Session_7_Words comprises of works by 82 artists who all emailed a text piece that was then printed on a single sheet of A4 in Arial typeface and displayed. So, language is presented here first and foremost, with the words as close to a simple idea, or thought, as possible. With this in mind, the show might be seen as a dissembled book with its pages torn out and stuck on the walls—a ‘rattle bag’ anthology of poetic ideas pasted up in an otherwise empty space. All printed sheets are attached at reading height and the mode of visual address is not that of looking but of reading. A slow-paced, contemplative dawdle is thus enforced; a determinedly nonretinal experience. Read first, then think.
Being lazy, the temptation to take in the shorter offerings first is irresistible. The haikus and the one-liners or, even better, the one-worders like Andrea Büttner’s ‘No’, which serves as a curt rejoinder to Yoko Ono’s ‘Ceiling Painting’, 1966, the ‘Yes’ work made famous by its leading to her relationship with John Lennon.
Ono’s laconic gestures are key to many of the works on display. Some pieces are essentially short stories—Oulipo-lite you might say—and appear as exercises in style, which use the restricted format as a challenge. Other works tease literary conventions, like Fiona Banner’s ‘Material’—playing with the acknowledgments and copyright opening page in a standard book, a riff on the type of gag practised by those past masters Perec and Queneau. Matthew Buckingham, meanwhile, has the most pithy work: ‘Narrative’ neatly and pungently sums up the artistic struggle and goes like this:
undisturbed state disturbance struggle deadline disturbance eliminated.
‘The cutting edge in literature was metafiction, the sort of storytelling that is hyperconscious of its status as artefact and that constantly draws attention to its own devices’. This is Edmund White writing in his recently published City Boy—My Life in New York During the 1960s and 1970s. Many of those writers, like Donald Barthelme and John Barth, are a keenly felt presence here. White goes on though to say ‘as a movement it no longer intrigues me, or anyone else’. Maybe the craze for literary juggling has passed in the upper circles of those who practice what is still called ‘literature’, but reassuringly many of the artists here think there is some life yet in ludic wordplay.
Time then for the lengthier pieces. Joshua Callaghan has the funniest: ‘Greetings in the name of the Lord!!!’ is a spot-on parody of the standard Nigerian scam email, this time purporting to come from an artist demanding your spondulicks.
Stephanie Bolt’s ‘Torpid Tales’ has the scariest text referring to life in the commuter hell that is East Croydon. Kate Pickering’s Untitled’ recalls the smart-alecky cover of XTC’s album Go 2, a hook used by classic advertising techniques, explaining what you are reading and how you are being manipulated as you read.
Jake Chapman’s ‘Ode to the industrial revolution’ though is wearying—a couple of paragraphs in and you want to shuffle on, read something less prolix. Other big hitters like Lawrence Weiner and Douglas Gordon are present too—their works mercifully, but unsurprisingly, more restrained and nuanced.
There is a quiet nostalgia at work here in a stripped down gallery reminiscent of the glory days of 1960s London minimalism—Groovy Bob Fraser, the Indica gallery and all that, a million miles away from the garish sub-Francis Bacon daubings just up the road at White Cube. It would appear that the literary experiments of Flaubert and Gertrude Stein still matter to these artists. There is a touching faith in Joycean modernism, a belief, again to quote White, in the invention of ‘new forms, new languages, new strategies’. Words then is a hybrid beast in thrall to a better past where conceptual art and the nouveau roman mattered, a world where ideas were venerated and had primacy in cultural discourse. As such, this quixotic gesture is a reductionist brave wave against the tsunami of 3D maximalist dreck that currently engulfs us all.
John Quin is a writer based in Berlin and Brighton.