Irma Blank, Alighiero Boetti, Martin Boyce, Henri Chopin, Michael Dean, Jimmie Durham, Robert Filliou, Mark Leckey, Mark Manders, Jean-Luc Moulène, and Michael E. Smith
Concrete Islands offers a poetic investigation into the intersection of words and objects. Inspired by Marcel Broodthaers’ 1964 sculpture Pense-Bête in which the artist took the unsold copies of one of his books of poetry and encased them in plaster creating an object that literally solidified poetry into a concrete form, Concrete Islands posits the question: where does language end and the world begin? The exhibition looks at a number of artists whose work follows in the wake of Broodthaers’ epiphany. Working in a wide range of media from sculpture and film to embroidery and typewritten drawing, this inter-generational group of artists, each in their own way, cross the boundaries between the immaterial and the material, between language and things, and between concrete poetry and concrete objects.
The exhibition will be accompanied by a book designed and co-published by ROMA Publications in Amsterdam, which includes an essay by Douglas Fogle and Hanneke Skerath along with additional images of works by Bas Jan Ader, Joseph Beuys, Marcel Broodthaers, Dom Sylvester Houédard and Ruth Wolf-Rehfeldt.
Catalogue Essay by Douglas Fogle and Hanneke Skerath:
Plaster and poetry
When then-poet Marcel Broodthaers was forty years old, he had an epiphany and decided to become a visual artist. He would shift his production from words to objects. In the preface to the catalogue for his first solo exhibition in 1964, he wrote: “I, too, asked myself if I could not sell something and succeed in life. . . . Finally the idea of inventing something insincere came to me and I got to work immediately.” In his generative artistic gesture, he took the unsold copies of his poetry book Pense-Bête (1964), and embedded them in plaster, transforming language into a sculpture. In the resulting object of the same name, his books are still recognizable but have become unreadable. The author’s words are made mute, illegibly frozen in time like some fossilized animal. Language becomes a thing with a shape and a form.
The lemon and the sun
In the final year of his life, while recovering from a lung ailment on the island of Capri, Joseph Beuys attempted to generate a healing energy and in the process created a physical piece of concrete poetry. In his sculpture Capri-Batterie (1985) the artist placed a yellow lightbulb in a portable socket that was then "plugged into" a lemon. Energy seems to flow in a nourishing and healing circuit from the organic lemon into the yellow bulb, emitting a metaphorical glow reminiscent of the sunny landscape of the Mediterranean Sea. As Beuys mused, "The generation of energy means the production of warmth and hence the link with social sculpture." Sometimes things are also words that can make an altogether different type of silent poetry.
The sonic typewriter
In the first sentences of his recorded sound poem “La civilisation du papier” (1975) Henri Chopin intoned the words, “I have never accepted a poem without a voice and without a body.” The artist and concrete poet began his explorations into the primordial poetry of embodied sound in the 1950s, when the first portable electronic tape recorders became widely available. Moving away from the human voice and the intelligible typographic language of traditional poetry, Chopin turned to sound poetry as “a rediscovery of the space of limbo that we lost when we discovered the written word.” Later in his career he turned to the typewriter as a mechanical means of artistic production in which sound and the typographic form came together to offer a new possibility for poetry. In what he called his dactylopoèmes, a new architecture of language emerged in which typographic forms morph into what Chopin called “a poetry of spaces.”
The primordial sign
Irma Blank doesn’t trust words. As she noted in 2014: “The word is deceptive. . . . We see it still today: words, words, words that say nothing. The word is emptied of its meaning. I try to retrieve the space of silence, the unsaid.” At first she practiced a kind of silent writing in her Eigenschriften (begun in the late 1960s), with their neatly defined blocks of nonsensical handwritten lines rendered in ink. She then opened up to the world in her pink and blue Radical Writings, in which she worked outward from the middle of the canvas or paper with strokes of ink that led her to the infinite. With each stroke lasting the duration of one breath, she moved beyond the fixed meaning of words to a silent space where writing is being is living.
In 1971 Alighiero Boetti traveled to Afghanistan for the first time. Fascinated by numbers, words, chance, and conceptual games, he began working with Afghani weavers to create a variety of meticulously hand-embroidered linguistic tapestries. Along with his series of larger works, such as Mappe and Tutti he continued to make small square embroideries with words composed of block letters. The artist chose colloquial, evocative phrases, often inspired by Sufi poetry or the artist’s own writings, that would then be embroidered by female weavers who selected the colors themselves. Read vertically in columns, these works turned language into a thing, inviting the viewer to decipher and interpret their titles. Treating both art and language as a system and a game, Boetti played with the idea of order and disorder to enact his self-proclaimed program of “mettere al mondo il mondo” (bringing the world into the world).
Can cinema become a kind of hypnotic visual poetry? Mark Leckey’s film Dream English Kid 1964–1999 AD (2015), makes a case for just this kind of cinematic language. As he has said: “Dream English Kid began when I found on YouTube an audio recording of Joy Division playing at a small club in Liverpool. A gig I’d been present at but could barely remember. As I listened I wondered if, through enhancing the audio, I could actually find my fifteen-year-old self in the recording.” Using sampling as a kind of technological archaeology, the artist mined the internet to “actualize half-forgotten memories and produce a niche for seemingly every remembrance.” Careening between found and original footage set against a bass-heavy sound track with samples of songs by Simon and Garfunkel, the Beatles, and Joy Division, Leckey’s film creates a mesmerizing nonnarrative dreamscape that offers an impressionistic portrait of the artist as well as a media-derived snapshot of our collective cultural unconscious.
In a tiny studio in Paris, Jean-Luc Moulène interrogates the fault lines that render and define the world. His investigations trace the seismic fissures between the object and the image, thinking and doing, abstraction and figuration, words and three-dimensional form, and history and the body. In two related series of sculptures that he calls Erosions and Cuts, Moulène tracks down readily available concrete garden sculptures on the Internet—generic copies of classical sculptures or kitsch pondside animals—and either abrades or makes cuts into their bodies in order to fit them together into one new hybrid entity. As he suggests in relation to these works: “The main question is, what is the significance of a cut? What does it mean to fit with someone, fit with a world or a culture.” Working with organic materials as well, he embedded the skulls of a donkey and a pig in concrete shells in the shape of their original living forms and then cut them in half in an approximation of strangely fossilized mollusks. Working in a zone somewhere between the purview of a stonemason and a poet, Moulène gives, in his own words, “concrete existence to mental images.”
The international postal system has historically acted as a central nervous system that stretches across the globe. Living in East Berlin after World War II, Ruth Wolf-Rehfeldt took advantage of this communication network through the international Mail Art movement in order to liberate herself from the totalitarian restrictions of the former East Germany. In the early 1970s Wolf-Rehfeldt started to write poetry and make drawings and collages. In 1972 she discovered the typewriter as a medium and used it as a tool to compose concrete poetry (drawn with the letters, numbers, and punctuation marks of her Erika typewriter), playfully forming geometric shapes and subversive word games that flew under the radar of state censorship. Calling these works “typewritings,” she made carbon copies of her drawings to send to her artistic correspondents across the world (many of whom lived under totalitarian regimes or dictatorships). Inspired by her philosophical investigations into language as well as her frustration with bureaucratic repression, she used the postal system as a gateway to the outside world. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, the artist ended this typographic production, feeling that her work was no longer needed.
Fonts and facture
Where does language end and the world begin? As much a writer and typographer as a sculptor, Michael Dean operates in the gap between these two zones as his artistic practice conflates the process of constructing poetic language and material objects. Always beginning from his own written texts—bits of poetry, narratives, and so on—he abstracts his words into physical glyphs made of concrete, wire, and other common construction materials. The forms he produces exist in a world somewhere between typography, prehistoric megalithic structures, and anthropomorphic shapes reminiscent of human bodies. Generally human in scale, these glyphs almost seem to be organic entities and often include elements suggestive of human anatomical features such as tongues, hands, and limbs. When presented in a gallery space, Dean’s sculptures seem to reach out to us in communicative gestures of longing and recognition. It’s as if he’s literally given voice to the mute materiality of the concrete that forms the foundation of so much of our modern built environment.
Poor materials and the new angel
Michael E. Smith practices a special kind of adaptive reuse. Culling organic and industrial materials from the tidal flow of production and consumption, he relieves these discarded objects of their original use value and imbues them with a kind of postconsumerist afterlife. Bringing a nail gun, a pillowcase, a glove, and a steel rod into a touchingly humanistic communion in an untitled sculpture from 2016, the artist seems to unconsciously evoke the angel of Paul Klee’s work Angelus Novus (1920), which Walter Benjamin featured so prominently in his “Theses on the Philosophy of History” (1940). While Benjamin suggested that Klee’s angel oversees an ever-increasing pile of debris that forms the wreckage of history, Smith’s nail gun angel revels in the rejected leftovers of our culture, revaluing them and imbuing them with a new, darkly humorous poetic life.
Constructing a Venetian sunrise
In 2012 Jimmie Durham was invited to make an exhibition in a Venetian palazzo restored by the architect and designer Carlo Scarpa in 1959. Creating works from materials lovingly salvaged from the venerable city itself, he carefully planted his sculptures throughout the spaces of the Fondazione Querini Stampalia. In These Twelve Bricks Were Used to Represent the Dawn Sky in Venice (2015), the artist provisionally arranged twelve found bricks into the mere suggestion of a horizon and wrote the words “A CLOUD” on the sculpture’s crumbling plaster. When asked if he still sees himself as a poet before all other things, he responded, “I still think it but I’m probably—since I have no more land—I think I’m a closet gardener first.” Sometimes we cultivate poetry with the leftovers of our own buildings.
In search of the miraculous
In July 1975 Bas Jan Ader set off from Cape Cod, Massachusetts, in a twelve-and-a-half-foot sailboat in an attempt to cross the Atlantic as part of a performance called In Search of the Miraculous. His journey ended tragically when he was lost at sea. Two years earlier the artist scrawled the following words on a wall, “THOUGHTS UNSAID / THEN FORGOTTEN.” Illuminating this two-line poem with a simple lamp clamped to a tripod and adorning the entire scene with a vase of flowers, the sculpture Thoughts unsaid, then forgotten (1973), offers a strangely prescient memento mori of our incapacity to complete the journey between language and meaning and memory and forgetfulness.
How does one write something without words? Mark Manders began his career as a writer who was confronted by precisely this paradox. In 1986 he gave himself the task of creating an abstract self-portrait in the form of a floor plan of an imaginary building. Rejecting the use of words, he turned to objects from his writing table. In the resulting work, Inhabited for a Survey (First Floor Plan from Self-Portrait as a Building) (1986), the artist arranged all his writing implements—pencils, pens, erasers, scissors, etc.—into the outline of a piece of imaginary architecture. As he has said about this work: “The world itself is more complex than the world of language which has been embedded in it. I decided to write the book not with words but with objects, and to embed the self-portrait in reality as an imaginary building. . . . This floor plan was never really meant to be an artwork, it was more like a strange kind of writing machine.”
The paper brain
As a young man Robert Filliou studied economics in Los Angeles. After abandoning a promising career at the United Nations, he embarked on the study of an altogether different kind of economic research devoted to the poetic exploration of a new art of living in which play, collaboration, and what he called “stupid enlightenment” took center stage. His governing principle for this new Zen Buddhist–inspired artistic methodology was simple: “Art is what makes life more interesting than art.” Bringing together words with inexpensive, everyday found materials—cardboard, string, chalk, toys, matchbooks, and so on—the artist created assemblages that celebrate openness, self-awareness, humor, conviviality, and childlike innocence in the service of what he called “Permanent Creation.” In his sculpture The Paper Brain for 103 Days (1972), he proposes a method for living well: “Shallow is thinking. But it comes easy. / Deep is no-thinking. But it is difficult. / It is by being alive to difficulty that one can avoid it. / Therefore the sage wears a paper brain, throws it away each night along with each day’s unavoidable thoughts, and each morning wears a new one.”
A graphic forest
Martin Boyce has always been fascinated by the hidden poetic resonances of urban spaces and Modernist architectural design. In 2005 the artist came across an image of a group of concrete trees designed in 1925 by the twin sculptors Jan and Jöel Martel for the Exposition des arts décoratifs in Paris. Compelled by the seemingly Cubist- or Constructivist-inspired hard-edged Minimalism of these inorganic trees, Boyce created his own palate of shapes from the contours of their geometric forms. As he developed a repeating set of patterns from the multifaceted forms of the trees, he noticed that they surprisingly seemed to contain an alphabet. Extrapolating these quasi-letters into a typographic font that he has referred to as “a graphic forest,” Boyce embedded words into the surfaces of his sculptures. With phrases such as “undisturbed air,” “a constellation,” and “remembered skies,” Boyce invokes dreamlike memories of the collision between the built environment and the realm of nature in a concrete poetry of his own making.
A typographic book of hours
As a monk in the Benedictine order based at Prinknash Abbey in rural Gloucestershire, Dom Sylvester Houédard was fascinated by the physical forms of words. By the early 1960s this passion led him to become a pioneer of concrete poetry as he created elaborate typewriter-composed visual poems—which he called “typestracts”—on an Olivetti Lettera 22 typewriter. Also a religious scholar, writer, and publisher, Houédard became a fixture in the experimental avant-garde of the 1960s, and he exhibited his typographic drawings at the Victoria & Albert Museum in 1971. With wide-ranging interests in new approaches to art as well as world religions, spirituality, and philosophy, Houédard championed the word in all its manifestations. His typestracts used the untapped potential of the Olivetti typewriter as an experimental graphical instrument, forcing the machine outside its ordered comfort zone. Creating highly imaginative forms from hundreds of individual keystrokes, Houédard made the typographic word become flesh.
Carte du monde poétique
In 1968 Marcel Broodthaers took a large world map titled “Carte du Monde Politique” and crossed out the “l” and the “I” in the word politique, replacing them with the letter “é.” This simple, subversive gesture transforms the political map into a cartographic representation of a newfound poetic territory, offering endless possibilities to see the world anew.