ESSAYS, INTERVIEWS & REVIEWS
James Lee Byars - 1997 - Imperial Yellow [EN, essay],
Remembering James Lee Byars
I met James Lee Byars in October 1996. A few months earlier Maria Gilissen had visited him in a home for the aged in Santa Fe, where the doctors kept him sedated, waiting for his death. Maria stayed with him for several days and saw to it that he didn't take his medicine. When she saw Byars slowly recovering she decided to come back a few weeks later. During this second visit she had Jule Kewenig and Stephen Mckenna relieve her until Byars was able to leave the home and travel to Europe. A few days later I had to be at Maria Gilissen's to collect some notes. Krystyna Szymorowski showed me in and introduced me to James Lee Byars.
He was sitting at the big table and cutting out tiny circles from photographs with a pair of giant scissors. He was wearing a black velvet suit with a very long black lace scarf. He was drinking red wine and eating thin slices of Parma ham which he was drying on a claret-coloured cushion placed in front of the fireplace.
'Put some more logs on the fire,' he said to Krystyna. 'Where do you find these logs anyway? Put more logs on the fire, I'm freezing. What do you think of this portrait of Maria?' he asked me. 'It's a good portrait, I think. I made it.' He showed me the face of Maria Gilissen, cut from a photograph, as if for a medallion.
'She looks like a Madonna,' I said, 'I never saw her looking like that.'
'A tank,' he said. 'She's a tank… She's got arms like this. She lifts a ton with each hand and then she starts walking. She grew up in a small Dutch village in the neighbourhood of Maastricht… Which one do you prefer?'
On another copy of the same photo of Maria Gilissen, not yet cut, he laid a piece of paper with a circular cut-out. He showed me two possible positions for cutting out the photo. I told him I liked the second one best. 'OK,' he said, 'you cut it out.' Then he started calling Krystyna, who was working in the next room.
'Krystyna, do you have another copy of this photograph? Bring me another copy of this photograph! And another pair of scissors for Hans! And more wood on the fire!'
I had a close look at the other photos Byars had cut out and I recognised the portrait of Marcel Lecomte taken by Marcel Broodthaers, a photo of Marie-Puck Broodthaers, a portrait of Isi Fiszman and a very small ball-like head of Mario Merz.
'Could you go up to my room and look for a small picture for me?' Byars asked. 'I must have lost it on the floor.'
I went up to his room and started studying the floor. After a few minutes I found a round piece of white paper some three millimetres in diameter. In the middle I saw an almost invisible black dot. I picked it up and brought it downstairs.
'It's a bird,' Byars said, 'you need a magnifying glass to see it.'
I took a close look at the photo with the copper-mounted magnifier he was using and I discovered the dot had two magfnificent tiny wings… like two thin curved lines. I was struck by the unexpected elegance concealed in this small piece of paper with what had looked like an ordinary dot.
'I just happen to have seen a beautiful exhibition about birds,' Byars said. 'There's a wonderful airplane made by Panamarenko… a kind of flying platform called Bernouilli. I love it. It's a magnificent work. I have also seen a very small earring with five little white feathers… And next to it they have put Brancusi's bird. Wonderful! A delightful equilibrium! Here a plane made by Panamarenko, there a minuscule hanger and there the Brancusi! And the cage! The cage is extraordinary! With five couples of rare birds brought by French ornithologists from the Australian rain forest. They went to fetch them themselves. They carefully picked five couples and now you can see them in this cage. Five by six by eight metres! And the back wall is a silver mirror! And then five stainless steel bars on which they can sit, one above the other, whichever they want. And their food is served in two times five bowls in Chinese porcelain of the Sung dynasty and in each bowl they get another kind of food. And every day those ornithologists come to watch them with binoculars to see whether everything is still fine. To see whether they are happy. And they are happy! They haven't lost a single feather! And the ladies look at themselves all the time in the mirror and kiss themselves in the mirror and their husbands look around a bit. But there is one male bird who is the boss. He is about one centimetre bigger than the others. And he's the boss. He sits on the highest bar. He is always sleeping. Except when there's something wrong, for then he will open one eye. And this bird, it is a male bird, is the boss. He is completely yellow, imperial yellow, and he always sits on top. His wife is olive green. Olive green, with a yellow beak and yellow feet. That's how you can see she's his wife. But the male bird is completely yellow, imperial yellow, with yellow feet and yellow lips and golden eyes. He is the boss. And when I arrived he was taking a bath in a big porcelain bowl. I was wearing the coat that is hanging behind you.'
I turned around and saw a long, red velvet coat decorated with black lace butterflies.
'He was taking a bath, but when I entered the room he stopped washing to have a look. He didn't look at me, but at the butterflies. Because normally he eats butterflies. And then he made an invisible sign to his wife who was kissing herself in the mirror. She came down at once and sat down at his left side, slightly to the rear, the way she is supposed to. And then he said: 'Look, butterflies!'
But she said: 'You fool, those are not butterflies but lace decorations and you are locked up in a cage.' And then she flew up again to admire herself in the mirror… The boss quietly finished his toilet and flew up as well to take a nap on the highest bar…
Maybe the words were not exactly the same,' Byars said, 'but they really were talking about the butterflies, and it's a true story.'
Montagne de Miel, August 2nd 1997