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Generali Foundation Opens Un Coup de Des: Writing Turned Image. An Alphabet of Pensive Language
Lothar Baumgarten, Section 125-25 64-58, Hommage à M.B., 1972-74.
VIENNA.- The first exhibition held under the Generali Foundation’s new director aspires to be programmatic: it seeks to frame a view of where the collection wants to go in the future while also paying homage to the work that has gone into creating the existing collection. A collection that is distinguished by its focus on conceptual art, institutional critique, and the art of the post-avant-garde has an obvious interest in the subversive potential of language—both in its dimension as a critique of ideology and in its poetic and disruptive power. It is here that we encounter Marcel Broodthaers. Around Broodthaers and Stéphane Mallarmé, the forefather of avant-garde poetry, and in a variety of relationships with them extends a rich network of direct and indirect references to the works on view in the exhibition.

The movement of the letters, a heightening of the allusive and deconstructive features of language, is central to this exhibition. An idea first developed by Stéphane Mallarmé (1842-1898) in Un coup de dés (A roll of the dice), 1897 has become an integral part of the poetological vocabulary of the 20th century: unmasking language as a convention that serves to discipline the individual and to subject it to a regulated system of capitalist exploitation, or, to put a positive spin on it, to guarantee a commanding view of the world. Language was to undergo a revision and to reconquer the latitude of its imagination by escaping its purposive destination of having to communicate an unambiguous meaning. Mallarmé was not the only one to counter this desire for facile consumption by means of the suggestive force of the letter, the fashion of his typographical arrangement of words on the blank sheet. Marcel Broodthaers (1924-1976), a key figure of the post-avant-garde, struck an even more radical path than Mallarmé, at first, in a performative act, turning—not unlike other poets in this exhibition—away from poetry, the pursuit of “starving artists,” and toward the “more lucrative” visual arts. He buried 50 copies of his slow-selling volume of poetry entitled Pense-Bête in plaster and offered the result to the art market as a sculpture. Then he made an almost exact copy of the first edition of Un coup de dés jamais n’abolira le hasard (1914), obliterating Mallarmé’s poem with black bars.

It is around Stéphane Mallarmé and Lewis Carroll’s “upside-down world” as exemplary predecessors of an anti-representational art, around Marcel Broodthaers (1924-1976), who took Mallarmé’s strategies of linguistic analysis to their extreme, and around artists who are Mallarmé’s, Carroll’s, and Broodthaers’s intellectual kin that the exhibition UN COUP DE DÉS. Writing Turned Image revolves. Their examination of language extends to a field of reference of the constitutively multi-mediatic: language gets its say in books, films, videos, projections, objects, texts, and performances. In the exhibition, the letters break free of the book and their instrumental destination as a pure medium of information; they enter the flow of media as a sort of disturbance of the familiar, reoccupying space in a way that is simultaneously enigmatic and a critique of language. Art reconsiders and undoes habitual rhetorical tropes using techniques of repetition, syntactic displacement, reduction to the point of absence, montage, or an alogical confrontation with the world of things.

The artists examine language and possible ways of using it in non-purposive or at least non-alienating forms of expression. Their engagement of language reveals the way the institutions function and thus sheds light on the collective memory of the inscribed writing of the social order—aiming to emancipate language from its purely rational exploitability and everywhere to offer nonsense as a liberating counter-model. Where reality is understood as ultimately unconquerable and impenetrable, poetic language enters the fray with its quest for the inalienable meaning of things.

UN COUP DE DÉS is a journey through the world of the alphabet, of the innocent letter and its figural equivalents in pre-linguistic forms of explaining the world as it appears, for instance, in 19th-century illustrated children’s books: Rodney Graham or Broodthaers present upside-down worlds to us, as does Lewis Carroll. The placement of the words, the layout and typography, in short: the design of the book plays a large role in most of the works: a medium of concentration, rapture, and excess and a synonym of the artist’s immersion in the processes of thinking and verbalization: as is manifest in Ian Wallace’s or Klaus Scherübel’s works. Poetry becomes imagistic not only in Mallarmé but also in Dominik Steiger’s acrostics and Jarosław Kozłowski’s, Gerhard Rühm’s, Ewa Partum’s, or Robert Barry’s “concrete” poetry. In David Lamelas, it becomes convulsive and absurd;
it is disassembled in the manner of a linguistic analysis in Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s video reflections: it is when exile makes learning new languages necessary that the polysemic meaning of words comes front and center. In Joëlle Tuerlinckx, Marcel Broodthaers, Lothar Baumgarten, and Ulrike Grossarth, language or its figurative counterparts serve to interrogate things, institutional contexts, and the social and political entanglements of words and ordering linguistic systems of classification. The artists employ a great variety of media for their reflection on language, illustrating the way the everyday seeps into consciousness via language: the various strata of linguistic expressions—image, writing, voice, insert, negative film—emerge with especial clarity in the medium of film, thus in Peter Tscherkassky, or in Ana Torfs’s sequential slide installation.

The exhibition UN COUP DE DÉS. Writing Turned Image. An Alphabet of Pensive Language can thus be read in multiple ways, as a system of references between avant-garde techniques and analyses that relate to leading figures of modernism, but also as a system of friendships and resonances between artists who have worked and are working over a period of time extending from the 19th century across 1960s and 1970s conceptual art to our own present.

The theme of the exhibition could also have been taken from Lewis Carroll’s The Hunting of the Snark (1876): mariners are facing an empty nautical chart that bears marks only in the margins, “a perfect and absolute blank” open to unconstrained interpretation, since all signs “are merely conventional” anyway. An adventurous journey into the space of poetry by means of subversion: chance, blank, play, travesty, suggestion—and parrhesia.

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