- Bury Art Gallery and Museum
- North West England
“Language is a virus from outer space” observed William Burroughs, and, although it may not be a case of extra-terrestrial invasion, the second incarnation of Bury’s festival of sound works and text-based art, ‘Text 2’, will almost definitely be seen as enforced irritable vowel syndrome by the suited functionaries of the Council’s funding bodies.
Too often publicly funded galleries profess to be complying with a remit of ever-expanding social inclusion, but end-up operating on a default mode of beige condescension, with the potentially contentious ‘art’ bits lost somewhere in the process.
So, with an admirable combination of insolence, conceptual art proselytizing, and a determination to engage audiences with examples of contemporary practice, festival director and artist Tony Trehy has filled the exhibition spaces with works that obsess over the written word, spoken word, and the sound of playful anarchy making language inarticulate.
Nick Thurston and Ben Gwilliam’s works are both efficiently simple and conceptually dense layerings of sound – one co-opting a room’s space, the other drawing the viewer/ listener into intimate collusion. In Thurston’s ‘Enigma variations’ bursts of unattributed shortwave broadcasts, a morose compact of Morse clicks and alien pitches, occasionally pollute the museum collection, dragging the listeners’ attention around the containing space. Gwilliam’s ‘Any Number Can Play’ apparently references Samuel Beckett, that old touchstone of audio-practitioners the world over. A wall-mounted 1970s cassette player runs a looped tape, a muttered haze of windy static, cheekily punctuated by the word marijuana; accompanied by a layering of black text on A4 plastic sheets possibly explaining the process of its recording, voices wiped by dragging the tape over the cassette head and repeatedly over-recording.
Both are thoroughly engaging and emphasise, where text/ sound art is concerned, the potency of an apparently simple but focused practice.
Beckett gets a second mention in Spencer Robert’s ‘Beckett Machine’, a small circuit board with text from ‘Waiting For Godot’ sliding across it’s miniature digital display, 2 attached tiny bulbs flashing a call and response code in time with the changing narrator’s voice – it manages to be both sweet and abject at the same time.
In comparison, Carolyn Thompson’s commissioned installation ‘Progress’ is a much more prosaic affair. A 38-minute audio tour of no longer existent Bury buildings – a Victorian baths and a theatre – to be experienced seated in a darkened room. The narrator sounds, unfortunately, like an insincere supply teacher and, combined with the intrusive low lighting in the sensory deprivation listening space, the effect is of a school history project rather than a theatre of imaginative recreation.
On the other hand, another darkened room experience, Patrick Fabian Panetta’s ‘Proxy Affair (End Credits 2007/ 2008)’ is a highlight of the whole exhibition. A relentless upward drag of the end credits from a number of recent movies, retaining the bombastic emoting of their soundtrack music, it operates in a number of ways simultaneously – engendering a nagging feeling of disappointment at missing the film; stretching dead time before the eyes; seducing with the sheer weight of information in the scrolling text.
Paring language as information to a bare minimum can be equally effective: David Alker and Peter Liddell’s illuminated cinema sign ‘Silence’ is badly positioned in an attempt to make it less invisible, which just makes it funnier; Carl Middleton’s 3 pieces from his Apologies series-‘I Promise I Will Not Do It Again’, ‘Sorry’ and a letter notifying a change of dental appointment- have the charm of a straight-faced stand-up comic; Carol Watt’s ‘Horrid Massacre’, a large photographic blow-up of a shop receipt, the top item being the titular ‘Horrid Massacre’, is entertainingly ridiculous.
Other spartan text pieces fared less well. Hidden in a compressed alcove of the refurbished archive basement – the recreation of a Victorian cobbled street now replaced by a Hoxton Square boutique – is a vertical stack of Jenny Holzer cast aluminium plaques from her ‘Survival Series’; dreamily poetic aphorisms and adolescent gripes. ‘With all the holes in you already there’s no reason to define the outside as alien’ baldly announces one, which just may qualify as the worst chat-up line of all time.
More technically elaborate is Ming Wong’s amusing video impersonation of the mighty bard, ‘Ham&cheeseomelet’, a talking head delivery of a nonsensically cut-up ‘to be or not to be..’ speech, as is his one man repeated attempts to recreate character interplays from generic Malaysian melodramas, ‘Four Malay Stories’, fixed identity dissolving under the pressure of second-hand articulation.
The more theatrically sculptural displays seem to hi-jack the written word less successfully. Phil Davenport’s curving spill of apples ‘Heart-Shaped Pornography’ carry poetic phrases written in a lettering usually reserved for the menu board in a city centre gastro-pub, whilst Irene Barberies’ ‘Silicon Text/ Apocalypse Wall’, a hanging curtain of extruded silicon handwritten text from the Book of Revelations in front of a dead black wall, fails to simulate the vengeful edicts of a bellowing God.
Trehy’s blog notes that there was a need to re-hang his original display because ’the works did not gel together’, it being necessary to consider ‘the spatial relations between words’. To this end, the whole show hinges around the physically central sculptural piece Helmut Lemke’s ‘Entscheidungsproblem’: a fishing reel mechanism carrying a tightly coiled linear transcription of the first line of Trehy’s ’50 Heads’ poem and reminiscent of a Duchampian ‘assisted’ readymade.
The mechanism is seated under a perspex box on a waist high plinth carrying the printed legend “Is there some procedure which could solve all problems one after the other?”
In this context the answer has to be indeed there is, edit the selection – smart, engaging and pithy work is left to battle for attention with nervously ornate unconvincing displays and constructions, and a perplexingly pointless eighteenth century long-case clock from the museum collection.
‘Text 2’ appears to be two exhibitions occupying the galleries at the same time.
Fortunately, one of these exhibitions is very good indeed.