{Person, Place, Thing} (2012)

John G. Hampton

{Person, Place, Thing} was an exhibition curated by John G. Hampton for Neutral Ground Contemporary Art Forum in 2012. It included works by five Canadian artists: Bonnie Devine, Michael Maranda, Loretta Paoli, Arthur Renwick and Laurel Woodcock.

I will begin with the name. I do this because we are normally first introduced to an object, person or a place through its/their name. We encounter names every day, from the provisional and personal names we use for our own reference (like “Little Lappy,” which I am using to write this essay), to officially sanctioned names used for legal, referential or scientific purposes (like the Black Hills, Corsica, or Serpent River). The former are the names of convenience and endearment; they are relatively easy to change and are usually insignificant to outside audiences. The latter are relatively permanent; they rely on a degree of universality to function properly and they can only be changed through great socio-political movement. A name has the power to undo and rebuild, to conjure or to erase, and to take what we thought we knew and reframe it as something completely new. The majority of objects/subjects however, are known by many names, each teasing out different elements within its character.

As most curators do, I take the naming of an exhibition very seriously. It is perhaps the most visible trace of the curatorial hand. Expository texts (such as this one) are read only by an eager few, display strategies are noticed only by those who are looking for them, and interpersonal politics are left interpersonal—but a name is read by or spoken to every visitor or reader of an exhibition or text. Given names express the namer’s power over the named, usually the power of ownership or authorship. “Power over the creatures was given to man, and as a proof of this he named them all.” The namer’s authority, however, may not always be accepted, and just as there are complicated cultural politics when naming people and places, there are also potential problems in naming exhibitions. But I’ll save any attempts to circumvent these problematics until later.

Geographer Yu-Fu Tuan has noted that naming provides the power “to call something into being, to render the invisible visible, to instill a certain character to things.” He has further stated that the name of a particular geo-formation merges with the geography itself in the consciousness of those who know both; it can evoke a certain mood such as in “Mount Misery,” or it can unify disparate streams into a unified whole, such as with the Mississippi River. Similar to how a name can provide a unified persona for a particular landscape, the name of an exhibition creates expectations and suppositions about the terrain one will encounter while visiting the show.

The name of this exhibition is a broad one. It suggests the unification or substitutability of any object or subject one could encounter.
{ P e r s o n , P l a c e , T h i n g }
The brace ({) is a poetic device; its purpose is to denote a set of possibilities or interchangeable items: “Select your animal {goat, sheep, cow, horse} and follow me.” But the items listed in {Person, Place, Thing} encompass all that could be placed within such a set of braces; like the word “noun” that the three words “person, place, thing” evoke, it conflates all possible named things into one frame. Considering that it represents all that we can touch, smell, see, talk to, listen to, or interact with in any way, the noun has a surprisingly succinct entry in the Oxford English Dictionary: “A word used as the name or designation of a person, place, or thing; the class or category of such words.” Under this rubric there is no difference between subject and object, it doesn’t so much collapse the distinction, as it is indifferent to it.

For this exhibition, I was looking at subjectvities implanted into the land and into objects. I was interested in the way that objects articulate and are articulated through language structures. Bonnie Devine, Michael Maranda, Loretta Paoli, Arthur Renwick and Laurel Woodcock have all created work that attempts to intermaterially translate the language of land, objects and our material world. They look on the movement of language through time, site, subjects and objects. I chose to frame the exhibit under the rubric of the noun because of its ability to resolve and encompass the ambiguities brought up when blurring the distinctions between subjects and objects. This allows me to think of the noun as both the speaker and the spoken, as an agent of translation as well as its object. But the language that the noun articulates, and through which it is articulated, is not the same as the one I am writing in. It may follow the same abstract structure as spoken or written languages, but it is not applied strictly through conscious actors. The nouns language is the one listened to when you ask a cat what its name should be, it’s the conversation you have with the frame when composing a landscape, it’s the implied subjectivity felt and communicated with through our environment and the objects within it.

In “The Task of the Translator”, Walter Benjamin suggested that part of the difficulty of translation is that a text is a living thing, and it cannot be replicated exactly. “The idea of life and afterlife in works of art should be regarded with an entirely unmetaphorical objectivity… The concept of life is given its due only if everything that has a history of its own, and is not merely the setting for history, is credited with life.” Similarly there is a broad movement towards understanding the organization and evolution of geo-formations as following the same abstract structure as social systems. Contemporary readings of landscapes, artworks and texts are moving further away from reading the intention of the author as the ultimate meaning of the work towards a never-quite-comprehensive account of the social, political and circumstantial conditions of the text. {Person, Place, Thing} is one way of framing artworks that deal with the dialectics of material existence as neither person, place, nor thing, but as something which encompasses and overlooks all three. It is an assembly of nouns into a noun, and attempts to fold back into itself to both reinforce and undermine its conceptual frame.

I began planning {Person, Place, Thing} after some time spent thinking about Arthur Renwick’s 2006 photographic series “Delegates: Chiefs of Earth and Sky.” I had just purchased a copy of Michael Maranda’s reworking of Stéphane Mallarmé’s Un Coup de Dés Jamais N’Abolira Le Hasard (a seminal work of modern poetry, which introduced the world to experimental typesetting) and I was obsessed with what I saw as the amazing potential for meaning to be present in unexpected places such as conjunctions, punctuation, and the blank space of the page. Renwick’s vast, empty skies, accented with solitary punctuation marks, piqued my interest in the overlooked linguistic structures surrounding language. It was an impressively simple representation of a staggering amount of information and beckoned me to spend time with it, absorbing its layers of meaning, reading and re-reading its apparent silence.

“Delegates: Chiefs of Earth and Sky” is a series of eleven landscapes, from which four are displayed in this exhibit. The four pieces included, “Ta-oya-te-duta (Little Crow),” “I-a-wi-ca-ka (the one who tells the truth),” “Wam-bu-lee-wah-kon (medicine eagle),” and “Tah-ton-kah-he-yo-ta-kah (sitting bull),” have been placed one on each wall. They encompass the gallery while pointing outwards towards each direction: east, south, west, and north. Included in each piece is both a photographic record of land, as well as a reference to North America’s most tangible link between language and land: the treaty.

The bottom half of each piece contains a black and white photograph of different portions of South Dakota. The top half is exposed aluminum, from which a single piece of English punctuation is expertly hand-cut to reveal a copper backing. The copper glows from approximately an inch and a half behind the otherwise starkly bare aluminum sky. Depicted in the photographs is territory covered by the Treaty of Fort Laramie from 1868, signed by the Cheyenne and Sioux peoples with the United States of America. Renwick’s photographs are reminiscent of what the land would have looked like then. There is no visible human presence, the only life forms being a herd of buffalo in the distance of “tah-ton-kah-he-yo-ta-kah (sitting bull)”.

The treaty that supposedly governs this land barred non-aboriginal settlement on most of South Dakota, but six years after it was signed, gold was discovered in the Black Hills. Prospectors began encroaching on treaty lands and they inevitably sought support from the US government, which led to the Great Sioux War of 1876 and the eventual loss of much of their territory. The territories of the Black Hills are still contested today. The legal battles to enforce the treaty were cited as an example of the inequalities of Native peoples in the United States in a recent report on the situation of Indigenous peoples in the USA by the United Nations that noted the Native peoples in this area are “some of the poorest of any group in the country”.

Renwick has a familiarity with the politics of metal mining through his birthplace of Kitamaat Village, just outside of Kitimat Townsite, BC. Kitimat Townsite is also known Aluminum City because of the aluminum processing plant around which the town was built. The town also has a small copper manufacturing industry. Renwick’s use of aluminum and copper as his materials draw a personal connection to the politics of mining and its relation with land. Renwick’s excavations in the aluminum sheets, which reveal the gleaming, valuable copper beneath, are evocative of the gold mines in the Black Hills, but they also suggest the potential importance of material that cannot be seen easily from the surface.

This interest in the information lying below the surface also informs Renwick’s use of written language. Renwick chose to use punctuation in the sky portion of the landscape as a stand in for the English language used in the writing of the treaties. While explicitly using the words from the treaty would be a more legible inscription of their content into the work, their absence more poetically evokes the loss meaning undergone when commodifying land through legal documents, as well as the loss of the arrangement agreed to in the treaty. Punctuation represents neither the written word nor the blankness of the page; it is an in-between, a parergon that vacillates between figure and ground. By ignoring the traditional sites of meaning and instead focusing on textual frames, Renwick makes room for an imaginative inscription of text on and around the landscape. The specifics of the treaty are clumsy representations of land, and the illusion of solidity and permanence of text melts away behind the enduring presence of the land it attempts to define. Renwick’s beautifully precise textual abstractions are more sculptural than legible. They are alienated and abstracted figurative voids in a ground of aluminum; their peculiarity echoes the foreignness of English text to the peoples represented in this treaty, by their delegates who each signed with an “X” because of their inability to read or write in a settler language, or any language for that matter.

When looking at these shapes I have tried to imagine encountering them without knowledge of any written language—these shapes, assembled together in sometimes repeating forms, representing a code within which infinitely diverse meanings can be implanted. The textual mark is simultaneously the most and least legible purveyor of information we have. Without the prerequisite training required to read it, text is a perniciously abstract, affected, impenetrable form of jargon that has no reference to the physical world. If you think abstract expressionism is difficult to read without knowing its forms, try the dictionary. But abstracting language outside of legibility can reveal new understandings of the meaning behind it, ones that exceed the intention of the author.

Renwick’s use of the mark is a trace of language rather than a defined articulation. Like Derrida’s “trace” it is “the mark of the absence of presence,” revealing the lack of an origin in the manifestation of language; a text does not have an originary meaning, but only has one placed upon it after the fact. Just as Derrida deconstructs text to study the prelinguistic trace-structure behind it, Renwick abstracts language to find an imprecise aura of articulation that precedes written language. This prelinguistic trace is representative of the pure potential of language, which can then be articulated in any analogous system.

Abstracting the concept of the ‘text’ is what allows us to ‘read’ Renwick’s image, and it is also what allows us to treat landscape as a text with “tangled meanings”. But it is also reminiscent of the structure of nature. The comma, colon, brace and bracket, all represent pauses in the reading of a text. They separate and categorize information, like modernist classificatory systems. When looking at “tah-ton-kah-he-yo-ta-kah (sitting bull),” with its comma suspended over the rolling hills of South Dakota, I am reminded of how different First Nations and Western settlers’ methods for classifying and measuring land were. The systems of measurement and classification that became crucial to the modern human sciences were just as foreign to First Nations people as were the English language.

In Promised Land, historian Steven Harper explores the early eighteenth-century dispossession of Native Delawares of what is now called Pennsylvania. Harper focuses primarily on the infamous “walking purchase” of 1737, where William Penn (the primary European actor in this exchange) purchased a tract of land that was measured by the distance a man could travel in one and a half days. Penn then hired the three fastest runners in the county to delineate this area, resulting in a land claim of 1,200,000 acres. This act does not only display a great act of deception, it also demonstrates vastly different ways of classifying distance, borders and time. To the Delawares, land was measured only through travel; it was not used to delineate borders of ownership along specific objective lines, but only in reference to the space one was currently occupying. When I look at “tah-ton-kah-he-yo-ta-kah (sitting bull),” I see two measurements of time and space articulated through two very different languages. The comma measures the pacing of the written agreement about the ownership of a specific plot of land. The photograph shows a site with history, and with the potential for movement within it. There are no clear place-markers, but only a positioning within a particular moment and an indeterminate site.

When Renwick chose to name these pieces after the chiefs who participated in treaty negotiations rather than the landmarks described in the treaties, he deterritorializes the treaty, taking away the power of the name as an objective delineation of borders. He instead implants each view with the subjectivity of someone important to that land, placing them not within a specific border, but instead framing a particular viewpoint and legacy that has carried on. The treaty continues to be negotiated today, and legislation is one of the dominant frames through which we see land, but the indeterminate discourse of the language and meaning inscribed into the land itself also carries on. Rather than bringing the subjectivity of our experience with land into the supposed objectivity of the written text, Renwick orchestrates a reversal of the process enacted by the constitution of treaties and laws, and implants a subjective interpretation of written language back into the land.

In Letters From Home (2008), Bonnie Devine takes a different approach to looking at the language of land. Rather than contrasting written text with landscape, she attempts to capture the voice of the ancients as it speaks through the surface of the Earth. In this series Devine returns to Serpent River, Ontario, near the north shore of Lake Huron where she grew up. As a child she had always considered the huge outcropping of pre-Cambrian Canadian Shield on this shoreline to be inscribed with ancient stories. For Letters From Home she returned to this area intent on reading and writing back the stories she could find on the rock. The result of this work is five 8.5”x11” reliefs cast into glass, then displayed on beautifully crafted birch shelves. The texture of the glass has an allure to it that has tempted many viewers to reach out and read the surface like Braille. Their subtle glow, created by the subsurface scattering of light in the glass and amplified by the way the shelf is constructed (with a hole underneath the sculptures), evokes an aura in the sculptures.

Taking on, and shifting from a tradition of modernist abstraction, these minimal forms articulate a language that can’t be fully spoken or written. But unlike modernist attempts that are mired in cultural and economic politics and inequality, Devine sources this transcendent voice from the land. She uses direct imprints of the land to display an unconventional landscape, attempting to translate her experience of the rock as written text, rather than creating a facsimile of an environment. Devine looks at land not strictly through a visual representation, but as a collection of lived histories. Her search for a textual aura in stone echoes Benjamin’s suggestion that “the concept of life is given its due only if everything that has a history of its own, and is not merely the setting for history, is credited with life.” Benjamin was speaking of text here, but his implications would just as easily extend to the history inscribed on the surface of a rock, the rings of a tree, or core samples removed from the Earth’s crust or glaciers.

Devine’s way of looking at writing on rocks has a kinship with ancient Chinese writing. Art Historian Robert E. Harrist Junior writes, “Ancient theories of writing claim that the invention of Chinese characters was inspired by the discovery of patterns in nature—tracks of birds, markings on the backs of tortoises, or heavenly constellations.” The first known Chinese writings are found on “oracle bones” and were used by ancient diviners. These diviners would write questions on bones, which were then heated up until they cracked; the cracks would then be interpreted as the response.

Harrist has made an argument that the Chinese practice of inscribing text onto rock faces follows the structure of landscape art. Harrist describes landscape as something that comes into being “when fragments of the otherwise-undifferentiated continuum of the surface of the earth are set apart and encoded with meaning by human viewers.” He suggests that by inscribing poetry into the side of a mountain that a landscape is created, because a particular element of that land is pulled forward for appreciation and contemplation. Devine’s studies of the pre-Cambrian rock from Serpent River enact a similar framing of the land, but instead of human made text framing the land as landscape, she attempts to position the rock itself as writing this textual frame (although she would then be editing or translating it for us).

This understanding of language recalls Derrida’s discussion of the mark. “I prefer to speak of ‘mark’ rather than of language. In the first place the mark is not anthropological; it is prelinguistic; it is the possibility of language, and it is everywhere there is a relation between one thing and an other. For such relations, the mark has no need of language.” Devine’s search for marks on stone are not looking for literal inscriptions of language, instead she is looking for the evidence of an articulation that follows the same abstract structure of language. The structure she is using has similarities to the one theorized by cultural theorist Manual de Landa.

In A Thousand Years of Nonlinear History, de Landa builds upon Deleuzian materialism and nonlinear dynamics in an attempt to theorize the structures that underlie historical, linguistic, social and geological events. He posits that structures such as rocks, animals, social classes and linguistic operators are all generated through the same abstract machine. Central to de Landa’s theory is the use of stratification (such as that which produced the pre-Cambrian rock Devine is working off of) as a model for understanding the organization of cities, society and linguistic interactions. He suggests that language and land are both generated through the same operators of accumulation, cementation, systematic relationships and differentiation.
Human languages are defined by the sounds, words, and grammatical constructions that slowly accumulate in a given community over centuries. These cultural materials do not accumulate randomly but rather enter into systematic relationships with one another, as well as with the human beings who serve as their organic support. The “sonic matter” of a given language (the phonemes of French or English, for instance) is not only structured internally, forming a system of vowels and consonants in which a change in one element affects every other one, but also socioeconomically: sounds accumulate in a society following class or caste divisions, and, together with dress and diet, form an integral part of the system of traits that differentiate social strata.

De Landa then goes on to use the theories of linguist Zelig Harris to attempt to define the abstract machine that generates language. It’s important to note here that de Landa specifies that this is not only an abstract machine for language, but an abstract machine for life, which is just as responsible for the generation of rocks, plants, and animals as it is for phrases and sentences. To simplify, de Landa likens language to the formation of sedimentary rocks “which also grow and develop through accretion, that is, the amassing of further materials and the proliferation of existing structures. Language, too, in Harris’s view, is an accretionary structure. In particular, once certain high frequency co-occurrences have become obligatory constraints, speakers begin to construct new patters by analogy to previously institutionalized ones.” Harrist and de Landa’s assertion that language is a thoroughly historical product built from the accumulation, combination and restraint as words move through history is a method of working with language that bears some striking similarities with the artistic practice of Michael Maranda.

The majority of Maranda’s work consists of the reconfiguring of canonical Western texts into new forms. Pieces like “Un Coup de Dés Jamais N’Abolira Le Hasard: Livre” and “Wittgenstein’s Corrections” place Maranda’s work in alignment with a translator or interpreter, writing secondary texts that build off of the original or work in opposition to them. In “Aufhebung [history],” Maranda hand wrote the word “Aufhebung” on 1540 separate pieces of paper. Each instance of the word “aufhebung” is written multiple times overtop of itself until it is illegible, becoming a scribble that generally follows the shape of the cursive letters. Maranda here shows the deterioration of text over history, and its multiple potential evolutions even while following the same generic structure.

For {Person, Place, Thing} Michael Maranda produced a 200+ page bookwork. The piece, “In Search of Grace” (2012), is an unconventional catalogue of various English language editions of Titus Lucretius Carus’ first century BCE tome De Rerum Natura. Lucretius’ text has variously been translated as: On Nature, On the Nature of Things, About Reality, The Poem on Nature, The Nature of the Universe, The Way Things Are, and other permutations of these. In his catalogue of the many printings of these various translations, Maranda has photographed one particular phrase from Lucretius’ most famous passage, known as the theory of the clinamen:

Though atoms fall straight downward through the void
by their own weight, yet at uncertain times
and at uncertain points, they swerve a bit —
enough that one may say they changed direction.

The word/phrase that Maranda focuses his lens on is “swerve,” for it is the swerve of the atoms that is central to both this passage and also to the Epicurean philosophy that Lucretius is summarizing here.

Lucretius’ Epicureanism was unapologetically materialist, it disavowed any divine role in the creation of the world and argued for the pursuit of personal pleasure (in the sense of “the pursuit of happiness” rather than hedonism). De Rerum Natura’s minimization of the role of the divine nearly led to its complete loss in the middle ages, but the papal secretary Poggio Bracciolini rediscovered it in 1417. In The Swerve: How the World Became Modern, renaissance scholar Stephen Greenblatt tells the story of this rediscovery and the subsequent flourishing of Lucretius’ text. Greenblatt argues that Lucretius’ thought ushered in the birth of the Renaissance and Modernity. He suggests that Lucretius’ secular atomism directly influenced Newtonian physics, Galileo’s astronomy and Shakespeare’s writing.

Although Greeblatt’s story is perhaps an aggrandized account of Lucretius’ role in the construction of Modernity, we can still see echoes of his influence in modern physics, not only in the language of atomism, but also in strange parallels with contemporary theories of the birth of matter. Just after the passage quoted by Maranda Lucretius suggests, “If it were not for this swerve, everything would fall downwards through the abyss of space. No collision would take place and no impact of atom on atom would be created. Thus nature would never have created anything.” This creation of matter from random movement parallels theoretical physicist Lawrence Krauss’ recent book A Universe From Nothing: Why There is Something Rather Than Nothing. In this book, Krauss speculates that spontaneous fluctuations in quantum gravity could cause the emergence of space. Once these pockets of space emerge, they could theoretically house weightless and matterless quantum particles that could, through spontaneous movements (for this purpose we could call them quantum swerves), generate matter, which in turn would fuel the creation of the universe as we know it.

Krauss’ is not the only contemporary theory that echoes the clinamen, and it very well might be incorrect, but it is interesting to see the continued impact of Lucretius’ foundational text on contemporary thought. These words, written in the first century before the Common Era, have had a continual and varied impact on modern notions of material world, and have thus impacted the way we understand objects, space and land. The example of Lucretius shows how the power of rhetoric—even in the absence of any empirical observations—can have a profound impact on our understanding of the ‘natural world.’

The legacy of influence that is mapped by Greenblatt is a perfect example of Walter Benjamin’s suggestion that translation is a reincarnation of a text: “a translation issues from the original—not so much from its life as from its afterlife. For a translation comes later than the original, and since the important works of world literature never find their chosen translators at the time of their origin, their translation marks their stage of continued life.” After “the great vanishing” of the Middle Ages, Lucretius’ writing did undergo a rebirth, and in this way marked the Renaissance as an age of translation and revision. When De Rerum Natura was returned into circulation, it had to be updated and translated, and as such was inevitably modified from the original in crucial ways. The movement of Lucretius’ thought downwards (or horizontally) through history is accented by the swerving of language that occurs in translations that take into account personal tastes for beauty, precision, personal biases and inevitably subjects readings, and these forces show the movement of concepts even when there is “concrete written accounts” that are presumably stable.

In Maranda’s photographs you can see the discrepancies in translation in even the most pivotal word of Lucretius text. As the atoms fall, depending on the translation you are reading, they swerve, push, alter their state, decline, give way, push aside, shift position or decline. These discrepancies are further amplified by the individuality of each photograph Maranda has taken of these words. The photographs are each taken from individual angles, allowing different (and differently translated) words to appear surrounding the “swerve.”

With the incredible amount of detail Maranda has captured, you can easily distinguish the vast differences in paper and ink of the pages. You can see individual fibres as they were pressed together, or the unique texture of a mold that has left its impression like a fingerprint on the page. Despite the inevitability that some of these

pages would have been made through similar processes, no two look even remotely the same; photography translates them into a textual and textural landscape. The ground of the page is removed from its neutral blank state to reveal a landscape of valleys and fibre, woven together like bush, or drifting across the page like snow. The text itself either indents the page leaving sharp walls bleeding through the fibres, or lays unobtrusively on top, blanketing portions of the page. Occasional marks from previous readers underline or highlight the passage while footnotes direct the reader to additional material left outside of the frame.

With each new page you can see not only the reconfiguration of words, but also of the material composition of the page, subtly shifting with each turn like the swerve of the atoms described by Lucretius. Maranda’s macro photography acts like a microscope, revealing the teaming of life and swerving atoms within the page, and we are left to presume the continuation of this effect outside of the frame. The citations as well as the truncated words all point outside, suggesting the wider applicability of this way of seeing. The shifting of meaning that occurs from page to page, year to year, suggests a literary or philosophical history that behaves like the clinamen. Literary critic Harold Bloom has suggested the clinamen as a theory for a way to productively channel the derivative nature of poetry. He suggests that Western thought is plagued by influence, and it is only the moments when authors swerve ever so slightly from the influence of their fore-bearers that true poetry emerges.

The poetry that emerges out of deviations from originals is not always straightforward. In legal documents, for example, there is an expectation of precision of meaning and a lack of malleability from generation to generation. In “De la Nazione” (2012) however, Loretta Paoli looks at a legal document that has undergone varied deviations and translations, the Corsican constitution. The first Corsican Constitution was written in 1755 by Loretta Paoli’s direct ancestor, Pasquale de Paoli, a general who fought for the independence of Corsica from the Republic of Genoa. The constitution as written only remained in law between 1755-1769, until the French conquered Corsica. The Corsican constitution of 1755 is considered by some to be the first democratic constitution ever written, and has been credited as influencing the constitution of the United States of America thirty-three years later. Due to poor record keeping however, the document disappeared for over a century and has only recently been rediscovered. Unfortunately, the recently uncovered documents available today are only translations from old Italian into modern Italian and French and there are great inconsistencies between them.

The title “De la Nazione”—a blend of the French “de la Nation” and the Italian “della Nazione”—was originally an error that Loretta Paoli wrote while deeply studying the French and Italian documents, but she decided to keep it because she thought it represented both her mental process and the confused history of translations that have occurred on this document. The process of drafting a document that “constitutes” a nation is a complicated prospect. The OED defines “constitution” as “The way in which anything is constituted or made up; the arrangement or combination of its parts or elements, as determining its nature and character; make, frame, composition. Constitution of nature, constitution of the world, constitution of the universe, constitution of things (the actual existing order); so constitution of society.”

The constituting force engaged with in Paoli’s work deals with the imprecise nature of personal perception. In a previous piece “Language Crossings” (2007), Paoli installed Venn diagrams of intersecting language she collaborated with a bilingual man, Regina Akok, to describe a sunset in both English and Arabic. The Venn diagrams intersected where commonalities existed and were separated where no direct translation was available. The piece highlighted the shift in perception and philosophical perspective that occurs through the limitations placed on us through language. “De la Nazione” uses a similar tactic of double vision. The piece can only be viewed through two eye-sized holes in the wall, where Paoli has embedded two spherical globes that distort a video feed, stretching it into a panoramic field. The video in the left eye fades between individual words from a hand written copy of the original constitution. The video on the right then writes the English translation of each word in a calligraphic script that imitates the document on the left. Both shots occasionally crossfade into footage of the Mediterranean Sea, taken by Paoli while visiting Corsica.

As the words fade in and out, and are written and rewritten they appear to be continually cast out into the sea with the rhythm of the waves. Any sense of the precision and strictness required in legal documents becomes unfixed. While whole professions are made out of very precise interpretation of legal documents like constitutions, Corsica’s has been lost to centuries of neglect and series of unverifiable translation. The nearly illegible script on the original is reminiscent of Maranda’s “Aufhebung [history]” where all legibility is lost from continual reinscription. Paoli’s gesture of rewriting the words while we stare at the sea renders them diaristic and personal, they almost feel like the daydreams of an ambitious citizen longing for independence. There is a personal relationship with land evoked here, much like in Devine’s “Letters From Home,” only Paoli’s would be “Letters To Home,” if home were an ahistorical notion of independent nationhood.

In Paoli’s master’s thesis, “This Space of Translation,” she theorizes her work on translation in terms of the postmodern geographical concept of “thirdspace” operating between spatiality, historicity and sociality in an integration of both the material and mental dimensions of space. In “De la Nazione,” history is articulated through a personal connection through blood, and the shifting of meaning in the constitution similarly reflects the changing articulation of the Paoli bloodline. Paoli circumvents the problematics of translation and definition involved in the complex task of translating very specific, legalized language, and instead reveals a poetic meditation on place, history, identity, subjecthood and governance. Like a bottle, cast into the sea, which has travelled through time and space to reach Paoli in a new social context, the words allow for a recreation of history and site through a subjective relationship with an indeterminate language. In some ways the degradation of precision in the Corsican constitution reflect the continued reinterpretation and amendments enacted on any active constitution, where shifting cultural meanings and evolving definitions of words change the context of the constitutional frame, restructuring it according to the shifting reality of the people that the document actively constitutes into a nation.

While Paoli’s work looks at the impact textual documents have on concepts of nationhood and the institution of government, Laurel Woodcock’s practice has a history of engaging the mechanics of art intuitions and display. She works in the tradition of institutional critique and conceptual art, but instead of critiquing the socioeconomic and political mechanics of the institution, Woodcock confronts their histories with a wry, smirking banality. Dave Dyment has described Woodcock’s practice using Bertolt Brecht’s term Verfremdungseffect (distancing effect). He suggests that Woodcock’s use of language declares its own artifice, rendering the familiar unfamiliar and argues that her foregrounding of the apparatuses of her own artistic production instills a sense of bewilderment about the art object in a way that draws attention to the gallery as stage.

I had Woodcock’s self-referentiality and astute quotations of gallery conventions in mind when I invited her to participate in {Person, Place, Thing}. My request to Woodcock was for her to intervene with the curatorial space. I wasn’t quite sure what I meant by this, but I did know I wanted to ensure there was some kind creative antagonism within the space. I thought Woodcock’s work could converse (and perhaps argue) with my curatorial (and it was important that it was not an artwork explicitly selected by me). After some long discussions about the degree to which she was willing to engage with the exhibit, Woodcock settled on “Untitled” (2012) for her contribution.

“Untitled” takes a textually confusing concept (my convoluted title) and further obfuscates it, making it a sculptural component of the exhibition. Each letter in {Person, Place, Thing} was CNC cut out of wood then coated with automotive black paint. The letters were then piled on the floor in three separate locations over the course of the exhibit: first loosely assembled in three piles, one for each word, then jumbled together in one large pile, and finally neatly stacked (in order) into a vertical column in a corner. Whether or not a viewer saw all three configurations is relatively inconsequential, the description of the piece’s movement in the exhibition handout was evidence enough of their travel.

Woodcock’s chosen title, like {Person, Place, Thing}, is a generically universal name. “Untitled” is a name that seemingly rebels against the finitude and descriptive expectations of the name. But Woodcock’s use of the word, “untitled” does not extol the virtues of reading an art object unencumbered by contextual excess, instead it is the completion of an act of un-titling, of literally dismantling the title of the exhibition. In Woodcock’s act of un-titling, the title seeps out of the walls and slips the curatorial frame into the exhibit itself. The authorial nature of the title is then rendered just another sculptural component of the exhibit, navigating the territory nomadically (and potentially tripping viewers). “Untitled” playfully directs the viewer’s gaze towards the apparatus of the exhibition in an imitation of the self-articulating nature of contemporary art objects.

All of the works in {Person, Place, Thing} engage with modernist conventions of display, if only because they are critically engaging with their own presentation in a white cube style exhibition space, but “Untitled” addresses the history of the modern exhibition most directly. The shift towards modern exhibition practices, which occurred alongside the creation of the natural sciences, was a move away from context-specific cultural production, towards the disinterested study of individual objects. With the creation of the Museum (beginning with the Louvre), cultural objects no longer needed to be studied within their cultural context, but instead became discrete objects of cultural articulation.

As modernity evolved and began to be critiqued, the notion of the self-contained articulate object began to be questioned. The frame, which was once thought to quarantine a painting from the outside world—as the pedestal did with the sculpture—began to be seen as adding content of its own. The articulate object then began to be seen to inhabit an articulate space. The history of the walls, their colour, their formlessness, their socio-political histories, babbled in an ‘herent’ (sometimes co, sometimes inco) expression of an ever-evolving contextual dialog. Around this same time the travelling exhibition began to emerge, changing art into mobile actors within institutions that continually shift and reframe their content. Exhibitions now act like nicknames, each community knowing an art object by a different moniker, and each teasing out different elements of the exhibited objects. With each new exhibit art objects are placed in conversation with new environments and other actors. The stability of the object/actor, and the exhibition is never stable. The artwork as noun and the exhibition as noun continually reconfigure through the accumulations and sedimentations of history and through evolving discursive frames as they are added to and reshaped through translation and critical commentary.

Woodcock’s “Untitled” expresses the instability of the curatorial and institutional frame. It does not only render the exhibition a sculpture of contingencies, but it also articulates my inability to concretely articulate its meaning. With the curatorial voice acting as just one amongst the plethora of articulate objects and sites, any ability to orchestrate a predetermined outcome becomes useless. Woodcock pulls the act of titling, of claiming ownership, of articulating, out of the realm of apparent coherent meaning making and returns it to a state of dismantled nomadic and socially contingent matter. The linguistic matter piled together in “Untitled”, and its encouraged misinterpretations, are waiting for the messiness of colliding meanings, feet, and interpretations to add a temporary sedimentation to its construction as noun, while disavowing any truth obtained by such an act. By abstracting the language of the exhibition, it returns the frame to a space preceding authorial intention and predetermined meaning, allowing it to operate within the same structure as the contingent nouns it is supposed to contain.

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