The Menil and the Pulitzer open up dialogue around The Progress of Love
Nadine Robinson.
Like Three, 2012.
Vintage speakers, vinyl lettering, sound recording, and acrylic on canvas.
Music: The Persuaders, “Thin Line Between Love and Hate,” 1974.
Courtesy of the artist.
Nadine Robinson. Like Three, 2012. Vintage speakers, vinyl lettering, sound recording, and acrylic on canvas. Music: The Persuaders, “Thin Line Between Love and Hate,” 1974. Courtesy of the artist.

The Menil Collection and The Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts are asking six professionals three questions that correspond to the exhibition, The Progress of Love. Contributors are Ryan Dennis, Massa Lemu, Solkem N’Gangbet, Temitayo Ogunbiyi, Amy Powell, and Charlotte Walker-Said.

For the first installment of this dialogue, we want to know: How are romantic relationships being redefined and visualized in the 21st century?

Ryan Dennis, Public Art Director at Project Row Houses: In “Untitled (Perfect Lovers)” Felix Gonzalez-Torres visualizes time as a mechanical relationship, placing two clocks side by side, which can serve as a metaphor for the current state of romantic relationships. Time, it seems, is no longer consistent. Just as the days change, so does the nature of relationships. With a new awareness happening in addressing the way we can love, it seems like individuals have taken an open stance in creating a narrative that speaks specifically to their needs, wants, and desires. While we may have an understanding of the current language of romantic relationships, similar to Gonzalez-Torres’ clocks, where the two hands may start off at the same time, they inevitably and slowly slip away from each other, as does our ability to keep up with the current lingo. Maybe it is not for us to understand! Following developments in the practice and theory of technology, globalization, gender, history, art, anthropology, maybe we have reached a moment to acknowledge that each individual is shaped by their personal experiences that then define their relationship with another person. It seems as though we are no longer at a place in time where connecting with “traditional terms” speaks to a universal language. As such, relationships are being redefined and visualized according to a script of reciprocity and love.

Massa Lemu, Artist and recent Critical Studies Core Fellow at Museum of Fine Arts, Houston: A Capital driven consumer culture disseminated through western media such as TV has tremendously shaped how romantic relationships are visualized. Notions of love, beauty, choice of a companion are greatly shaped by western media, i.e. in terms of choice, language and gesture. Of course these codes are not adopted wholesale but are selected, adapted, and remixed with the local. Users of these social codes transform them according to their own goals. Technological advances in communication are also redefining romantic relationships. In the digital era, bonds are maintained and strengthened by email and phone calls. For those who can afford it, though not a complete substitute for direct inter-personal contact, the internet video-phone Skype has proven to be a relief in communication in long distance relationships. This technological progress is both generative and destructive, strengthening relationships but also tearing foundations of marriages apart. Therefore artists who are concerned with this pervasive influence of capital, media and technology on love re-examine how these elements empower or disempower. Senam Okudzeto’s painting titled “Long Distance Lover” (1999-2000), which features boxing and wrestling couples painted on actual British Telecoms bills, captures the pervasion of technology and communication in romantic relationships. In this work, issues of communication, longing and desire are addressed by a simple act of foregrounding of ephemera from a personal history.

Solkem N’Gangbet, Former Program Director of Houston Museum of African American Culture, and museum consultant and independent curator: Let’s ask the Internet, using the search terms “romantic relationships”.

According to Google.com – Images, romance in the 21st century is overwhelmingly visualized and thus defined as the close tête-à-tête between a young white male with short straight hair, and a young white woman. Google is global, and therefore this image is seen worldwide, even in the most remote places. Interestingly enough, even searches in the more country-specific sites such as google.co.uk, or google.co.za or google.co.jp, display more or less the same set of images. There are overwhelmingly those of a happy young Caucasian couple in Western summer clothes embodying the epitome of romantic relationship. Why not a happy Mayan couple? Or a loving elderly Caucasian couple?

Just like the image of Santa Claus – an old white man in Coca Cola red all over the world – and just as we listen to pretty much the same tunes in bars in Bogotá, Bali or Boston, romantic relationships are, indeed, getting more and more globally normative. And they are rarely black or Asian, never Inuit.

How does it feel for all those whose images, and consequently existences, are not evidenced by Google? Shouldn’t the representation of love reflect all facets, and shades, of the human race?

Temitayo Ogunbiyi, Artist in The Progress of Love: Reflecting on romance in our time, the first thought that comes to mind is Life with the Kardashians, or whatever that reality TV show is called. Last week as my friends and I waited to depart for the beach, this show happened to be on their TV—in Lagos. “Tayo, you don’t watch this?” she laughed. For some reason all of these reality television shows seem to be too accessible in Lagos. This model of entertainment, rife with emotions that are over-edited and compact, makes contemporary romance seem like something of artifice. Relationships depicted in Nollywood films share a parallel description, but that’s another discussion to be had. Back to these terrible reality TV shows, which can be dangerously addicting, showing versions of love and romance that are edited and intermittent, featuring living people who walk the streets of New York. Somehow these shows seem to pacify contemporary society’s insatiable craving for celebrity, and the misplaced satisfaction in knowing a whole lot about someone, and even forming some sort of relationship with someone, who will likely never know you. This issue of shallow and incomplete expressions of emotion takes me to Blackberry Messenger. Research in Motion, now Blackberry, was largely kept afloat by the Nigerian market. Thankfully my phone got stolen towards the end of last year and I subsequently lost all of my Blackberry Messenger contacts. In the split second after getting a new blackberry, I had a choice to make—I could download all of my contacts using my gmail address or add contacts back one-by-one; I opted for the latter. Originally, I had just planned to add my immediate family. No more ridiculous BB relationships. No more wondering when the message was received and waiting indefinitely for a response. I’ll tell you toasting has really changed with all of these modern day vices, cryptic abbreviations, emoticons and all. With my contact list reduced from 205 to 36, my Blackberry Messenger conversations are now extensions of substantive relationships that are often challenged by temporal and physical distance, rather than lone time-consuming mirages of relationships that are like vacuous fragments of computer files—you know those ones prefaced by a ‘~’. While some of these contemporary tools and constructs may be helpful—love, when expressed through them, can seem a bit too fast (or slow), terribly watered-down, or like an artificial sweetener—sugary with a funny aftertaste. Despite the standards we may have for our personal constructions of love, there’s a lot more fluff to be sorted through than back in the day, before you can freefall into the potentially intoxicating emotion. I think to my early days in middle school, before cell phones, when a crush could result from the tiniest happening and linger forever. When did love become trapped by the many complications that can make the submission to love more challenging with maturity and technology?

Amy Powell, Cynthia Woods Mitchell Postdoctoral Curatorial Fellow at Blaffer Art Museum, University of Houston: Nadine Robinson’s Like Three (2012) features a white canvas mounted between two vintage speakers, which blare the title refrain from The Persuaders’ 1974 hit “Thin Line Between Love and Hate.” The song’s melody and rhythm fill the gallery (“It’s a thin liiiiiiiiiiiiine between love and hate…”), serenading the viewer’s experience in the Menil Collection component of the collaborative exhibition The Progress of Love, organized by Kristina Van Dyke and Bisi Silva. Robinson gives the song visual form in a thin line stretching horizontally across the canvas. Approaching the work, one sees that this line is comprised entirely of words in tiny black printed text. Among them:

meritocracy, journals, cactus plants, ipads, spring fresh asparagus, a good shit, waterparks, diamonds, fits of hiccupping, perfume, pink beds, famous people, deer, Barack blessing soup, saving the world, nursing schools, Africans, valuable friendships, small risks, Manhattan, quilts, bluebirds

Like Three seems to bring the thin line between love and hate into representation in order to ask of it certain questions. What is the character of that line, what can it contain? Does it have an art history? Does it have a temporality? Robinson grafts emotional attachments into the language of modernist formalism by clearly referencing Barnett Newman’s “zip” paintings. Jean-François Lyotard described the experience of zip paintings as sudden and complete, coming all at once in an instantaneous moment. Like Three plays differently by inviting close, slow looking and squinted reading to discern what qualifies the dividing line between love and hate, lending weight to elements that might seem arbitrary or insignificant.

Robinson’s installation affects how we see other works within earshot in the rest of the gallery, including David Goldblatt’s Saturday morning at the Hypermarket: Semi-final of the Miss Lovely Legs Competition, Boksburg, Transvaal, 28 June 1980 (1980). Goldblatt’s famous photograph portrays the color line in apartheid South Africa during a scene at a beauty competition, the air full of desire, longing, and disgust all at once. It’s a thin line between love and hate, indeed.

As these examples attest, it’s clear that portrayals of romantic relationships are inextricable from deeper political, cultural, and historical contexts. Yinka Shonibare’s The Swing (after Fragonard) (2001) features a headless mannequin dressed in colorful batik fabric, with legs splayed playfully to reference the pose of the woman mistress in Jean-Honoré Fragonard’s painting The Swing (1767). The global trajectory of Shonibare’s materials is by now well-rehearsed, from batik’s production in the Netherlands and its mass distribution throughout West Africa and Indonesia, such that its ubiquity has come to be popularly associated with African authenticity. By situating the fabric within Fragonard’s very naughty eighteenth-century garden, Shonibare firmly locates Africa and global commerce at the scene of European sexuality, frivolity, and splendor. So while a painter from imperial Europe gets to name the whole enterprise (see Fragonard’s series The Progress of Love), Shonibare shows how notions of progress have always been refracted and co-implicated.

Charlotte Walker-Said, Writing Fellow at Webster University in St. Louis: When we think about romantic relationships, we think about the erotic as much as we think about the social. The ways in which we love our lover in the private sphere and how we engage with our lover in society are both fluid and timeless. Romanticism in Europe took hold as a cultural movement in the nineteenth century and brought fantasies of melancholy, passion, tragedy, comedy, freedom, and rebelliousness to couples, which exhilarated lovers and captivated artists, poets, and thinkers. In the early twentieth century West African societies that I’ve researched were anxious that romance and traditional modes of coupling were on the wane as families changed habits and moved away from kin-centered family compounds to private homes for the conjugal couple. In both nineteenth-century Europe and early twentieth century West Africa, societies and individual lovers spent much time thinking about the public debating married love, sentimental attachment, and sexual freedom, and their place in a changing society. In the twenty-first century, European and African societies are intermingled through love and more reciprocally oriented, as well as responsive, and migratory. They share fantasies and anxieties about traditional marriage, dating, social inclusion, HIV/AIDS, children, infidelity, and passion. Romance in a globalized social and sexual marketplace is in some ways at once the apogee of nineteenth century European romantic fantasies and the nadir of early twentieth century African anxieties over the dissolution of custom and traditional ways of loving. Romance in the twenty-first century is both liberating and destabilizing, unmooring lovers from expectations as well as securities. Romance is visualized more immediately in the contemporary era. The nearness of the future as it hurtles toward us compels humans to capture every moment of romantic relationships: kisses are photographed, emotions are tweeted, intimacies are broadcast, fights are publicized. Romance is announced and not kept secret, for time moves so quickly it could be lost if not captured on film, in data, online, and in its ephemeral moment. And as romance is captured it is broadcast throughout the globe, pinging from Paris to Dakar, from Brussels to Brazzaville, from London to Lilongwe, for grannies and sisters to see and hopefully approve. Because as we seek freedom to participate in romance we also seek endorsement from those authorities and kin who wish to restrain and inhibit, so that romance does not change too much too fast.