Through new artistic practices of minimalism, conceptualism, performance, and video in the 1960s, language took on a key role in Western contemporary art. Benjamin Buchloh has noted how art works of this period redefined aesthetic experience “as a multiplicity of non-specialized modes of object- and language-experience.” The non-generic art “object,” supported by a seemingly non-“medium specific” photography, discovered its ready partner in the linguistic sign. Inspired by Duchamp’s puns and Cage’s verbal scores for performance, artists up took language as a hammer to smash the optical prison of late modernism, and as a vehicle back to the world of meanings that had been shut out from an increasingly thin modernist abstraction. Somewhat surprisingly, the curatorial concept of Weighted Words makes no reference to this precedent use of language in contemporary art and presents the selected works with a gloss of novelty projected into into the abstract present of the gallery space. Nevertheless, a considerable part of the show’s interest is how these works extend a repertoire of language-based art practices rooted in, yet diverging from the strategies of earlier conceptual and post-conceptual art.
The artists featured in this show may, by now, almost take for granted an art world in which the battle against reified artistic media has been won by what Thierry de Duve calls “art in general.” Their concerns with language are thus distinct from conceptualism’s use of language as a “non-specific” medium. Today’s artists produce art in a world in which the dissemination of digital images occurs on an planetary scale, in which more and more spheres of social life are colonized by binary code. Rather than using language as an alternative medium to dramatize their rejection of artistic media such as painting or sculpture, they are driven to explore the “remediation” of language itself by a variety of technological image- and sound-media—its capture by images help more effectively to persuade, distract, exercise violence, and impose ideologies as intuitive “myths.”
With its rich diversity of works, Weighted Words demonstrates the range of problems and approaches this reorientation has opened up for contemporary artists. Video works by Ryan Trecartin (The Re’Search (Re’Search Wait’S)) and K-CorealNC.K), Ed Atkins (Death Mask II and III), and Omer Fast (Her Face Was Covered) each explore the potential dis-synchony between words and images. Fast, shows a documentary-like sequence with a voiceover narrating a military strike on a weapons depot; the title refers to a woman who approaches the site following the strike and has to be, according to the “rules of engagement,” “taken out.” Near the first screen, another video monitor shows images selected from Google image searches triggered by the words of the voiceover. Hence, the voiceover also accompanies a second set of algorithmically selected, disconnected images, calling in question the coherence and veracity of the first visual “document.”
Glenn Ligon’s works remediate written or spoken utterances—the phrase “negro sunshine” from Gertrude Stein and jokes from the black standup comedian Richard Pryor.
Presenting them in stark isolation, he echoes earlier work such as Naumann’s neon sculptures or paintings of words or sentences by Ruscha, Weiner, and Kosuth. Yet by remediating racialized language, Ligon reveals that the earlier “white cubes” and “white canvases” remained blind to white privilege in the art system and, by extension, to the still racially oppressive culture of post-1960s America.
Anri Sala’s video Lák-kat interrogates the relation of race, categorization in language, and colonialism. An instructor drills some young boys in Senegal’s Wolof language, teaching them terms for dark and light, as well as specific racial terms. Ruth Ewan’s jukebox archive of protest songs and Dani Gal’s collection of long-playing records of historical speeches and broadcasts highlight the mediation of speech, historical memory, and politics by technological recording media.
Lastly, two works. Mary Reid Kelley’s You Make Me Iliad and Alexandre Singh’s five Dialogues of the Objects remediate literature through film and sound technology.
Kelley combines a pun-filled poem with expressionist décor into witty feminist critique of the warrior myth–
–while Singh stages dramatic conversations between objects, illuminated on pillars and reciting their lines through speakers mounted in the pillars. Singh’s absorbing “theatre” suggests that he has taken the slogan of phenomenology literally and gone back “to the things themselves.” Yet in reality, these are no more unmediated things than Gal’s recordings of Willi Brandt or Yuri Gagarin are living men.
All are but traces in recording media, indefinitely repeatable, in no more definite place or time than in the abstract space-time of the media as such.