THE 5 CONTINENT DOCUMENTA 7: The Material of James Lee Byars’s Ephemeral Practice

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    In March 1979, James Lee Byars (1932–1997) debuted The 5 Continent documenta 7 in Groningen. It was a protest against, what he assumed would be, the Western-centric perspective of the documenta 7 (1982), which was then in the planning stages. The project was initiated in collaboration with Corps de Garde at the Groninger Museum and would be performed in different cities throughout Europe. As part of the project, he sent multiple letters in the shape of a seven around the globe. This paper examines how the artistic practice of James Lee Byars, and The 5 Continent documenta 7 in particular, encompasses both the material and the immaterial, and, critically, how they are inextricably related.

    Manifested in the form of both letters and performances, material and thought, The 5 Continent documenta 7 challenged the visual conventions of the art world and the dichotomy between form and content in conceptual art. The performance of The 5 Continent documenta 7 shows how Byars integrated his signature materials (fragile black paper) and colors (gold, red, and black) into these temporary perfor- mances. By analyzing the material component of Byars’s ephemeral practice, this paper challenges the notion of performances as a ›dematerialized‹ art form. The materials distributed as part of The 5 Continent documenta 7 were intended to ques- tion the art world’s Western-centric perspective, while the letters also functioned as desirable collectibles within his network of art-world insiders. Remarkably, Byars participated in the documenta 7, the exhibition he criticized. In conclusion, this paper relates The 5 Continent documenta 7 to Jean-Hubert Martin’s exhibition Magi- ciens de la Terre (1989), which included work by Byars, and discusses how presenting artists from five continents played out in a large-scale exhibition.
    Original languageEnglish
    Number of pages22
    JournalZeitschrift für Ästhetik und allgemeine Kunstwissenschaft. [Neue Folge]
    Publication statusAccepted/In press - 2021

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