Glenn Ligon is known for his resonant works in multiple media that explore issues surrounding race, sexuality, identity, representation and language. For his first web-based project, Annotations, Ligon revisits the family photo album, a format rich in its potential for investigating the diverse sources that shape individual identity, in the artist's words: "a site of invention, cheering fictions, hidden histories and unforeseen juxtapositions."
In considering this medium for his project, Ligon was inspired by a notion of the web as a vast, anarchic library of material, where family histories are researched and documented in places as diverse as personal homepages and genealogical sites. He is interested in the web as a repository where public and private collide in myriad ways, where even intimate photographs may be posted for a few to visit, yet are ultimately accessible to millions, remaining in archives long after removal from their original location.
Ligon's works frequently employ appropriation or quotation, notably his lush coal-dust paintings of excerpts from James Baldwin's Stranger in the Village, or his recent project at the Walker Art Center, where he gave school children vintage coloring books depicting icons of African-American history, then used their drawings as the basis for a series of paintings. Ligon deems discarded materials and forgotten histories fertile source material for critical artistic practice.
Ligon previously worked with the convention of the photo album in Feast of Scraps, 1994-1998. This work juxtaposed family photographs with vintage gay porn, humorously underscoring how selective and limited are the images that constitute a family's official history while probing silences around issues of gay sexuality. He captioned the pornographic photos with text snippets ("Brother," "Mother Knew" or "It's a Process") which served simultaneously to illuminate and obfuscate the interpretation of the images.
In Annotations each image in the twenty-page album leads to a second or third layer -- a simple caption, other photographs, images of book covers, lists, narratives, a hand-written letter, and in a few instances, multiple page spreads -- plus, (towards the end of the album), audio clips of music, including the artist singing a capella or with songs from the 70s and 80s. The potential for adding layers of materials behind a single image allowed Ligon to present his material in a manner parallel to the way memory works: when viewing a photo album that one knows, each photo invariably prods recollections or associations. In this instance, where the album is unfamiliar to the viewer, Ligon provides hints and suggestions to multiply the layers of possible interpretation.
Beyond the singular feel of many of the images in Annotations, African-American history and race are ubiquitous subtexts that run throughout, from the interspersed photos of book covers such as "Harlem is Burning" or "Black Like Me" to the charged captions "Came North" for a family standing around a car or "Future President of the United States" in front of an African-American baby. Another caption which appears repeatedly throughout the project references the 1955 exhibition and publication The Family of Man, one of the most well-known and successful attempts to postulate a universality inherent in the human condition. "We two form a multitude," the well-known Ovidian quotation, appears beneath photographs of couples from many continents and races, all heterosexual. Ligon wryly acknowledges this gap in universality with his placement of this caption throughout the album.
The fact that the majority of the people in Annotations are African-American makes race a palpable factor in the reading of each image. Yet there is a feeling of recognition, even if none of the faces is known to the viewer, a familiarity that arises from our intimacy with the conventions of a family album -- the proud portraits, new babies, special occasions, banal moments when a camera was in hand, the poorly centered or focused images that make their way past the editing process for whatever reasons.