I received a phone call Sunday from someone asking me if I knew anything about Stephen Hayes. A recent graduate of the Savannah College of Art and Design-Atlanta, the artist was the subject of a flatteringly high-profile television interview that aired on CNN over the weekend.
The woman on the other end of the receiver was audibly touched; her voice betrayed an unmistakable tremble of emotion as she described Cash Crop, Hayes’s 15 sculptures created in memory of over 15 million human beings kidnapped and transported by sea during the trans-Atlantic slave trade. These were the very same works I viewed in Atlanta just over a month ago. The conversation struck me with wonder and reminded me, once again, why being involved in the arts can be so utterly and unpredictably thrilling.
Click here to read BURNAWAY’s review of Stephen Hayes’s exhibition Cash Crop.
The CNN story emphasizes the historical content of Hayes’s work, rightfully calling attention to the extent he researched the horrors experienced within the bowels of slave ships. Claustrophobic, ghastly, hellish—where these descriptions may elude us, Hayes’s artwork communicates in a language beyond speech.
But what distinguishes these objects from an exhibit in a history museum? What makes them contemporary art?
I enjoyed these works tremendously without knowing anything about why they were made. They exude an almost tangible aura of power. Walking between them almost seems dangerous; our clumsy feet inevitably disturb the chains connecting one sculpture to the next. The rattling sound is appropriately inhuman.
Yet the sculptures still have a strange sweetness to them. We somehow sense that we’re looking into the face of someone’s brother, someone’s sister, or perhaps someone’s mother.
All of these touches are part of what makes it art, instead of just another news story. The intent is historical, yes, but the presentation is uniquely expressionistic, and powerfully so. And the dreamlike atmosphere makes the realism in the faces all the more potent. The uncomfortable weirdness is what makes these works cool.
One might make the argument that Hayes is awfully young for such widespread attention. Perhaps they would be right. But for now I’m simply impressed that he caused someone—my mother—to have an emotional response to a work of art she saw on TV, so much that she phoned from over 250 miles away. That truly makes me grin.