Rashid Johnson’s Fly Away – An Interpretation By Daniel Valentin

The title of the exhibition comes from a gospel hymn of the 1920’s era. I was intrigued by the artist’s relationship to the song and how it relates to the work presented in this exhibition. After viewing the exhibition and listening to several renditions of the song I found that it was beautiful and spoke to several themes but, in relation to the exhibition, primarily struggle, death and the thereafter. As the title “I’ll fly away” suggests, the song is speaking about the actual act of dying and moving on to heaven or a promised land. 

When the shadows of this life have gone, I’ll fly away

 Like a bird from these prison walls I’ll fly, I’ll fly away

 No more cold iron shackles on my feet

 Just a few more weary days then I’ll fly away to a land where joys will never end.

It makes me wonder who wrote this song or who it was written for, it’s easy to get lost in the idea of this beautiful idyllic place but with that comes this juxtaposition of why its being referenced, it must have been born from a place of turmoil and angst. The lyrics of the song continually reference being trapped, restrained and tied down the associations pointing to the history of slavery in the United States.

I thought of the context of the song and its relationship to the work and its placement in the gallery. The viewer walks through several rooms, regardless of which way they go and confronts these works. The first work, the expression of anxiety, aptly titled Anxious Audience, and the Falling Men series, reminded me not of his childhood heroes flying, which was referenced in the description, but of body chalk outlines at a murder scene. In those and the other images there are punctures in the surface with what reminds me of blood coming out of the work. I believe the artist is referencing police violence against African Americans and structural racism that he perhaps has experienced in his own life. Overall there is this underlying heaviness to the work; the artist does an excellent job of attaching that feeling to the viewer through the entire exhibition.

In the first room while walking through Violet pointed out to me the plants all the way on the top of the walls, how peculiar I thought not realizing the connection to the installation in the final room. I believe the placement of the plants high on the wall out of ordinary view to be intentional. It’s a visual representation of that final resting place where one is freed from the bound structure that is referenced in the song, the way that one might know there is something better waiting for them. The large scale three dimensional grid that took up a large amount of the room reaching towards the ceiling staggered with all kinds of flora, video art and other seemingly significant ephemera important to the artist on multiple levels and little hidden spaces with items inside. When looking through to the center of the structure an organ is played as part of the performance several times per week. It became a place to relax, a break from the heaviness leading up to this point.

Given the song that the title of the installation references, could it be that the solace and peace found here is in fact a representation of death? A representation which challenges our notion of death as the source of fear and despair, and instead highlights the dark side of life.

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