Golden Thread Gallery, Belfast

The ambitious intentions of the curator – the competent, informed and cerebral Christa-Maria Lerm Hayes, Reader at the University of Ulster – are grounded in her ongoing research and curatorial activity (e.g. Joyce in Art at the RHA in 2004). According to an email sent by Dr. Lerm Hayes to the reviewer, this exhibition intended to show ‘how reading and interpreting literature is … at the core of some … art practices’, to highlight ‘that artists make a major contribution to how we can all think about literature … as something relevant and liberating’, and to provide ‘… an alternative ‘monument’ to writers, their work, to well-read artists –and to innovative ways of bridging these realms through exhibition’. The formidable connection to literature related Convergence to the Perverse Library Exhibition of conceptual writing that had previously been shown at Shandy Hall, Yorkshire (2010), whose curator, Simon Morris of Information as Material, saw it as an exploration of the ways in which artists can help visitors of the museum to unlock the collection. This rhymes with the second aim above, though Lerm Hayes’ unlocking is more inclusive: it includes all we read.
On my visits to Convergence, however, I failed to experience the art-literature transfer as anything like a ‘major contribution’ and felt unconvinced that a life informed by literature was at the core of the artworks on display. At least since the Biblia Pauperum, artists have engaged in literary interpretation, and it is understandable that art historians should research this body of exegesis. But, as M.C. Beardsley argued in The Aesthetic Point of View, such intentionality is insufficient matter for the interpretation of an artwork – understanding of the core processes of art in terms of mere subject-matter, in fact, was a staple of socialist realism schools of criticism in the former SSSR (a legacy of Peredvizniki). In contrast, it is my conviction that literature significantly contributes to what Aristotle called ‘the good life’, and it is in this ‘good life’ that literature and art ‘converge’. Such convergence was not exhibited at the Golden Thread.
Julie Bacon transformed two jigsaw puzzles into a colourful relief spiral, which looked like recent scientific images of galaxies. The text associated with this piece (The Twins) – Kurt Vonnegut’s city-based novel Lonesome No More – is about the destruction of lives, those of a twin brother and sister. Two empty jigsaw boxes, titled ‘Bamiyan Buddhas’ and ‘Afghanistan’, high up on pedestals, reinforced another reading. The twin pedestals easily morphed into a schematic model of the ‘Twin Towers’ destroyed in 2001, and the motifs on the carpet underneath included a Kalashnikov and a tank. In this case, embedding ideas within ideas is not convergence (it is perhaps ‘recursion’, to use Michael C. Corballis’ coinage).
Beyond the curatorial agenda, however, much of the art operated on its own terms. The elegant economy of means of Brian O’Doherty’s Untitled (2009) and Eric Zboya’s 2010 transformation of Ginsberg’s Howl #16 into a black hole succeeded immediately. Musique (2009), by Michalis Pichler, felt effortless. He embedded several ideas with minimal means: dark bars, appearing like an aleatoric score, dropped down across the screen, morphing into beautiful pearling staccato sound as they passed through a band of different frequency. The bars related to a book published in 1969 by Marcel Broodthaers, in which he replaced the words of Mallarmé’s poem Un coup de dés with black bars and subtitled it Image. Pichler presented Broothaers’ intervention as laser cut-outs in a closed book and re-named it Sculpture (2008). A similar intervention was to be performed by Cerith Wyn Evans in 2010 (Wyn Evans cut out Broodthaers’ black blocks, and presented the pages framed, to be hung on a gallery wall). The bars in Image, the laser cut-outs, Sculpture and Musique correspond not so much to words, but to their position on the page, to the typographical layout prescribed by Mallarmé, which harvested the silence of space about the print. Typography is also forefronted in Complete Text of Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus by Ecke Bonk and Isa Quandt (1989), which explores the power of scale to change a meaning: the book shrunk to four A5 cards. Without a magnifying glass, the meaning is not accessible – a smiling metaphor for the difficulties one may have both with Wittgenstein and the ineffable in art. A witty contrast to this I found in Cerith Wyn Evans’ screenprint, part of the Billboard for Edinburgh series (2009), where a robust poetics of wisdom was made clearly visible, but remained difficult to achieve.
At times, we cannot distinguish between our own contingent values and the artwork’s intrinsic value. Joanna Karolini claimed that the re-writing of fifteen of Kafka’s love letters had given her insights into his personality. Yet is more likely that the act of writing over written text pushes the original experience towards even greater inaccessibility. Nick Thurston removed and replaced some words in the three large panels with texts from Beckett’s Watt. Six pairs of small line drawings devised by Pavel Büchler, drawn on walls by Karolini, appeared to trace the spaces of removed words. Embedded in Simon Morris’s Fan No. 10 (2011), the text by Thomas Campbell recalled phenomenology: “Reading is art when the act of reading, the moments of slippage, nothingness, unreadability are presented in our perception”. Afterall, there may be a thought without language. Allotrope, Antepress and Andrea Theis placed their faith in multitudes and theories. Tim Rollins (and K.O.S.) grounded his in social work.
The fascination with migrating themes, exemplified by Convergence, is a good starting point. But the specific themes matter, as does what happens with them afterwards.
Convergence ran from 6 June – 6 August 2011.