After a Bob Marley concert in 1979 at the Santa Barbara County Bowl, the artist Henry Taylor found himself backstage, seated next to the legend himself. Eyes closed, Marley sat silent in meditation for twenty minutes before engaging Taylor in what felt like an hour-long conversation. What was exchanged between them is unknown, but the memory stayed with Taylor forever.
Kahlil Joseph’s new film and installation Wizard of the Upper Amazon (WOTUA), which accompanies Taylor’s three-room exhibition on class, race, and painting at Blum & Poe, is a dreamlike impression of Taylor’s encounter with Marley as he recounted it to Joseph decades later. Joseph’s recreation of this moment, however referential to the particular details of Taylor’s memory, deftly interweaves film, performance, sound and installation into a surreal experience that penetrates the ethereal nature of memory itself. So much so, that when I entered the guarded room of the installation on the eve of the opening reception, I had no idea that I would become captive to the hallucinatory experience within.
Of the manifold thoughts and feelings conjured by the artwork, its transformative effect, so rare in the sterile environment of the art gallery, gave me access to a space where I had never been before: backstage with a group of Rastafarians inside a film set presented as an art installation situated in a high-end gallery. WOTUA, as I experienced it, is a meditation on memory and the psychic influence of others; it is also a sly consideration of the relationship between insider and outsider, spectator and performer, self and Other.
Film of the Marley concert Taylor attended in 1979 at the Santa Barbara County Bowl
Imagine entering a room, access to which you have never before been given.
Sit, if a chair is available, along the walls where two video projectors play black and white sequences of Rastafarian men smoking joints along the same walls where you are now seated, except in the film version there is no well-heeled crowd of onlookers packed in the center of the room, staring up at the projections, and staring down at you, as you sit between the same Rastafarian men from the films playing above, smoking spliffs and getting incredibly stoned. Here is your moment to immerse, to partake in a psycho-spiritual artistic performance, to get high from the secondhand smoke of joints passed around and sourced from a card table in the back, where two Rastafarians and a blonde roll them under a hanging florescent light, surrounded by art-seekers gawking through the tiny screens of their iPhones.
You came prepared, because the spliffs are for the performers only and self-knowingly you inhale from your marijuana vape pen.
For the next two hours, you find yourself unable to leave.
Kahlil Joseph, Installation view of Wizard of the Upper Amazon at Henry Taylor, with a New Film by Kahlil Joseph, 2016, Blum & Poe, Los Angeles.
© The artists. Photo: Joshua White/JWPictures.com. Courtesy of the artists and Blum & Poe, Los Angeles/New York/Tokyo
Engulfed between the looped videos of intimate portraits of the men now beside you, their various energies expressed in subtle gestures, a tilt of the head, a shy glance in your direction, smoke generously blown in your face, between the layered sonic experience that rises and falls like a prayer service, and includes intermittent drum beats played by the men seated next to you, and the distant musings of a prophetic voice speaking of Bob Marley. You are backstage, the painted text on the wall indicates so, “The Stage” points in the direction from where you came, and from where ogling clans of art people wait to enter, as the guard permits. During those two hazy hours, you juggle three states of consciousness:
1) It is Saturday night, you are at Blum & Poe, and there are many more openings to attend.
2) Forget the stage outside, lose yourself instead in the communal ritual of getting high, within a cultural tradition that is not your own, uniquely staged inside the exclusive space of an art gallery.
3) Remember that now, more than ever, is a good time for creative, radical and collective transformation.
Book cover of the 1971 biography about Manuel Cordova-Rios, a well-known Peruvian herbalist and healer
who introduced medicinal plants, like Ayahuasca, to non-native communities.
At least that is how I experienced it. Art rewarded me when I least expected it.
On a bustling evening of openings in Los Angeles, I found myself in a room that offered sanctity and self-reflection. Despite the frenzy of people passing through, the performers’ attention was evidently turned inwards, their eyes closed, their postures contained, their interactions slight and only with each other. Without knowing the reference of Joseph’s title to a 1971 book about a Peruvian herbalist who introduced medicinal plants, like Ayahuasca, to non-native communities, I considered the connection between what I was witnessing amongst the Rastafarians and my recent experience at an Ayahuasca ceremony. Here were two religious traditions that used natural substances for contemplative and spiritual purposes. Perhaps my own religious upbringing as a Jew  and my personal experimentation with hallucinogens had drawn me to this moment.
Kahlil Joseph, Wizard of the Upper Amazon, 2016, Film still. © the artist Courtesy of the artist and Blum & Poe, Los Angeles/New York/Tokyo
That said, the problem of explaining a hallucinatory trip is similar to that of recounting a vivid dream, the description never measures up to the real thing. Similarly, offering a second-hand perspective of an immersive art installation might seem disingenuous. The biographical details of Taylor’s memory, however intriguing after the fact, would have seemed inconsequential from the moment I entered the room. The transformative effect of Joseph’s installation is that it turns Taylor’s memory into a new one by repurposing the space of the gallery for sacred ritual and smoky introspection. In the film, the camera pans across the scene of Rastafarians like an enigmatic presence, speeding up and slowing down, pulling focus in and out, being here and not here. The local sounds of dogs barking, Taylor’s voice recounting his experience, excerpts from an interview with the Jamaican musician and performer in the film Tippa Lee, combined with an original score by Jeremy Gara from Arcade Fire and additional music from Damian Marley, enhance the temporal-spatial disorientation of the work. My sense of time and concern for previous social obligations diminished as I became captivated by the experience within.
Experience the artwork yourself. Weekly Saturday performances take place from 11am–6pm through the duration of the exhibition until November 5, 2016.
Julie Weitz is an artist based in Los Angeles. Her immersive video installation Touch Museum premiered at Young Projects last winter and received critical attention in Artforum, the LA Times, and on KCRW.
(Image at top: Kahlil Joseph, Wizard of the Upper Amazon, 2016, Film still. © the artist Courtesy of the artist and Blum & Poe, Los Angeles/New York/Tokyo)