LONDON.- White Cube
presents Babel, an online exhibition featuring works concerned with language and communication. Some of their messages take on new and unintended meanings as we struggle with silence and strive to keep connected in our current circumstances.
Language is the miraculous human invention that allows us to transmit our thoughts through space and time. One origin myth, the Old Testament account of the Tower of Babel, seeks to explain how humans might be united by language, then divided by language: it is a story of the power of communication and of communication frustrated. During our recent enforced physical separation we have clung to the messages that keep us connected, the news bulletins that keep us informed, and weve struggled with silence, lapses and static.
The artworks assembled here are all concerned with language and communication, and in our current circumstances, their messages can take on new, unintended meaning. Imagine a babel of whispers, shouts, mutters, sounds and signals sent across the gap between artwork and viewer, some fated to incomprehensibility, some hitting home with renewed weight and resonance. In a multitude of languages, certain messages are clear and urgent, others encoded or obscured, breaking down into stuttering single syllables or onomatopoeic sounds.
Artists: Mel Bochner, Tracey Emin, Cerith Wyn Evans, Theaster Gates, Gilbert & George, Douglas Gordon, Wade Guyton, Al Held, Ibrahim Mahama, Christian Marclay, Harland Miller, Sarah Morris, Damián Ortega, Park Seo-Bo, Eddie Peake, Jessica Rankin, Gary Simmons, Danh Vo
Babel is curated by Susanna Greeves, Director, Museum Liaison, White Cube.
Loud and Clear
Borrowing the graphic style of hoardings
, headlines or street signs delivers a message with force and clarity.
Pioneering conceptual artist Mel Bochner is known for the mordant humour of his text works: his colourful fire-sale slogans seem particularly dark at present.
Profile heads composed of colourful psychedelic lettering recall both the mind-expanding, cultural movements of the 1960s and the pseudo-scientific diagrams of phrenology and early psychoanalysis, but Eddie Peakes heartfelt appeal for soul-searching could not be more timely.
Sarah Morriss single words punch home with an uncompromising nihilism. Influenced in particular by New York Post and Daily News headlines, the text paintings were made in her Times Square studio and are portraits of noise and adrenaline derived from the city.
We may have temporarily retreated from the streets, but while Morris delivers New York City, Gilbert & George bring us London, offering a Dickensian sweep of urban drama in the form of lurid headlines lifted from newsvendors stands.
Here I am
Even when broadcast in the form of a neon sign, Tracey Emins writings are intimate, candid and heartfelt. In her familiar handwriting, her thoughts, fears and most private moments seem directed as personal messages to each of us.
Ibrahim Mahamas photograph shows the forearm of an itinerant Ghanaian worker, tattooed with their name and birthplace. This declaration of identity is a message in the event of a future calamity: it will allow for their body to be returned to his family should they die far from home. There are over 70 different ethnic groups throughout Ghana, each with their own language, dialects and traditions. Many of the men and women who have collaborated with Mahama bear these markings, and have migrated across great distances from their remote villages in search of often-hazardous work in marketplaces and ports.
I have measured out my life
Jessica Rankin might be measuring out a term of confinement in the painstaking medium of embroidery, her needle tallying passing time (THREE YEARS
FIVE YEARS) and debating ITS ALL GONE
EVERYTHING IS STILL THERE.
Gary Simmons channels the obsessive scrawl of Jack Nicholsons character in Kubricks The Shining: All Work and No Play
, the dense lines smeared almost to obscurity. In drawing on this film, Simmons invokes a trope that inhabits our collective consciousness, and by his partial, failed act of erasure makes a connection to the impossibility of eradicating racial and cultural stereotypes from our collective identity.
By way of counterpoint, the repetitive action of calligraphy in Park Seo-Bos Ecriture painting is a meditative exercise in the...
By way of counterpoint, the repetitive action of calligraphy in Park Seo-Bos Ecriture painting is a meditative exercise in the Buddhist tradition, compared by the artist to a Buddhist monks chanting of a prayer, which is repeated to reach a state of nirvana. Just as a chanted mantra loses connection to meaning, the illegibility of its looping calligraphy is unimportant.
And the Lord said Look, they are one people, and they have all one language: and this is only the beginning of what they will do: nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. Come, let us go down, and confuse their language there, so they will not understand one anothers speech. Genesis 11
Lost in Translation
Artists love to explore the cracks in language, the places where meaning can slip and re-form.
Eddie Peakes acid-coloured spray paintings are inflected with a street language, graffiti. The near-untranslatable text he chooses here, Mortacci Nostra, is in Romesco, Roman street slang, meaning roughly to our despicable dead ancestors!. The words shaped from negative space, revealing the polished steel ground, are a metaphor for gaps in language and it is in this space that the viewer finds themselves reflected.
The Danish-Vietnamese artist, Danh Vo, in gilded German gothic script, offers the goriest, toe-slicing scene from the Grimms' Cinderella story as a parable of the lengths to which one might go to fit into an alien culture.
Taking a passage from Proust already translated into English, Cerith Wyn Evans submits it to further transformations: into Japanese Kanji characters and then to folded glass forms, testing the very limits of language and meaning.
Coded and Cryptic
Translating language into light, the cadence of a text spoken by the artist becomes a lighttrack, brightening and dimming the candles of Cerith Wyn Evans chandelier.
Sarah Morris Sound Graph paintings also encode language as visual information. A phrase quoted in one of her films, your words become mine, is rendered as a hard-edged abstraction drawn from the digital display of sound equipment.
On a visit to primatologists in Nigeria, Damián Ortega was fascinated to observe sign-language communication between apes and humans. To render this coded system of gestures as sculpture he has chosen a form reminiscent of milagros, the votive charms often found in Mexican shrines and churches.
In Douglas Gordons scrabble game, the players are passing a coded message, or perhaps an occult power has revealed a hidden truth: It has just begun.
With the sound of gusting wind in the branches of the language trees of Babel, the words gave way like leaves. Andrei Codrescu
I U WE
Since Dadas dismantling of language, artists have been taking words apart like so many scrabble tiles, stripping language down to its component parts and liberating it from meaning.
In his early 1960s paintings, such as The I, Al Held reached for letters as geometric, clear and acceptable formal devices with which he could make something very concrete.
Wade Guyton has made the single keystrokes X and U a repeated trope of his digital paintings, and here U is extruded into a gleaming minimal sculpture. By employing the same fabricators who produced much of Donald Judds works, Guyton makes explicit his dialogue with and deconstruction of minimalist art history. Formally, the Us act to amplify and mimic themselves, reflecting mirror images of their elegant, highly polished surface while also opening this site of displacement to the viewers own image.
Harland Miller has in mind the illuminated capitals of manuscripts, the very earliest manifestation of text in art, which he revisits with a pop sensibility in his letter paintings.
Whilst they too riff on modernist sculpture, Theaster Gates neon signs are an homage both to Japanese nightlife the bright lights of an urban drinking oasis and to the iconic colour palette taken from the Johnson Publishing Company offices.
I dont want words that other people have invented. [
] I want my own stuff, my own rhythm, and vowels and consonants too, matching the rhythm and all my own. Hugo Ball
Comic-book sound effects lend Christian Marclays Action paintings and drawings an air of silent slapstick, though this goofy humour encodes a clever art-historical mashup, Pop colliding with Abstract Expressionism. Each sampled onomatopoeic word communicates an action, a graphic score for Marclays application of paint.
In his woodcut, Scream (Night Echoes), the visual sampling of manga images creates a reverberating scream, an homage to Munchs iconic image of existential trauma: a silent, wordless howl.