Through: January 20, 2008
For a show about words, “Words Fail Me” is very much a visual affair – it’s not a hushed, bookish experience. By making thoughtful and inventive use of MOCAD’s space, Higgs is able to put forth a strong statement and vision about what he describes in his exhibition essay as, “a century-long entanglement between word and image.”
A little over a year ago, Higgs came to Detroit to see MOCAD’s inaugural exhibition “Meditations in an Emergency” on an invitation from the show’s curator Klaus Kertess. Higgs was both intrigued about the similarities between the post-industrial landscape of Detroit and his native Manchester, England (a connection explored at length in Shrinking Cities at MOCAD and Cranbrook last spring), as well as the history and potential he saw in this former a car dealership. He was attracted to the fact that building had not been over-renovated in much the same way as existing cultural institutions also built in former industrial buildings such as Dia Beacon and London’s Tate Modern.
It’s this consciousness of past right alongside present in the structure that also permeates Higgs’s aims for the show. He describes it as having a thread of “melancholia.” Rather than clinging too tightly to times past unable to move forward – as with nostalgia, this is observing “thoughtful sadness” about what’s gone, bearing witness to make way for the change to come. People change, cities change, and language changes – as Higgs says, “Language is much more flexible and porous than we give it credit.”
To help guide his viewer towards a different view on language, Higgs has paid great attention to how people encounter the works – this exhibition is not laid out as art on wall, label, space, art on wall, label, space, … Through the use of temporary walls and carefully considered installation, Higgs has constructed a quite purposeful flow of movement throughout the exhibition space. The cavernous space, which can leave one to wander aimlessly, has been transformed into a journey of sorts – it’s something for viewers to pass through, making discoveries and encountering new realms along the way. Perhaps it’s too strong a statement to make, but one could imagine the composition of the exhibition as akin to a labyrinth in the mind. This notion too, feeds back into the whole idea of melancholy – in terms of sense of place and faded history.
So what’s inside?
The show begins with the ultimate ending. Jack Pierson’s assemblage of found letters from signage of an earlier time in American history spell out in bright (though somewhat faded) colors of the day “Dead.” In Higgs’s words it’s a “reverse welcome mat.” The words are situated on a temporary wall, which obscures viewing of the rest of the work inside this first gallery space. Thus stopped by this wall, the viewer can walk around and enter. (Perhaps labyrinth is the wrong metaphor for the journey we’re about to take. Having been struck by “dead,” we might instead think of this as the river Styx and the journey one of traversing backward through our memories. Something to consider as we proceed.)
Once around the wall, the first thing viewers come into contact with is commentary on the art world itself, specifically the link between art and commerce, appropriately enough in the form of hand-woven wool sweaters created by Lisa Anne Auerbach. Each reads “Everything I touch turns to $old” and are identical except for the amount of gold thread woven in instead of the more common yarn. The value of the pieces – printed on their backs – increases in relation to how much of the sweater is made from gold, further building on the issue.
From there, we turn our attention to the walls, which are entirely covered in scribbled drawings and text as if larger than life, diary-like pages. With entries like “Lost,” “I’m down on my knees,” Anne-lise Coste captures everyday thoughts and worries. The scale of the work and its honesty are an invitation to engage in a dialogue with the at least imagined author of these pages.
In the center of the room sits a stack of posters with lyrics from the Kinks song “Victoria”, printed in English, Arabic, and Hebrew, which reads: “I was born, lucky me In a land that I love …. For this land I shall die Let her sun never set.” By translating this song of patriotism, of nationalism, in the language of frequently clashing cultures, Jeremy Deller cuts across the differences between cultures and finds a commonality stronger than the words that often separate peoples. In moving towards the next room, we’re met with another temporary wall, upon which in clear plastic push pins is written in connect-the-dots fashion, the phrase “weakness as strength.” As such, despite making something from near immateriality, Siobhan Liddell’s piece does make a bold impression, and thus the words truly do mean what they say in both form and content.
Passing around this wall into the second room, and smallest space in the museum, we come across Tauba Auerbach’s videos documenting the re-creation of the telephone game with friends. Subtitles let the viewer in on what’s whispered as each participant in the video relays the message down the chain. As messages alter along the way (more so the trickier the initial phrase is) speaks to the failings of our memory and of our words. Opposite this work, stretched across the interior of two walls joined perpendicularly and erected right in front of the museum wall, Kay Rosen’s “BLURRED” is painted in giant sign-like lettering beginning with blue for the first three letters, a purple for the first “R” and the remaining “red” is painted red. It offers commentary on blue and red states, the artificial division between them, and the finding of middle ground – often all issues of language. It’s scale makes it an unavoidable and iconic image. Carl Pope offers a massive collage of original letterpress posters, whose bold graphics mirror the messages upon them, humorous and confrontational at the same time. They grab you with image and content – an example, “Say Yes Do No.”
Heading onward, deeper into the labyrinth, we approach the final gallery space. The junction between room two and room three is marred a bit by passing through MOCAD’s performance space – not a part of the show, it spoils the illusion somewhat, and one might wish there was a way in which to leave this passageway passable, but still maintain the distinctive flow that Higgs has created throughout the rest of the exhibition.
In any case, upon entering the final room, the viewer is immediately confronted by another wall upon which has been installed a video by Philippe Parreno and Rirkrit Tiravanija framed off with velvet curtains. The narration of the video consists of recollections of the forty-ish artists as spoken by a young boy, all over a sequence of images disconnected from the stories altogether. It’s a surreal experience and connects strongly to the sense of melancholia Higgs is trying to establish.
Nearby, Jonathan Monk’s laser display spells out “Nostalgic for the future,” which is clever and appropriate for the show, but leaves one wanting something more. Further still, Sam Durant has pulled text from a sign carried at protest rallies in the 60s. it reads, “Let’s judge ourselves as people. Recontextualized, abstracted from its source, the message takes on new meaning.
On another wall built up some distance in front of the building’s southwest interior corner, Martin Creed writes in neon a single word “Feelings.” From something so simple, he’s able to conjure up a range of responses from sappy songs to sadness – it could be anything to anyone. Note, the entire room is quite dark, in part as a practical consideration for the light and video pieces inside it, but also to further enhance the mood of the work. Another light piece by Ron Terada continues this building of feeling and reads, “Stay away from lonely places.” The piece is off by itself, bleak light emanating from it.
Throughout the exhibition, Higgs is continuing to connect to the history of the building and previous shows. Wandering behind the Creed piece (which we can do because of its placement) a soft place that we fall into that leaves one wondering if we’re supposed to be there or not, we can see slices of Barry McGee’s graffiti exterior through the windows – a sort of stained glass, tying into Higgs’s description of the building as an “Urban Cathedral.” A few weeks after the opening of the show, a final piece was added to the exterior of the building right over McGee’s graffiti. Also by Creed, it reads, “Everything’s going to be alright.” Appropriate commentary in a shrunken city, even as signs of renewal surround that area in the form of major construction projects. Perhaps it will? And perhaps in saying it will, it becomes that much more possible.
Back inside, Ryan Gander’s “Encrypt Encrypt” features the bouncing ball as if on a karaoke screen but with no words and no sound – it’s pure abstraction. It’s funny, it’s clever, makes you want to guess – what are the songs. What are the words when the words and the melody are removed? (We do this – we can’t remember the words but know the tune.) This piece draws us backwards through the show, a continual question of memory – from the telephone game; the out of place, youthful narrator with imagery removed from experience; and past signs recast in new lights. Our lives, our stories, all held together by words, which prove to be fleeting, and perhaps failing.
Jennifer West completely dissolves words in two films created by exposing the film to the elements and other materials and scrawling directly on the film “Whatever” and “Yeah” respectively. They’re quite beautiful, colors and imagery and a hint of text reflected in the shine of the floor in the darkened room. There’s a definite feeling of memory without the specificity of text.
And then we come to the end of the journey, in the form of an extremely clever coordination of slide projectors by Peter Fischli and David Weiss. It poses a seemingly endless series of questions, clever, ridiculous, silly, provocative, the sort of things you ask as a child or delirious at 3 o’clock in the morning. One reads, “Should I go to another city and rent an apartment under a false name?” And they get more surreal. They bring to mind the questions you can imagine being asked before birth, before coming into the world. Think of Wim Wenders’ film “Wings of Desire,” and the words “heard” and spoken by the angels, “How can it be that I, who is me, wasn’t there before I was?” and “Why am I me and not you?” It’s really a beautiful and thoughtful piece, and as a stand alone, probably the most compelling work in the show.
These questions bring us to the end of our journey, now ready to emerge into the light again. It’s a re-birth of sorts, now equipped with a new perspective. Higgs has created a strong vision by gathering his players quite purposefully. It’s not simply the selection of the right artists, but it’s as if Higgs is working with the artists as elements of his composition – curating as meta-art if you will. The show can be read rather quickly, but due to the successful pairing of words and images, it is an experience that persists in our heads quite vividly long after.
All in all, it’s a thoughtful, highly considered show that really begins to show the sort of ideas that MOCAD can bring to this community. – Nick Sousanis
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