The 2020 Jacob Lawrence Legacy Resident at the Jacob Lawrence Gallery is Marisa Williamson. She is a New York-based artist whose themes (race, history, technology) are weaved into video works and performances. She has a video installation at Soil called The Runaway, and an exhibit the Jacob Lawrence Gallery called the The Angel of History. The Runway is stunning, and centered around a video of a slave (a black woman) cleaning the floors and walls and windows of her master's house. In the end, it's revealed that her hard labor is not productive but totally destructive. This view of slavery breaks with the Hegelian interpretation of the slave/master dialectic of recognition. The Hegelian slave is saved by their work. He/she makes a world, and finds recognition in that world. And so, in the end, the slave-made world redeems the slave. The master does not make anything and so is stuck in time. Williamson's slave wants nothing to do with the world of her work. She simply burns it all down.
It is interesting that the exhibit at Jacob Lawrence Gallery is called The Angel of History. This, of course, is a reference to one of the greatest pieces of thought and writing in 20th century Western philosophy, the ninth movement of Walter Benjamin's posthumously published Theses on the Philosophy of History. It goes like this...
A Klee painting named ‘Angelus Novus’ shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing in from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such a violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.
An angel can also be found in Williamson's The Runway: the angel of Abaddon. As I point out in a new e-flux essay, "Which Angel of Death Appears in Afrofuturist Visions of Hi-Tech Black Societies?" there are two types of death angels in the Bible. One is Azrael and the other is Abaddon. The former is about renewal, or, as the 20th century Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter put it, creative destruction. This is the same that begins again and again and again. The other angel, Abaddon, is the one who really ends things. After this destruction, there is nothing to salvage. There is no rebirth. The same is no more.
Williamson's beautiful constructed video of the slave in her master's house is all about this other angel. Hers is the death that is death. The end that is an end.
Williamson's The Angel of History lecture and exhibit happens tonight at the Jacob Lawrence Gallery.