his preparation for death. Byars died of a rare form of cancer three years later in Cairo. Writing a tribute in 2006, Klaus Ottoman said: 'like his idol T.S. Eliot, Byars found a complete art. Refusing no knowledge, and accepting no limits, he found the possibility of an art for all times by dividing or multiplying time and space by its smallest or largest factor'.