… it is at once the most meaning symbol of spiritual things … and yet … it is, the intensifying agent in things the most appalling to mankind.
– Herman Melville, on the subject of “white,” Moby Dick
Melville knew what he was talking about – he lived in stark times, an era of brutality and marvel, of wonder and horror. As do we.
AA Bronson’s beautiful and terrible (as in terror-inspiring) new exhibition White Flag (on view at Berlin’s Esther Schipper Gallery) similarly embraces many dualities, a multiverse of meanings, with the same forward, ever-forward vision as displayed by, well, Captain Ahab. But Bronson’s is the quieter chase.
Comprised of eight found United States of America flags of different vintages, each layered, some heavily, some lightly, with a dull white compound made of chalk, rabbit-skin glue, and raw honey, White Flag looks simple enough, pleasingly one-note, like an act of erasure of US power and global dominance, a whiting-out of American ideals, a corrective swipe.
That White Flag is intended to be the opposite of this, at least according to the didactics provided by the gallery, hardly matters (the didactics tell us the painted flags are a 9/11 tribute and a nod to Jasper John’s 1955 work of the same title and construction). The symbols employed are simply too loaded to carry any direct set of historical or allegorical meanings. The gallery’s didactics struck me as perfunctory, just a bit of sell copy, as most are.
So let’s look around on our own. Given the current state of “race relations” in the USA (such a charming, banker’s-box term for what is essentially a slow-burning civil war), my mind immediately connected the whitened, and thus partially annexed, over-written flags as a commentary on white dominance, a nod to the simple fact that the USA is a high-functioning racist state. Next, of course, the slow eclipsing of the flag triggered thoughts of the USA’s diminishing power, its end-of-empire status. And then I thought about the funereal use of white, and of the ongoing wars (and deaths) in which the USA is both the primary agent and target. That all took about twenty seconds. Flags have that kind of metonymic power, and messing with flags is just asking for a headline-scan reading.
But then, something delightful happened: I inhaled. The gallery smelled heavenly, like a shirt collar hours after a classy party. It smelled like fading perfume and candle wax and white wine and the night air. Of course, what I inhaled was Bronson’s alchemical compound, the mammal flesh and honey and chalk, but what the scent sparked was a reading of these semi-opaque flags, these enshrouded emblems (that also, too often, act as shrouds) as artefacts of a spell-casting, a witch’s souvenirs.
Bronson’s post-General Idea works have been deeply informed by shamanism, Crowley-ian sex magick, and secret-society concoctions. In this case, the skin-honey-chalk combo is less mystical than practical, being an ancient preparation for canvases, the first gesso. But context is everything: mix Bronson with alchemical substances and you’re in deep witch territory (my favorite place to manifest).
And what spells! The blasted flags (the magic jizz was applied with a spray gun, the gallerist informed me) invoke, simultaneously, a keen sense of lost opportunity, of failed enterprise, and yet, by their not-wholly-buried visibility, the promise of resurrection, of coming out, figuratively, of the dense fog. The fact that no two flags are alike in size, condition of repair, or even configuration of stripes and stars (many flags predate the inclusion of Alaska and Hawaii into the US federal system) is a signal that Bronson’s assembly marks time a-chronologically, thrives in the multiverse, occupies and inhabits a still space surrounded by endless, pulsing variety. The white concoction clots inside the folds of the flags, creates new textures: pilling wool, muddied pant legs, fur, fatty flesh, the gummy insides of a bowel or a lung. Bronson’s stove-top wizardry gives the flags a second life (perhaps it is better to say a new life, a Lazarus chance?), creates patterns in the fabric of inflation and bunching that mimic not only the flags’ former utility as wind-tossed markers but also more intimate folds, such as those shared between lovers. White Flag is nothing if not a loving embrace.
All readings of White Flag are valid, the more the better. But to see this show and over-privilege the many (granted, inescapable) political readings to the detriment of the longer gaze, its resonant (and pungent) mysticism and active projection of visions of rebirth and repair, of earned and healthy stillness, of peace and alignment with larger, more etheric powers, would be a great disservice to the work and, ultimately, to oneself. You have time, look deeper. This is not an Instagram moment, it’s art.