On a recent trip to Tate Modern, I spotted this: “Condition Report” (2000) by Glenn Ligon. If you aren’t careful, you could easily miss it. It’s right outside a room full of Andy Warhol – big, bold, bright work which sucks you in and shouts in your face. And then you get to this…
Condition Report consists of two prints of a painting Ligon made in 1988, Untitled (I Am a Man). Ligon produced a range of works based on borrowed texts, often dealing with the experience of being African-American through slavery and racial segregation. The text of “I Am a Man” was taken from a placard carried by a striking sanitation worker in 1968. The strike protested years of poor treatment, low pay and dangerous working conditions, and called for equal, humane treatment of African-American workers.
The phrase, “I am a man” was a simple but powerful message, which drew attention to the inhumanity of treating people as inferior based on the colour of their skin, but also carried the simple demand for equal treatment – I am a man, the same as you, so treat me as such. No more, no less.
Ligon took this placard and recreated it in 1988. Ligon’s recreation functioned as a reminder of the struggle, which, even twenty short years later would already have been fading in the collective conscience. In a way, Ligon was also probably appropriating the message for himself, as an African-American, and also as a gay man; for many the struggle for recognition as equal human beings was (and still is) far from over. Then, in 2000, Ligon had a painting conservator friend produce the condition report – an annotated print which highlights imperfections, cracks and other damage to the work which have accumulated over time. The print and the report are hung side-by-side, and together they are a stark reminder of the passage of time, both materially and historically.
The statement “I AM A MAN” started out as an exasperated cry from an oppressed minority to be treated as human. Twenty years later, Ligon took it and turned it into art. As the protest placard became art, the anguished statement became subject matter. Then a decade later Condition Report was created. Surely a condition report is the ultimate in dispassionate analysis of a piece of work. Any merit, any message, even the subject is ignored as the cracks and scratches are marked and recorded. The condition report marks the passage of time since the original piece of work was created, but isn’t it more than just the paint which is fading? The original struggle is gradually forgotten as the message becomes art, and the art becomes an object. In placing the two side-by-side, Ligon is stopping us in our tracks, making us aware of the passage of time and our fading memories, lest we forget.
(For more, see this interesting interview with Glenn Ligon for Museo Magazine).