Revisiting america

Annabel Daou's The Declaration of Causes and Necessity of Taking Up Arms

Through the generosity of Sally and Wynn Kramarsky, the Colby Museum recently acquired Annabel Daou’s The Declaration of Causes and Necessity of Taking Up Arms, a text-based work that reproduces the entire 1775 text of the Second Continental Congress’s justification for the fight for American independence. Soon after the work arrived at the museum, Lunder Curator of American Art Beth Finch visited Daou in New York and invited her to contribute to The Lantern. We’re excited to publish Daou’s reflection, our first post by an artist, on this work and its place in the trajectory of her practice.

Annabel Daou, The Declaration of the Causes and Necessity of Taking Up Arms, 2006. Gift of Sally and Wynn Kramarsky, 2016.271

In September of 2006 my exhibition America opened in New York. The show consisted of a large-scale work in pencil on paper titled america and thirteen small-scale works also in pencil on paper. The language in america was drawn from numerous sources: literature, history, poetry, music, politics, theory, and popular culture. Each of the thirteen smaller pieces was a transcription of a different seminal text in the history of the United States, among them the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, the Declaration of Independence, the Emancipation Proclamation, and the Declaration of the Causes and Necessity of Taking Up Arms.

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Installation view of america, 2006. Installed at at Park Avenue Armory, New York, 2008 Photograph by James Ewing

In September 2016, my exhibition I don’t care about your body  opened in Berlin. The show centered on a large-scale work titled they were here—as in the initials one scratches on a wall (“so and so was here”). The piece was based on the idea of a city in between life and ruin. The show more generally dealt with the body, boundaries, and the traces of our past actions. It included a video, autobiography of a, which is a work in progress based on a book I began writing just after completing the America project. The various episodes in the video collectively enact a search for the presence of the artist as well as a search for the witness to the artist’s evolution. 

This Berlin show was still up the first week of November when I was asked if I would be interested in writing something about The Declaration of Causes and Necessity of Taking Up Arms, a work of mine that had just been acquired by the Colby Museum. The works that I sent to Berlin were made over the summer, and much of what I was negotiating within them was related to the chaos and confusion surrounding the current political and social environment. For this reason, it was interesting to be brought back to another point in time in which political realities became central to my work—a moment in which I had felt the deep necessity of taking up arms, if only metaphorically.

“In the summer of 2006, wars were raging in Iraq and Lebanon, and I had the feeling that language was being emptied of all meaning and purposely being used to cloud clarity and understanding.” 
In the summer of 2006, wars were raging in Iraq and Lebanon, and I had the feeling that language was being emptied of all meaning and purposely being used to cloud clarity and understanding. I decided I wanted to make a war painting, and I wanted it to be titled america; but I wasn’t entirely sure what that would look like given that I had stopped painting a few years earlier and was in the early stages of using language as a primary element in my work. Having grown up outside the United States, I had never really learned all the things that you learn in school about the country’s founding and political history, and I had my own complicated relationship to its culture as a whole. I figured I would approach the project as an attempt to “transcribe” America from my particular position, to trace the path of someone making their way through the immense array of possible texts. I wanted the proliferation of abutting passages to convey something of the tumult and energy of the birth and life of the country. My aim was to have language function in as many ways as possible—as signification, texture, and even as “sound”—within the boundaries of the 7′ x 13′ piece of paper.

The texts that eventually went into making america were selected unsystematically. The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth (or Jefferson’s Bible) is a version of the Bible created by Thomas Jefferson toward the end of his life. Jefferson cut and pasted various sections of the Bible, removing all miracles and mentions of the supernatural. I began america by transcribing Jefferson’s Bible across the upper half of the work, thinking of it as America’s sky. The choice of texts after that was very fluid and one text often led me to another. For me the project was an exploration of limits and limitlessness, across time and between people, through the words that bind and divide us.

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Detail from america

Other than George W. Bush’s call to war and George Washington’s farewell address, I included very few political documents in america. I wanted the work to be outside the law, in a manner of speaking, and to have a chaotic, uncontrollable feel that would be compounded by the work’s large scale. In contrast to this sense of physical and emotional monumentality, I chose to make the seminal documents and texts that are the acts and laws that form the backbone of the country itself almost pocket-sized. These consequential documents become cryptic, unimposing representations of themselves.

When I look now at the scale of the text transcribed in The Declaration of Causes and Necessity of Taking Up Arms, I really have no idea how I fit the text on the paper, how I wrote so small and, given the twelve other pieces and america, how on earth I could have written so much over the four-month period that I worked on the project.  What I do remember is a sense of urgency to make some sort of declaration about the emptying out of meaning in the public discourse.  I think I wanted to fill up the space with the expanse of language, to give place to the weight of words.

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they were here, 2016. Cuben fiber, ink, repair tape, 103″ x 146 1/2 ” (262 × 372 cm)

In the America project, I was grappling with the concept of this country as something outside the individual’s grasp. In my recent exhibition, I don’t care about your body, I felt the need to explore place from a more personal and intimate angle. america is a country, a document, a pamphlet. they were here, one of the principle works from the Berlin show, is a city on the brink or at the turning point of something. It’s made of a material used to build tents and sails, and there’s a sense in the work of a constant state of flux—of rising, falling, and then, also, of exploding. The work is held together with document repair tape on which I’ve transcribed the acts that two figures (“she” and “he”) were doing at a given moment in time, the repeated acts of living and being whose echoes and traces are what constitute place to me.

The Declaration of the Causes and Necessity of Taking Up Arms was written right before the American Revolution. It expresses a resolve to take a stand and a readiness to face the consequences and possibilities opened up by doing so. Reencountering my work The Declaration of Causes and Necessity of Taking Up Arms now, I see it as indicating the fine line between what we perceive as fixed or stable and what may at any moment disintegrate, fade away, or simply become an illegible replica of what it once stood for.

Annabel Daou is a New York based artist. An iteration of her project Fortune is at 53 Orchard Street, New York through January 2017.