Literature and art meet at Golden Thread Gallery, but the critic's hairline takes centre stage
The symbiotic, at times parasitic, relationship between art and literature is a long one. The first two books of an unknown Charles Dickens, for example, were published on the back of illustrations by more famous artists.
Convergence: Literary Art Exhibitions has nothing to do with illustration, however. Curator Christia-Maria Lerm Hayes is interested in ‘relationships between art, literature, and exhibitions', how 'reading and interpreting literature is… at the core of the most renowned contemporary artists’ practice’.
Dickens, who was a champion of copyright and fierce protector of his work, wouldn’t have liked this notion much. Nor would he be represented. The writers fooled around with here are generally the modernist / postmodernist greats of the 20th century – Joyce, Beckett, Kafka, O’Brien, Vonnegut, Sebald. All men, all uber-canonical.
It’s obvious why visual artists would be attracted to these writers. Their work oozes imaginative imagery, experimentation with form, and playfulness with words. They consistently challenge and subvert the expectations of the reader. In a way, they are more conceptual art than conceptual art.
Writers ‘borrow’ from other literary sources all the time but are generally cautious of engagement with these literary Titans. Set yourself up beside them and unless your ideas are extremely sharp and well-executed, your ‘art’ is in danger of looking meagre and shallow. Even Sebald seems a bit silly slipping in complete lines of Kafka into his prose.
One of the first pieces I converge on is Andrea Theis’ 'Image Disturbance', in which she stands in front of the Goethe and Schiller monument in Weimar, a place of pilgrimage for those who dig German Culture, obstructing tourists trying to get a snap. Other photographers take pictures of people trying not to take pictures of Theis.
The response from the tourists is, not surprisingly, a mixture of annoyance, engagement, bemusement and physical violence (does injury through performance art negate health insurance?).
‘The interference resulted in a process of manifold interaction and multifaceted communication triggered off by my mere presence in front of the monument,’ says Theis. That sentence alone makes the writer inside me, who rejoices in clear, unpretentious prose, want to slap the artist (metaphorically of course).
A simpler work, and more effective for it, is Pavel Buchler’s 'Here He Moved' – a clump of short pencils held together with an elastic band. The pencils are sharpened at both ends, and appear curiously threatening, active objects; weapons which could put out an eye, or, worse, write romantic fiction.
Tim Rollins’s 'The Red Badge of Courage' consists of pages of the eponymous book, obscured with what look like seashells, avocados, stones, and vaginas (admittedly the vaginas might just be me). What does this mean? I consult the exhibition notes. Ah, these are ‘painting collaborations with youths from the Bronx’, showing ‘the usefulness of canonical literature in developing young people’s self-confidence within engaged art practice’.
At the cutting edge of this sort of stuff is Simon Morris, who has created an ‘exhibition in an exhibition’ – a panel of text about reading-inspired art inserted with images of Morris reading Jacques Derrida. ‘When asked… to participate in a group exhibition responding creatively to WG Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn,’ the panel reads. ‘Morris simply filmed himself reading the book. His five hour film was described as possibly the ideal work in review for Art Monthly.’
This can be summarised thus. Man writes book. Man films himself reading book. Man, who has read book but not watched film, reads about man filming himself reading book.
It’s around this point that I feel as a writer perhaps I should have a go at responding to these artists responding to writers. The critic performing a bona fide intervention! Touché visual artists! I get out my iPhone and look around nervously.
Next up is Joanna Karolini who has 're-written' some of Kafka’s love letters to Fraulein Felice. The letters start off as readable but are soon overwritten multiple times to create 'impenetrable palimpsests'. Not for the first time, my interest centres more on the original text than the response. Girlfriend, when tempted to moan about your overly sensitive boyfriend, console yourself that at least he’s not Kafka.
On to Julie Bacon’s 'The Twins', the most engaging piece in the exhibition. She has created jigsaws from photographs of the remains of the Bamiyan Buddhas in Afghanistan and the National Museum of Iraq, in Baghdad, holed by an American rocket.
The jigsaw boxes are placed on two white towers, which rest on an Afghan carpet, patterned with tanks and Kalashnikovs (every good hearth should have one, dissident merchandisers take note). The jigsaw pieces are arranged on the wall in a swirl, like a whirlpool, or a distant galaxy, indicating dissolution.
This is great, an interesting, transformative idea, which immediately grabs my imagination. But wait, there’s more. There is also a writer’s desk, chair and two slide-viewers. According to the exhibition notes, the piece also has something to do with Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five. What, it’s not clear, but whatever it is, it feels like an extra layer of meaning tacked on, an obfuscation not needed.
The works in a room encouraging the viewer to ‘pay close attention to reading’ really begin to get on my creative wick. Nick Thurston’s ‘un-designed’ posters of a well-known edition of Beckett’s Watt and invitation to play with the writer’s words, are a rip-off, an affront to creativity. Does the fact that the plagiarism is deliberate make it somehow more acceptable?
Kenneth Goldsmith recorded every word he spoke during a week, publishing the transcript as Soliloquy. A fantastic idea, blurring all kinds of lines between literature, art and life. The book itself is here, but the art work is Pavel Buchler and Simon Morris discussing Soliloquy as a set of ‘book ends’.
Panel one begins: ‘Hi Paul, I, I thought I’d start with an introduction to our process. Um, we are using the form of a conversation to explore Kenneth Goldsmith’s work Soliloquy from 1997. We do this consciously, utilizing, Jacques Derrida’s methodology to unsettle the usual relations between the literary work and critical text.’
Be careful, say that name three times and your head will explode. Derrirdaaaaaaaaaaa…
Davide Casico’s 'Polyhedra' is a space created for reading Ulysses. I fetch a copy of the book (the texts referenced can be found on a bookshelf at the end of the exhibition) and enter a strip-lit cardboard polyhedron, decorated with white plastic roses and lilies.
It’s not really what I’m looking for from a space to read Ulysses. I’d much prefer a comfortable sofa, mood lighting, infinite tea and an Irish slattern to bring me the occasional plate of grilled kidneys. Never mind. I open the book at the first page.
'Stately, plump Buck Mulligan…' Which is as far as I get. Which is as far as a lot of people get.
A last work / word 'WG Sebald' by Tacita Dean, I take serious issue with. (I should declare an interest – Sebald was my creative writing tutor at the University of East Anglia for a semester.) The notes describe it as a 'groundbreaking work'. Eh?
It’s an essay by a visual artist, part inspired by the author reading Sebald, with black and white pictures, published, as these things generally are, in a journal. As a piece of prose it’s interesting enough, but it’s certainly not Sebald. Calling it by his name seems a gratuitous attempt to give the piece weight and credibility by association – an empty, foolish gesture.
As I wonder how to respond, one of the gallery staff looks at me funny and begins to hover. Time to go.
In some ways Convergence is a great success (it made me take out the iPhone and laptop after all) but constantly having to refer to the exhibition notes in a bemused search for meaning does not inspire confidence.
The art of the writers tackled in the exhibition is groundbreaking, thought-provoking, challenging, playful (the adjectives go on, and on), but too many of the responses are at best clever, at worst inward-looking and sterile. On a visit to the gallery’s toilet, with overflowing Beckettian bin, I notice another ‘intervention’, perhaps by the last critic to walk through the doors?
Convergence: Literary Art Exhibitions runs at Golden Thread Gallery until August 5.