Saturday, April 15, 2006


I’ve been reading The Phantom Tollbooth to Anna and Andrew. It was my favourite book from childhood. Milo and Tock visit the market place of Dictionopolis. The stall holders have buckets of words for you to buy. If you can’t afford a whole word (some of them are very expensive) you can go to the DIY stall which has buckets of letters which you can use to make your own words up.

‘Isn’t this market great!’ said Milo.
‘It is if you have something to say’ said Tock

Three artists have created installations in London art galleries this spring in which they present us with words: words that they have cut loose from the narrative structures (novels, books, a text) in which they had previously been combined.

  • Simon Popper has listed, in alphabetical order, all the words used by James Joyce in his novel ‘Ulysses’ (Beck’s futures 2006 , ICA, London SW1, until May 14 2006)
  • Simryn Gill has cut words out of books and sorted them into bags (Tate Modern, Level 2 Gallery, until 7 May 2006)
  • Tino Sehgal has been selling individual words at the ICA bookshop (as a spin off from his recent exhibition at the ICA)

Each of these artists has something to say, and is using words to say it. Visitors to these installations are faced with a challenge: how do we 'read' these words?

Popper’s A-Z list of the words from ‘Ulysses’

By reducing Joyce’s Ulysses to an A-Z word list, Simon Popper kills of the main character of the book, Leopold Bloom.

Bloom is no longer evoked as a living, breathing human being, walking the streets of the city of Dublin. He is no longer even named. There are many occurrences of ‘Bloom’ in the words beginning with B, and many of ‘Leopold’ in the words beginning with L, but no link is made between the two words.

We can no longer read the book. We can only look at the debris, the words strewn across the page like boulders on a beach. Like geologists we can only speculate on the creative force that could have brought this set of objects together.

Alongside the A-Z wordlist Popper exhibits a model train on a circular track. The train bears the livery of ‘Blum and Popper’, a company operating in Trieste where Joyce stayed when he wrote Ulysses. The name of the company had given Joyce the idea for the name of his main creation, Leopold Bloom. Now the same company name has given Popper the idea for a work of art that un-names and un-creates Leopold Bloom

The train shows the power of coincidence as a creative and destructive force: the coincidence of a connection between James Joyce, Leopold Bloom and Simon Popper.

Gill's bags of words

Simryn Gill’s installation 'Untitled' at the Tate Modern consists of:

  • A list of the books in the installation
  • A list of over 80 words that Gill has (literally) cut out from every book each time the word occurs
  • A set of archival quality boxes, each containing a bag of the cuttings of a particular word
  • A set of worktables and chairs at which you can sit down and open the boxes and look at the bags of words
  • A shelf of all the books. You can pick them up and browse through them. There are holes in them where the words have been cut out.

One of the words that Gill removed from the books was ‘small’ I thought it amusing that I could go and look at a bag of smalls.

The shelf contains the type of miscellaneous assortment of books you might find in a hospital waiting room. I was drawn to ‘The Bookshops of Sydney’ written in the 1970’s: a historical survey of the second hand and new bookshops of the city, with lots of black and white photographs. There are also some ‘Observer books’ that I remember loving when I was a kid.

The books are now impossible to read. When you come to a missing word you know that it might be one of the 80 or so words that Gill has raided from the books. But then again it might not. It might have been printed on the reverse side of the paper from one of the words on Gill’s list, and in that case, if you wanted to find the missing word you would have to:

  • work out which word was cut from the other side of the paper
  • go to the bag or bags for that word
  • sift through the bag until you found a piece that matched the shape of the hole
  • manoeuvre that word around inside the bag until you can read what was on the reverse side of it.

The loss of comprehensibility of these books by the actions of the artist is a key element of this work. Gill has highlighted the loss by allowing us to browse the books, to see what we are losing, to be tantalised by the information we can no longer glean.

In this installation the bags of words are more cared for than the mutilated books. They have been brought together purposefully, as though by a curator, in archival quality bags secured in archival quality boxes. The bags of words will be helped to resist the ravages of time longer than the books which brought them into existence.

Looking at a word in these bags is like looking at a roman coin in a museum. Like the coin, the word has a meaning. We can read a meaning for the word like we can read a value for the roman coin. But for both the word and the coin we can tell little or nothing of what the coin meant to the people that handled it, that wrote/read bought/sold/ with it. The words, like the museum coins, are out of circulation, reduced to being one instance of the many instances of that word/coin. The only thing that the words or the roman coins really tell us about is the collection policy of the individual/institution that brought them together.

Sehgal's £25 words

Tino Sehgal aims not to leave any traces of his work. For his latest exhibition at the ICA:

  • The publicity text didn’t tell you what the work was about or what it consisted of
  • The title of the exhibiton was simply ‘Tino Sehgal'. This was the second of three exhibitions of his at the ICA with that title.
  • There was nothing tangible in the exhibition to view, nothing on the floors, nothing on the walls.
  • The work itself consisted of the conversations that the exhibition guides have with you as you walk through the empty galleries

Tino hasn’t left any traces of his work, but the work has left traces in the world. B, Russell Heron, and Jasmine Chan are bloggers who have each attended the exhibition and described their experience of it.

As an adjunct to his ‘Tino Sehgal’ exhibition, Sehgal invited people to purchase, from the ICA bookshop, for £25, an original work of art of which the author has created a limited edition of 100. Sehgal did not leave any further trace of the work than that: no description of it, no viewing before you buy.

As luck would have it the guy in the ICA bookshop, is a blogger. his name is Russell Heron, and he has put up six interesting blog posts about people buying this work of art.

  • post 1: introduction: the work of art is a paragraph, 100 words long. You can come in and buy a word from the paragraph for £25. The word is whispered in your ear by the guy in the bookshop (our blogger). You don't get the word written down, or a receipt. Words are sold in the order they come in the paragraph. If you buy a word you are invited to come and listen to the artist read the whole paragraph
  • post 2 journalist from the Times buys a word
  • post 3 journalists from the Evening Standard and London Tonight buy a word each
  • post 4 The Evening Standard journalist tries to sell their word on e-bay for £4.99 to recoup some of the money they paid out for the word (and couldn't claim on expenses because ICA wouldn't give them a receipt)
  • post 5 Russell Heron bought the word on e-bay himself, for £5.51

Heron has not (at least not yet) posted anything about the completed paragraph: I'll do a technorati search of the blogsphere to see if anyone has written anything about it and report back to you in a later post.

Sehgal’s work works in the opposite direction to that of the other two artists. Popper and Gill took books which we know already and wrenched words out of them to force us to look at the words in a new way. Sehgal offered us the words whist delaying our access to the text which brought them together.

Seghal seems to be mocking us for our dependence on writers or artists to create meaning for us: we are so dependant on artists to create the meaning that we will even pay for words which are free (just like the shoppers at Dictionopolis). The spectators are disempowered, sepeartated and taken advantage of by the artist.

A thought on the three works

In each of these we encounter words which are objects free from the meanings that the author may have intended for them. W are invited to free ourselves from having to imagine what the author might have meant in using these words.

Instead we wonder what the artists meant by freeing us from imagining what the authors meant when using these words

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