Arts & Entertainment
3 min

Glenn Ligon’s Death of Tom

The living ghosts of US history

Over the past two decades, New York artist Glenn Ligon has established a celebrated career reinvigorating discourses around racial representation by using the oblique and ambiguous strategies of conceptual art. Working in a wide range of media but grounded in painting, he has always incorporated references to the history of black culture — from WEB DuBois and Zora Neale Hurston to Richard Pryor — sparring with the past while seeking out new forms and feelings for our present.

In his major survey exhibition at the Power Plant in 2005, Some Changes, the diversity, intelligence and power of his practice were on full display. For example his paintings based on children’s wildly imaginative interpretations of black history colouring books — one child’s image of Malcolm X in clown drag has become an iconic emblem for Ligon’s provocative output — and ironically autobiographical texts recounted in the style of slave narratives. He has also worked specifically with black and white, using neon painted black on the front to create a sort of negative illumination of the words “negro sunshine” in Warm Broad Glow (from 2005), for example, or in a number of black oil on white text paintings, where the statements gradually blur into illegibility as one reads down the canvas. Curator Wayne Baerwaldt has brought Ligon back to Toronto with a new video projection The Death of Tom showing at MOCCA as part of the Toronto International Film Festival’s Future Projections program, which picks up this interest in the meanings of black and white and the power of abstraction.

The title refers to the final scene of Edwin S Porter’s 14-minute 1903 film adaptation of the hugely popular 1852 novel by Harriet Beecher Stowe, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, but it also refers to an unexpected accident that “killed” Ligon’s own intended reconstruction project.

When you walk into the gallery, you are greeted by a text (taken from the Thomas Edison studio catalogue) that sketches out the narrative incident of this final scene, with Tom dying in a woodshed after having a vision of the angelic white girl Eva in heaven, followed by a series of visions illustrating the future emancipation of his race. However, when you walk into the darkened room and come face to face with the projection, you are greeted by a heavily abstracted, black-and- white image. It turns out that Ligon had sought to restage this scene on 16mm film with a group of collaborators (shot by Deco Dawson, who cut his teeth on silent-era-looking cinematography by working with Guy Maddin). When the film was returned from the lab, it was ruined, but Ligon decided to exhibit it anyway.

As it stands, the film functions purely on a metaphoric level, but it is potent on many levels. I thought about Ligon’s contemporary Kara Walker’s use of black and white with her black cut-paper silhouette on the pristine white gallery wall, the way she uses a panoply of stereotypes and caricatures to evoke a horrific, orgiastic nightmare vision of life under slavery. In addition to racial dichotomies, black and white immediately conveys an aura of pastness, of history, of reopening old wounds. I imagine that Ligon’s intentions run parallel to another gay artist Kent Monkman’s in his satirical restagings of old films (such as Group of Seven Inches and Shooting Geronimo), turning the tables on colonialist narratives of the “noble” savage and the “benevolent” white artist who sought to save them.

More than anything Ligon’s video resembles a ghost, as if the past can only become legible to us in a spectral, intangible form. While Ligon’s jaunty period piano soundtrack was presumably exhibited as planned, everything you see is blurred — usually stretched and multiplied vertically, but occasionally the screen is completely black or blank — into a soupy, indistinguishable shimmer.

By exhibiting his failed footage, which only has a few glimpses of figures, Ligon is doing away with representation and narrative, declaring it superfluous. Of course, the period of film history that he is referencing was wholly saturated with narratives of white supremacy and the domination of racial Others. This context of oppression has tainted the entire American narrative cinema, whether explicitly or implicitly. Only in abstraction is there no black or white skin, but all are melded together into an undifferentiated mass. In fact, the image often resembles an X-ray of a body, an imaging technology that erases all racial difference by seeing through to what’s inside. All we have now is dancing light and shadow.