Curating the Chrystal of the Tongue
Reverse everything. Make women the point of departure in judging, make darkness the point of departure in judging what men call light, make obscurity the point of departure in judging what men call clarity. (Marguerite Duras)
One of the remarkable qualities of the Lacan Salon is its interdisciplinarity. The Salon is comprised of a mathematician, poet, geographer, counselor, philosopher, filmmaker, a few artists, anti-psychiatry activists and a psychoanalyst, amongst others. This composition makes for compelling engagements, as each of us reads Lacan’s texts through the structure of our own practice. When I first read “The Function and Field of Speech and Language in Psychoanalysis” (Rome Discourse, 1953), which was to frame the 2013 LaConference, I was compelled to read it through my practice as a curator, and consider what the function and field of speech and language in visual art may be. As I’m continuing to understand the text, Lacan articulates the significance of Freud’s tenets of psychoanalysis. One tenet is the function of the subject’s speech, which is to be recognized – if only by the speaker or by the silence of a witness (205-206). A second tenet is the field of language, which acknowledges that all experience is mediated by language and determined by its symbolic order. Therefore, it is not as important what happened or how it was experienced, but how it is expressed by the subject and the structure and order of that expression (227).
When I consider the correlatives in visual art, particularly what would parallel the primacy of speech in visual language, the mark comes to mind. It could be the drawn mark, the painted mark, the printed mark, the stained mark, the cut mark, the etched mark, the dyed mark or the redacted mark. As the word is drawn from the body via the tongue to form speech, the mark is drawn via the hand to form an image. Similarly, the function of the mark is also to be recognized – if only by its maker or by the silence of a witness. Likewise, when I consider what may parallel the structure and order of the subject’s expression, I think about style, the way a mark is enacted–the decisions an artist makes about what materials, mediums and tools to use, and how to use them. The field of style also encompasses the lexicon of references that influence an artist’s practice.
My inquiry led me to curate the exhibition, Crystal Tongue at EXERCISE between May 31- June 29, 2013. It takes its name in part from “Radiophonie”, a transcription of a series of radio interviews with Lacan that were broadcast by Radio Télévision Belge Francophone in June, 1970. We read this article in the Salon’s spring 2013 term. Throughout the interview, Lacan refers to the crystal effect of language (6), to crystallinguistics (6), and to the crystal of the tongue (17). He poses a crystalline structure as a simile for the homophonic nature of language. The exhibition was also influenced by a chapter in Gilles Delueze’s Cinema 2: The Time Image published in 1989, called “The crystals of time”. Deleuze addresses the collapse of time and space in post-WWII cinematic montage, which gives an image two facets, creating a circuitry of virtual–actual, past–present, object–reflection and perception–recollection. The third influence on the name came from a silk poem by Tiziana La Melia called Broom Emotion (2011), “HE SAID THESE STARING / GAMES ARE DON’T MAKE IT A / FACT HE STARED AT THE PANSY / AND THE PANSY AT THE / CHARCOAL TONGUE / OF SUN.”
Exhibiting Crystal Tongue at EXERCISE was important because I wanted to work with artists who were already conversant with each other about their practices. EXERCISE was a project space that hosted artist studios, a gallery and tavern, built and run by Nicole Ondre and Vanessa Disler from 2011- 2013¹. Both Ondre and Disler worked in the studios and programmed exhibitions of their peers, collaborators and teachers, including Elizabeth Macintosh, Yun Hee Min, Sally Späth, Marina Pinsky, Rebecca Brewer and Tiziana La Melia. EXERCISE was a space for production, reception, interpretation and response, by its own means and on its own terms. Truly an artist-run space, EXERCISE was the ideal context to present a process-based exhibition that evolved out of dialogue between the exhibiting artists, EXERCISE, the LaConference and gallery visitors.
I wanted to frame an open forum for interpretation of the artworks and the curatorial composition. Rather than frontload the exhibition with a curatorial text that defined the marks, the artist’s intent or influences, I thought it would be more compelling for the meaning of the exhibition to make itself throughout its duration. To this end, each artist was invited to program one event that would speak to, or parallel their work. The events were held every Saturday evening – the only time the gallery was open to the public. There was no expectation put on the artists to take up psychoanalytic discourse, Lacan, or the concerns of the conference. I was more interested in generating conversations that made each artist’s markand style legible by exposing their field of materials, processes and influences.
Crystal Tongue featured Vancouver-based artists Rebeca Brewer, Vanessa Disler, Tiziana La Melia, Marie-Hélène Tessier and Elizabeth Zvonar, who each work in a variety of mediums such as lithography, bronze sculpture, silk painting, monoprinting, print collage and acrylic painting. Works were selected to highlight a range of mark-making strategies. To emphasize the mark, I minimized variables such as color, and chose work that is primarily black and white. The gallery was also painted black, in part to reflect the mark of curation.
The works were positioned in a loose continuum that moved from marks that form words–to the letter symbol–to line and shape–to the line that forms the figure obscuring the letter symbol–to the obscured figure. Because the gallery is a polygon, the works were more available to each other. The instability of five planes rather than the certainty of four, fit the exhibition’s structure, which was its own multifaceted crystal.
Marie-Hélène Tessier’s This Needs Something More; ‘Cause It Ain’t Killing Painting–No It’s Just About Remembering Something Forever About La Sonate de Vinteuil (2007) is acrylic paint and text on a 72 x 48 inch panel of wood. It is a process-based work that was made at a time when Tessier was negotiating her emerging interest in writing and its tension with her painting. La Sonate de Vinteuil is an imaginary violin and piano sonata written by the fictitious composer Vinteuil in Marcel Proust’s A La Recherche Du Temps Perdu/ In Search of Lost Time. In the narrative, Charles Swann is struck by vivid reflections and eclipsing emotions whenever he listens to the composition. Tessier was fascinated by Proust’s notes on involuntary memory and stream of consciousness writing, which inform her own critical paranoid method. In preparation for inhabiting the work, which Tessier calls returning to the double–the fragile breath of desire and presence–she collated her own writing with her research on Proust. After applying a dry white acrylic ground, followed by a wet black acrylic cover, Tessier conjured a melody like the Sonate de Vinteul that would evoke her own involuntary memory. She scratched her thoughts in french into the black field, exposing a white text. Up close the text is legible–though lines are written across each other, the black paint smudges and negating lines cross out thoughts creating white eroded gaps. Viewed at a distance, the distinction of words dissolves into sharp and choppy waves cut into a black sea, leaning slightly into the wind of a quickly moving hand, to produce text as texture.
Clockwise from This Needs Something More was Vanessa Disler’s Dream Journal (2012), a set of 16, 18.5 x 24 inch monoprints made with oil paint. They were produced during a residency at the Banff Centre in 2012, during which Disler staged her studio as an analyst’s office. She arranged stacks of books on the floor, potted plants on stands and leather chairs as they may be set in an office. The couch was her table where she worked on monoprints that she imagined could be covers for a dream journal. But Disler’s analyst’s office was unique, as there was no analyst. And although she experiences night terrors and vivid dreams, she had no intention of analyzing them.
Like Tessier, Disler worked subtractively to make her images. She applied oil paint to a plexiglass plate then worked the paint with a dry brush before covering it with paper and running it through a press. Rather than cleaning the plate and starting with a fresh field of paint, Disler continued to work the plexi surface and run prints until all of the ink was absorbed into paper. Disler’s method produced a series of prints that are not identical but bear echoes of each other. For example, two images in the second row feature the shape of a capital “U”, though one is black with sharp zig-zagging lines and pointed shapes crossing it, and the other is grey and consumed in a cumulous cloud of circling lines. The print that was used for the LaConference poster reads, this is a dream, in reverse and upside down, obscured by vertical waves and parallel lines. Throughout this series–of which there were many more prints then were exhibited–the trace of letter symbols emerge out of irregular patterns of curvilinear and ragged line shapes, some of which fray into disconnected ends, and others that streak into closed forms. Where Tessier’s words blur into erratic undulations, Disler’s letter symbols re-emerge, transfigured through dissolution.
A similar process of transfiguration is echoed in Tiziana La Melia’s Silk Clock (2013). La Melia was interested in making a silk poem that would expand the material and formal ideas from her earlier work Broom Emotion (2011). Silk Clock is composed of three silk panels that hang ceiling to floor in front of the window. La Melia hand painted the panels with silk paint and resist fluid. Each panel portrays an array of lines and shapes formed from opaque to semi-transparent to feathered marks. On one panel, meandering white paths traverse black polygons above a lightly sketched flower and a lemon shape. On another, black lines form approximations of corners, arrows and a mobius form. On the third, dispersed black dots orbit a spiral and elongated shaded triangle with dark patches. Once the curtains are hung and naturally fold, the lines are distorted and shapes merge. The visibility of overlapping lines and folds changes as light enters and recedes from the window like moving hands of a clock. The three panels are a poem formed from the syntax of light, silk and paint.
If the poetic of La Melia’s Silk Clock is the syntax of its composition, then a similar verse could be identified in Rebecca Brewer’s ongoing series The Body is the Image of the Mind (2013). The images are 26 x 40 inch black and white lithographs, blown up from 5 x7 inch colour watercolour paintings on pages ripped from a book of daily meditations by James Allen that she found in the free box outside of Banyan Books. The perpetual calendar, collated posthumously in 1913, is comprised of selections from his over 20 proto self-help publications, including the most famous, As A Man Thinketh (1902). Brewer was simultaneously compelled and repulsed by Allen’s virtuous verses. She would open the book to the day’s reading and while considering them, would paint on the pages with watercolours, transfiguring the stark text into soft compositions of posed figures, solid shapes, outlined forms and shaded fields. In the original paintings, the range of saturation progressively covers and obscures the text, with only darker outlining hues cancelling Allen’s lines. Once the images were modified to black and white, the palette was flattened to higher constrast lights and darks, obfuscating much more of the text. Brewer’s new black line redirects and obliterates Allen’s creating an ambiguous verse composed of a figurative form that feminizes the language and text that masculates the figure.
Elizabeth Zvonar’s Face (2013) is a black and white image of an effete man’s head and shoulders taken from The Facemagazine. His visage has been cut out, leaving a black void framed by crop of blond hair that is ambiguously feminine. A vermilion circle (the only colour in the exhibition) floats at the centre of his forehead, and a strip of his neck has been roughly torn out creating a duct like a river, an oxygen tube, or an umbilical cord. Like Brewer’s lithographs, this collage was once a small image, likely the same size of Allen’s pages. It has been scanned and enlarged to 30 x 48 inches and mounted on aluminum. It rests on a bronze cast pair of Mary Jane style stiletto high-heeled shoes. The wearer’s foot is in them, cut off in a ragged stump at the ankle. The collage is held in place by two bronze cast fingers that protrude from the ankle stumps. The image composition Face was produced in 2010 and the bronze stilettos independently in 2013, and they were assembled for this exhibition. Unlike Brewer’s figures, which dominate the foreground of the image obliterating the text, Zvonar’s figure is dismembered. The namesake of the work, his face is erased, and with it the anatomical symbols of knowledge, language and feeling– eyes, mouth and ears. In its place is Venus, the only planet named after a feminine figure. The symbol for Venus is a circle with a cross hanging from it, which is also the symbol for femininity and in western alchemy, for copper, which has been polished to make mirrors since antiquity. Face stands on the ground in the corner, facing the rest of the works as a witness and a mirror.
Deleuze’s crystal image, which possesses multiple facets within its single plane, has only become more prismatic in contemporary life. The breadth, dimension and texture of marks in the exhibited works, informed by the artist’s style, and the influences on that style, reveals just how many facets there are in crystal of the tongue.
To negotiate this expanse, an artist attunes to the field and turns it like a crystal–editing, composing, marking–refining the structure and order of its form and its style. When the work is exhibited, perhaps it does so as the second facet to the field’s first: the virtual to its actual, the present to its past, the reflection to its object and a recollection to its perception. Considered this way, the function of mark in visual art may be to refract light, create shadows and obfuscate the edges and surfaces of reality. Not with authority or absolution, but with the desire to illuminate the obscurity of darkness, and dim the certainty of light.
¹EXERCISE is now called MODEL. It still operates as artist studios, a gallery and tavern.
All photos taken by Dennis Ha.
Allen, James. As A Man Thinketh. 1902.
Deleuze, Gilles. Cinema 2: The Time-Image. trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Robert Galeta. Minneapolis: University of Minneapolis Press, 1989. (68-97)
Freud, Sigmund. “A Note upon the Mystic Writing Pad (1925).” General Psychological Theory. 1963.
Husserl-Kapit, Susan. “An Interview with Marguerite Duras.” Signs Vol. 1, No. 2, Winter (1975): 423-434. Print.
Lacan, Jacques. “The Function and Field of Speech and Language in Psychoanalysis.” Rome Congress. Institute of Psychology, University of Rome. Rome, Italy. 26, 27 September 1953.
“Radiophonie.” Interview with Jacques Lacan. trans. Jack. W. Stone. Paris: Scilicet 2/3 Seuil, 1970.
Proust, Marcel. In Search of Lost Time. eds. Christopher Prendergast. 6 vols. London: Allen Lane, 2002.