the dark would exhibition review

The Dark Would exhibition at Summerhall in Edinburgh is the latest iteration of Philip Davenport's The Dark Would language art anthology.

Unlike the paper volume and the kindle volume the work here is taken beyond the page or screen. Though for only a limited time. You have until 24 January 2014 to see it.

Unlike the launch events (for anthology and exhibition) generally none of the artists involved are present. Unless one or more happens to be wandering round, as I was at different times on Saturday, Sunday and Monday 4-6 January.

Like the anthology the exhibition is very dense with language, with meanings, and with varied material, thematic and textural approaches to the making of language art.

It's a compelling and haunting exhibition. Noticeably darker and rawer than the anthology. Impossible to apprehend in a single visit. I went three times, amounting to two and a half hours in all, and feel I missed a lot.

It's also highly recommended. If you can get there then please do.

And I do have a couple of criticisms. Only one of those is significant, and will emerge from my general impression of the exhibition. The other is merely a pet peeve, and I'll save that until a bit later.

So let's look at the exhibition as a whole, and then at some of the works that especially impressed me.

Have you ever stared at the concave of a desert spoon? At times it appears just what it is, the inside of the bowl of a spoon curved away from you. Then at other times the distorted reflections appear to pop out, to form a bubble that you can see but can't touch. Even reaching out to burst the bubble doesn't make it vanish.

That was the clear image that came to me on the Monday as I wandered through the rooms.

The exhibition keeps popping in and out of focus as either primarily visual or primarily textual.

In the anthology this effect is minimised because the pages are a standard format and a standard size. But in the gallery it is pronounced.

It took until my third visit to notice that I was spending a lot of time looking closely at individual works. This isn't unusual, or a bad thing. But what was striking was that I was spending almost no time taking a step back and considering how different works spoke to each other and to the space.

Instead I was taking time to read the text in some cases, and in others to examine the image closely. While the works conceptually and thematically seemed to have a series of relationships, visually and physically I was treating them as if they were in different buildings.

I think the reason for this is that personally I found the majority of pieces were either effective solely as text and not as visual work, or were visually compelling but textually not very interesting.

A handful (notably arthur+martha's a quilt for when you are homeless and Alec Finlay's SING/WILD/KIND/WOOD upstairs) were strong both visually and textually, and a few just didn't work for me at all.

That only really became apparent when I started to pull back from individual pieces and consider the spaces more widely.

Suddenly it became apparent that some works felt flat and confined. Rather than effortlessly entering into a dialogue with other works and with the space they occupied, they lay against the wall, bounded by the edge of the paper or the picture frame.

And I became aware of how generally monochrome the works are collectively. They lack colour, especially colour that feels integral to the piece.

Please be aware this is a subjective personal reaction. It's also a subjective personal reaction that in some crucial ways misses the point.

This is not just an exhibition of language art, it's an exhibition of ideas. The human condition here is not just one of the mind, or of simple pleasure. The human condition here is a fragile thing. It is subject to decline and decay. There is death, there are threats. The human condition is physical.

So Robert Fitterman's Holocaust Museum re-presents captions of photos from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington , DC. The exhibition catalogue states that 'by presenting only the text, the reader is consigned to draw upon his or her own experience with this catastrophic history.'

That's true, but I also found myself doing something else. With this, as with a couple of other works in the exhibition I found that in the absence of both identifiable human/emotional markers, and obvious aesthetic stimulus I tried to reintroduce human narratives into the gaps.

This is unusual for me, although I have emotional initial reactions to art, they're not normally something I act on immediately. They're also generally no more prominent than any aesthetic or intellectual reactions.

Another couple of thoughts on the piece before I move on. I liked that the room felt rough and incomplete, abandoned. It was also interesting how without the photos the bureaucratic aspect of their recording, which in turn recorded the consequences of the Nazis' bureaucratic horrors, is emphasised. Finally, in some way that isn't entirely clear to me (the shape of the room, the location relative to the rest of the rooms) it seems to echo Stephen Emmerson's Albion, the William Blake performance/installation upstairs. But I'll return to that quite soon.

No only does my main criticism slightly miss the point of the exhibition, it also fails to acknowledge how it marks out different approaches and limits to language art, including historic explorations, rather than a clearly defined field of endeavour. That means the practices, approaches and backgrounds of the various artists are wildly different.

And in spite of my criticism that much of the work is lacking in colour and tends to a self-contained flatness the monochrome and primarily textual SING/WILD/KIND/WOOD by Alec Finlay has a more visually compelling and spatially expansive presence than the more illustrative and brightly coloured After Henry James by Tom Phillips neighbouring it.

[Brief pause to change the record. I recently bought a record player, having been without access to one for years, and never having owned one myself (relying on parents, partners and friends). Consequently I've been on a vinyl purchasing spree, the highlights of which I may blog another time. I'd just finished listening to The Hunter Gracchus from a split lp with Kommissar Hjuler und Frau, and decided to switch mood to the controlled power electronics of Pharmakon. Both would fit neatly in different bits of The Dark Would.]

Individual works. Starting upstairs. I'm not going to discuss everything, just things that really jumped out at me.

Stephen Emmerson's Albion is the obvious starting point. I'm not sure what I think about this work. Or rather, I do know what I think, but it's hard to express without coming across as unduly negative.

I don't know how Albion might work as a performative piece since I haven't seen it, so I can't comment on that aspect. As an installation it's... okay. It strikes me as something that might come across better in video or photos, or in the flesh (as it were) if there are a few people in there.  Otherwise I found it inert.

Don't get me wrong, I spent a fair amount of time in the room, and liked the images on the walls. And I participated, typing some text to fix to the wall with others' contributions. But that for me fixed what part of the problem was. There is an absence at the centre of the work. Nothing feels like it has a need to be there. And nothing to me speaks particularly of William Blake.

The idea of 'channelling Blake' (or anyone) leads to that pet peeve which I'll deal with in more detail later. But in essence I don't think there's much in channelling or automatic writing, or any other quasi-mystic approach to contacting some other, whether external or internal. Not much in it creatively, intellectually, or in substance.

But again, I may have been approaching the work in the wrong frame of mind. I was thinking of it as live art or as installation, in both of which cases I'd expect something a little more. But like I said, this sounds more negative than I mean it to. The piece obviously had an impact on me and generated a lot of thought.

Albion stands at the top of the stairs immediately ahead of you, so is natural to enter first. When you exit you turn left into the main space of the floor. Probably the most dominant works immediately on entering are the two huge paintings from Simon Patterson's Black-List series.

[Record change. Julia Holter's Tragedy. Again, it fits the exhibition well. Also I could do with listening to it again, quite a subtle and unflashy album. Probably one that needs listening to in its entirety several times.]

These paintings are based on scrolling film credits, with the names of blacklisted Hollywood actors, directors, technicians and screenwriters inserted. The text is white, subtly blurred as if projected, surrounded by black.

They're visually compelling, but rely on you knowing (or being told) what they mean. I don't mind being told what makes up a piece of art, but others might, and the paintings are after all just lists of names. I like them, and they work well in context.

More interesting to me though, in the middle of the floor nearby was arthur+martha's a quilt for when you are homeless. Humped as though someone is below it, and dimly lit from above, the quilt might be a prop in a play.

But against the absence, and absence of colour of Albion, and against the monolithic monochromatism of the Black-List paintings, the colour of the quilt (blue), and more fugitively the texts sewn into it (yellow and red among others), the blanket is wholly present and seems brighter than it is.

The texts are partial, ambiguous, sometimes unclear. Their fragmentary nature more suited to the project, to the exhibition, and to lived experience, than more complete sentences would have been. To me they reward attention, even when you can't construct something wholly meaningful from them, more than Mike Landy's Scrapheap Services on the wall opposite the Black-List paintings.

With Scrapheap Services you're confronted with an accumulation of tiny detail, both text and illustration, that frankly becomes a little wearing. It begins to feel like an obligation, and so you rebel, and go find something more pleasurable instead.

With a quilt for when you are homeless there is a pleasure and a challenge in finding and deciphering the texts.

And in its three-dimensionality, its colour, its physicality, the hidden nature of some of its texts, its sheer engagement with the world and undeniable there-ness the quilt brings together and holds together the diverse works in the main upstairs space.

There are a lot of works in that large space. Those that I've seen discussed enthusiastically elsewhere include Mike Chavez-Dawson's The Dark Would, Nine Realms of Dead Poet, Version 1a, Caroline Bergvall's Philomena (Exploded House 1-4), and one of Richard Wentworth's 'imprisoned' books. None of which massively impress me.

I'm a great fan of Bergvall, and like her pieces here, but they feel lost in this context. The Chavez-Dawson pieces remind me of Albion. They're more colourful, and the text here is obscured, but they feel like sketches, partial ideas. And partial ideas at that which produce a very familiar result.

Richard Wentworth's book is better, but again like Bergvall's pieces, it feels overwhelmed by the space and some of the other works.

Alec Finlay's SING/WILD/KIND/WOOD I've already discussed. It's a very outgoing piece that speaks to the space around it, and to other works in the space.

A handful of rooms lead off from the main space. At the far end from where we entered a short corridor runs left to a room. And also left (I think between the Black-List paintings) is a doorway to the first of two further rooms.

In the end room are a large visual text by Lawrence Weiner, TAKEN FROM THE WIND & BOLTED TO THE GROUND, which I'm afraid doesn't work for me as either text or visual piece; and smaller pieces by Fiona Banner (Bollocks and Sperm), and I think Jenny Holzer.

This last, a couple of text stamps, are the most intriguing works in the room. Unfortunately I can't remember the text on them any more, but I have a vague recollection that it is instructive/imperative/improving. Quite likely repurposed from elsewhere.

The first of the two other rooms is quite full of prints from significant figures like Guy Debord, and Ian Hamilton-Finlay. Of most interest there are a series of texts on large coloured sheets of paper that I couldn't see an attribution for.

They interest me because it is unclear whether they were created to be showed in that way, or whether they are drawn from existing texts. And if they are from existing texts, whether or not they were written by well-known figures, and if so, by whom.

This is a genuine ambiguity. They seem to reflect a particular kind of 20th and late 19th century tone, that might equally well be Nietzsche, Rand, Marx, or almost any significant philosophical or political thinker across the political spectrum.

The lack of contextual information benefits the pieces, which also benefit from being there in a large grouping.

The second room houses a large text from Philip Davenport, Mercury Hymn/Ian Hamilton Finlay is dead. This text works as a visual presence, but also read through its various permutations. And it interacts well with the neighbouring works in the other room. All have a kind of visually classical look to them.

I forgot to mention some of the other pleasures here, Maria Chevska's small pieces, including an extract from Kafka low on the wall in the corridor I mentioned a little earlier. Nearby on another wall, and higher up, is Eric Zboya's The Chasm of Lethe. Though the words are pronounced differently I enjoyed the proximity of Lethe to Leith, a little way down the road, where I was staying.

But most all I missed the inspired placement of Márton Koppány's The Secret around the entrance to the floor at the top of the stairs. You approach the floor through its enigmatic presence, and it frames the space beyond as a special, separate realm. You can read my take on the work early on in this earlier review of the anthology.

The upper floor contains a multiplicity of approaches, historical traditions, and approaches to the use of text in art, and of the incorporation of art into text works. It's here that you switch between modes of seeing most. But at the same time it's a good introduction to the works on the lower floor, or alternately as a palette-cleanser after that floor.

I'm aware that my review perhaps seems more critical and negative than I intended. I emphasise again, I really enjoy this exhibition, it's very strong and impossible to apprehend even in the two and a half hours I spent there. The density, richness, and ultimately for much of it the darkness it contains makes for a satisfying and stimulating experience.

So to the ground floor. For me this was dominated, physically at least, by three large works.

The first of these is Sarah Sanders' I Used To, which is both a large visual text, and the traces left by a performance. The space on this floor is arranged more conventionally as rooms leading off from a central corridor. It is on the walls of the corridor that Sanders has enacted her piece, the paint dripping to the floor. Though not so much that it obscures the text.

The second is actually a pair of works from Richard Long, ONE HOUR, A SIXTY MINUTE CIRCLE WALK ON DARTMOOR, and HUMAN NATURE WALK, TWENTY ONE WALKING DAYS ON THE HIGHVELD ON TWO PROPERTIES WITHIN THE CRADLE OF HUMANKIND, SOUTH AFRICA, at either end of a room the length of the corridor.

The third is Robert Fitterman's Holocaust Museum, already discussed, and slightly aside from the other rooms. You have to approach it through a small, crowded space. But I'll come to that shortly.

Sanders' work is visually quite oppressive, heavy and dark, and speaking of change, with all the attendant emotional confusions and ambiguities that raises. Fitterman's work is visually lighter, but emotionally much darker. Change is there to, but so is refusal to change, in both positive and negative incarnations. Preservation of individual, or wider cultural/communal identity. But also traditional, irrational, enmities and fears. Long's work is quite different, more hopeful. Emotionally and physically lighter. Not in the sense of being slight, but in the sense of admitting more light.

And so to the rest of the lower floor. Again I'll talk about individual pieces in the context of their different rooms, so far as I can remember.

At one end of the corridor is a dimly lit room with a table inside. On the table is a cage that looks (from the small feathers still clinging to it) like it might be used to transport birds. I thought chickens, but I'm willing to be corrected. Inside the cage is a book of Stephane Mallarme, if I recall correctly.

Close to the entrance is a print of Tony Trehy's poem (Fabric Of) On Naming of Shadows. This would be a dense poem to read at leisure, on the wall of a gallery it's much more of a challenge. Though I did read it through in its entirety at least once I'd be lying if I said I remembered much about it. That's not a fault of the poem, or the exhibition, but of my approach to both.

Low down in the room on the far wall is a small LED display, another point of colour in the exhibition, that scrolls text almost one letter at a time. This is from Jenny Holzer's Lustmord series (which thinking about it, the other work by her in the exhibition might be too). When you read the unfolding text it proves sometimes disturbing, sometimes sexual. As the catalogue says, 'A response to the raping of women as a military tactic.'

The next room along is dark, with photo-negative images of line drawings and text (in some cases asemic) on lightboxes on the walls. Susan Hiller's From India to the Planet Mars. I thought this was a particularly strong room, and a fascinating sequence of works. At the same time it helped set off that pet peeve of mine, my dislike of automatic writing.

But I emphasise, this is a strong set of pieces, well worthy of space in the exhibition. Pieces indeed that almost prompted me to start sketching away in my notebook right there.

If the first of the smaller rooms feels like external constraints - architectural, mechanical, oppression by other people - imposed on the author, their subjects, and the reader, then this second room feels more like the liberation and illusory sense of revelation in the moments before waking properly. Or the similar states brought on by illness, tiredness, failure to eat properly, getting high, and any number of other altered states.

The third and final of these smaller rooms then is a room - attic, boxroom, garage - crowded with broken, forgotten or just unused items. Memories, aspirations, fears.

Truthfully there is more there than I can remember. And much of it seems resolutely domestic in scale. By which I mean much of it doesn't seek to make large, significant, or universal statements. Rather it speaks of specifics. Which for me can be much more important.

Consequently the room feels both crammed and slight. Both hissing with ideas and curiously quiet.

Or it could be an anteroom to the Holocaust Museum next door. Either a dumping ground for abandoned belongings or the few surprising things your mind won't let go of.

Among its small treasures: Laurence Lane's Uptight, an emotionally honest anecdote in both woodcut and print; Carolyn Thompson's The Eaten Heart, not by any means the only book to which a scalpel has been taken for artistic ends that I've seen, but effective nonetheless; Carol Watts' Jetty, A Tongue, frail sketch and hard to decipher handwriting.

There is more. Somewhere nearby, though I never found it, is a recording of Ron Sillimans' For Larry Eigner, Silent. And a recording of me wrestling with Long Lankin, which I did find, and was happy it sounded like a genuine thing.

The lower floor is more obviously, openly and viscerally emotional than the upper. It also has the most obvious disparities of scale, from the huge Long, Sanders and Fitterman works, to the smaller (and less outwardly ambitious) pieces in the third room. Which also, now I think of it, deals with questions of identity. Whether large, abstract, external signifiers like nationality that may mean nothing to some individuals, to smaller elements of personality, fears and guilt and pleasure, which may be far more important.

What then of the exhibition as a whole? As I said back at the beginning, it's dense, heavy with meanings and language. Ideas and emotions, large political and philosophical questions struggle to be heard against quieter but more insistent personal motifs. It's an exhibition both mental/emotional and physical, concerned with being.

Text and image collide. Sound and image collide. Light and dark collide. Monochromatism collides with brief moments of colour. Past and present collide. Large and small collide.

Throughout you feel your understanding of some of the denser works slipping away. Your sense of what language art consists of eroded. This increase in uncertainty is a good thing. It problematises rather than simplifies or manufactures spurious certainty. Even those works you may not like contribute to the whole and feel crucial to its conception.

In truth it's too capacious and dense an exhibition to take in quickly. But it's also an exhibition you have to work at to an extent. I was lucky to be able to take three days. I wish it had been longer. You don't have long left to get there if you want to see it, and you should.

A presumably mutated and transformed version of this exhibition will be at the Text Festival later in the year, where it will be fascinating to see how it has changed, and how it responds to the different spaces in Bury. If you miss Edinburgh, don't miss Bury.

Since in the end there was nowhere for it to go, but I'd embedded a few references to it through the review, I've left my (slightly edited) mini rant about automatism separately to the main text. Automatic writing, channelling, whatever, crops up in a couple of ways, and it's a practice I honestly have little time for. Blame the surrealists. I believe that rather than uncovering any useful insights, letting out the unconscious or subconscious, or achieving any supernatural contact, automatic writing simply reflects what's already there. Essentially whatever's already in your mind without the self-conscious, developed editorialising, but with a different conceptual framework in place that permits certain strategies and disallows others.

My opinion is that it opens a door to cliche, hackneyed (and sometimes offensive*) modes of expression or thought, and actually represents a limitation on truly imaginative or irrational strategies.

Insofar as I also regard it as a (less interesting, developed, rigorous, or imaginative) form of improvisation, it carries risks particularly for those with highly developed skills and/or working alone. The tendency being - unconsciously - to fall back on techniques, tropes, and approaches you're accustomed to using.

*That offence being probably unconscious, but likely to reflect the author's privilege. Hence that reference to surrealists earlier - I find most of the surrealist poetry I've read by men to be misogynist in the extreme. But I stress, that is not the case with anything in this exhibition.

[Just finished editing as a side of a record by Estasy, an Italian performance artist and rare male soprano comes to an end. The last record of the night before bed.]


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