When Joseph Kosuth, one of the pioneers of conceptual art, came to Enniskillen to set up his installation, ‘Texts for Nothing – Enniskillen' as part of the Happy Days Enniskillen International Beckett festival, I met with him in the wi-fi friendly Crowe’s Nest pub, across the street from the Cooper Wilkinson gallery where the exhibition is now on display.
I knew that Kosuth was born in Toledo, Ohio, in 1945, but was intrigued to learn that his father came from a famous political family in Hungary (his great great uncle initiated the Hungarian revolution from Austria) and that the family took refuge in Italy before emigrating to the USA. His American mother was part French, English and Cherokee Indian. Later, I use the wi-fi to look up his lineage.
Kosuth’s early talent for painting won him many prizes and then a place at the Cleveland Art Institute and the School of Visual Arts in New York. ‘One and Three Chairs’, created when he was just 20-years-old, and currently on display in the Museum of Modern Art in New York, came to define a new direction for his work. He had begun to feel stifled by an art tradition which, he claimed, spoke louder than he could speak.
'If you make paintings you are already accepting – not questioning – the nature of art,' explains Kosuth. 'Part of my frustration when I was trying to paint was that all the meaning was provided, a priori, by the tradition. This for me was political disenfranchisement. I define myself an artist who produces new meaning.
'Very possibly Beckett may have felt something similar. I believe there is some sympathy between our practice. Beckett and I are artists who are back to back somehow. My work is concerned with language and meaning, as is his. I tend to explore how you produce meaning but his is about meaninglessness and the fear of it.”
In his 1969 essay, ‘Art after Philosophy’, Kosuth proposed that the art component is not located in the object itself but rather in the idea or concept of the work. By leaning a five foot pane of glass against a wall and placing a label beside it, he wanted to prove that although this was neither a sculpture nor a painting it was nonetheless a work of art. From then on words displaced images and objects in his work.
By the time he arrived in Paris, Kosuth had already been influenced by Marcel Duchamp, who incidentally played chess with Beckett, and whose common urinal became a celebrated work of art called ‘The Fountain’.
In turn, Duchamp came to admire Kosuth’s work, nominating him for a Cassandra Foundation Grant in 1968. Kosuth learned to work with optical art and began using neon lettering and spray paint. He mounted a retrospective exhibition at the Musee d’Art Modern in Paris when he was still only 28.
As his international career developed, Kosuth gained more and more prestigious commissions, many of them on a grand scale and many of them based on the work of leading literary figures: Geothe in Frankfurt, Thomas Mann with Ricarda Huch at the Bundesdag in Berlin. James Joyce with Lichtenstein in Dublin.
His work has been shown at the Venice Biennale in 1976, 1993 and 1999. At the Edinburgh Festival, Darwin was the subject of an installation built in the space where the naturalist had been a student. Kosuth has permanent exhibitions at the Musee du Louvre in Paris and elsewhere.
Although he had produced the first part of the current exhibition based on Beckett’s Text for Nothing back in 1968 in Los Angeles, Kosuth had put off completing the second part which is inspired by Waiting for Godot. He described the series of coincidences that led him to complete the installation in its present form.
In 2010, while he was living in Rome, he walked into a second hand bookshop where the first book he picked up was a copy of Waiting for Godot. Coincidentally, Krapp’s Last Tape was being performed in the city by Robert Wilson (the same production that is programmed for the Happy Days Festival).
The performances were sold out, but he chanced to pass by the box office and was lucky enough to find one remaining ticket, an excellent seat in the front row. It seemed the moment had finally come to return to Beckett. The present installation first appeared in New York in 2011. Since then it has been on display in Melbourne and this is its third showing.
The entrance to the installation recalls the way Beckett found inspiration by going down into ‘the now friendly dark’ where the light of the understanding could be brought upon the dark world. Walking tentatively along a blacked out corridor, one emerges in Beckett’s world, one removed from the ‘Vale of Tears’ of everyday life.
The rectangular space is a place of perfection and contentment, of solace and the solitude that Beckett adored. From the rubber flooring underfoot to the gently glowing neon strips along the walls, the atmosphere is warm, friendly, and magically enveloping.
The neon lettering, glittering like Christmas decorations, reproduces words from Waiting for Godot including those of the tramps Estragon and Vladimir. 'E. Say something. V I'm trying.'
Half way down the gallery, one is surprised by a new scenario. At first it seems like a large mirror, so seamlessly does the square annex connect to the main gallery. Then, as the reality of a separate space emerges, one focuses on the central image, an etching on glass, which reproduces the romantic painting that inspired Beckett’s setting for the play.
Beckett would have seen Caspar David Friedrich’s Two Men Contemplating the Moon in Dresden. Above the image, Kosuth’s neon sign reads: 'E: I didn't say that.'
In another room, Kosuth’s meditation on the word ‘nothing’ was inspired by Beckett’s Text for Nothing, a work which Kosuth describes as 'quintessentially Beckett, the perfect example of his artistic integrity'. This part of the exhibition offers explanations of the word ‘nothing’ drawn from ten different dictionaries and reproduced in stark white lettering on a series of black canvases.
Here nothing is a noun, there an adverb, now a verb; an arithmetical or a mathematical term. At times ‘nothing’ appears in italics; it is 'no thing', or again 'nuthing', as it is pronounced, or 'naught'.
In homage to Beckett’s love of English literature, there are quotes from Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice: ‘Gratiano speaks an infinite deal of nothing’; Edgar Alan Poe’s Raven – ‘I opened wide the door. Darkness there, nothing more!’ And Jane Austin, or 'Divine Jane' as Beckett called her: ‘A person of no importance, or a nobody, a non entity.’
Beckett himself wrote : 'Since what precedes and what follows man's earthly life (i.e. eternity) are nothing, then life also (if there is to be continuity) must be a NOTHINGNESS from which there can be no escape.'
I ask Kosuth what he thinks Beckett would make of this work. He replies, 'If it was any good Beckett would be mortified and enjoy it thoroughly.' Yes it is very good, Mr Kosuth.
The Happy Days Enniskillen International Beckett Festival runs from August 23 - 27.