On ascending the stairs into the Glucksman’s Gallery 1, the visitor is met by a constellation of small-scale neon letters scattered across the large facing wall. Dispersed singly across such a wide expanse, the letters refuse to cohere into words and remain instead a scattering of purely optical shapes. This invites the viewer to attend to the satisfying formal properties of the letters as shapes rendered abstract, and the waxing and waning of their incandescence with the changing atmospheric conditions. When I visited first on a sunny afternoon, the neon was a pale exhalation of colour against the white wall; on my second visit on a dank and miserable evening, their heightened luminescence reflected in the nearby window, magically suspended the letters in the branches outside. Despite the letters’ stubborn refusal to group together, their haphazard dispersal is richly associative, reminding me at once of chunky plastic fridge magnets. In this way they bring one’s attention to the act of reading, the effort of decoding abstract shapes into comprehensible verbal signs – to most of us, an act that is so habitual as to happen unconsciously. The contradictory nature of the coloured neon tubes – at once both material and insubstantial – neatly crystallizes the conceptual gambit of this exhibition. The materiality of text and its intelligibility as verbal sign, at once an articulated unit of language and a visual object, is the subject explored, as the curators present a selection of the ways in which contemporary artists mobilize text as a material ingredient of their work. The neon letters are the first part of Tim Etchell’s 2010 piece Will Be. The second part is encountered as the viewer moves deeper into the gallery space to find the solution to the scrambled letter puzzle, the cheerful neon letters obediently grouped and ordered to intone portentously, ‘the future will be confusing’.
Indeed, this disorienting instability of language is the starting point for several of the exhibiting artists whose work seeks to stage problems of legibility and the ways in which meaning changes over time. Takahiko Iimura’s video projection, White Calligraphy Re-Read, reflects on the temporal development of language by recycling an earlier 16mm film work. Characters from an archaic Japanese script were scratched into the film’s surface and then the projection accelerated to a blur. In his 2010 re-working of the piece, the artist retrieves a level of legibility by digitally slowing the film at points and pronouncing the newly intelligible characters, thus dramatizing the act of translation, not only from the visual to the verbal, or between languages (from Japanese to English) but also between analogue film and digital media.
Some works were arguably less successful – Kay Rosen’s Phantom Limb for example, again tackling the mysteries of legibility and coherence, reduces the works title to the letters P and B painted in white against a black background. The aim of the work is to provide a visual co-relation to the linguistic meaning; here, to recreate the phantasmic sensation of a missing body part by equating it with the viewer’s groping search to ‘fill in’ the missing text. The mirrored ‘p’ and ‘b’ also refer to V.S. Ramachandran’s treatment of phantom limb pain, which uses simple visual mirroring to trick the brain into believing the work exists. This level of theoretical richness is rendered with such drastic economy of means, however, that I would argue much of its complexity is muted. Equally, Cerith Wyn Evans’ contribution, So To Speak; white neon quotation marks, framing nothing, seemed irritatingly glib, but perhaps that is a measure of the sly effectiveness of co-opting such a vacuous gesture. By contrast Peter Downsbrough’s site-specific interventions, also modest in their means, are highly effective in their dramatization of the gallery’s inimitable architecture. Apart uses adhesive lettering and slim metal pipes to enact a transition between wall, ceiling and open space, bringing about a new proposition for reading the interior.
Other artists played with the materiality of text – playing being quite an apposite description here given the witty inventiveness of much of the work. Michael Stumpf’s Massive Angry Sculpture for example appears to literalize its title with a hulking black sprawl that colonizes much of the floor space of Gallery 2, but on closer inspection, the posturing bellicosity of the title is undercut by the brightly coloured scaffolding that props up the flimsy construction. Similarly there is a strong element of subversive humor in Semâ Bekirovic’s video work How to Stop Falling which explores the breakdown of text by hurling polystyrene letters from the top of an office block in a manner reminiscent of a anarchic Seasame Street reading exercise. In contrast, the fractured casings of Niamh McCann’s cinema sign, Snippet II, are pregnant with a melancholic romance that adheres specifically to the physical character of a type of urban signage fast disappearing.
Despite the witty playfulness of some of the work on show, there is serious scholarly impetus driving the exhibition’s curation – a collaborative exercise between Graham Allen, Professor of English at UCC, and Matt Packer, curator at the Glucksman. Allen’s textual ‘provocations’ interject literary and philosophical references which serve both to prick the viewer’s experience and to structure the show’s thematic strands of legibility, monumentality, and ‘wall-writing’ or subversive intervention. The Glucksman’s location in the heart of a university campus means that it is surrounded by people with an investment in the written word – either grappling with academic tomes, trawling through digital databases of research material, or striving to produce their own textual contributions. In such a context, the written word as a medium is usually looked through to get to meaning, or woven to create meaning, clarity and transparency being goals. At its best then, this exhibition, by seeking to dramatize the visual power of language, to make us look at rather than through it, is both liberatory and subversive. Text is un-harnessed from univocal meaning, reading is made problematic and opaque, and the viewer is re-acquainted with the written word’s slippery, unstable nature as well as its capacity for formal beauty.
In Other Words was on view 22 July – 3 October 2011.