Ecstatic Alphabets, Heaps of Language

At the MoMA, an exhibition displays historical works swinging between anxiety and ambivalence, emotions seemingly inevitable in response to the immense power (and attendent limitations) of written communication.

The floorplan of Ecstatic Alphabets/Heaps of Language , on the second floor of the Museum of Modern Art, is shaped like a lopsided "T." Visitors enter at the stem of the letter, which courses through the history of twentieth-century art animated by language and language given artistic form. From the earliest examples, like El Lissitzky's Dila golosa, they tease apart the connection between sign and signified through modes of interruption largely inspired by the technology of printing. Cones and drums by Marcel Duchamp and Liliane Lijn literally give the words motion (and in the process demonstrate how fickle their legibility can be); Dexter Sinister's catalogue for the exhibition, along with the Brazilian journal Noigandres , include texts that attempt at intervals to rationalize and idealize language, at once to purify it and to demonstrate its essential muddiness.

The poster Zang! Tumb Tumb (If You Want It) by Dutch provocateurs Experimental Jetset characterizes the internal conflict intrinsic to much of this work. A riff on John Lennon and Yoko Ono's 1970 War Is Over poster, it upends the original intention by substituting the chaotic voice of F. T. Marinetti — whose novel, Zang Tumb Tumb (1914) is the account of a battle in which he fought as a Futurist-soldier: "We will glorify war, the world's only hygiene — militarism, patriotism, and the destructive gesture of freedom-bringers…" Experimental Jetset's poster, populating the large anti-war type of John Lennon and Yoko Ono's poster with a clashing message, is, in a sense, what linguists call a "snowclone" — a phrase-template in which the meaningful elements can be filled with analogous ones, but whose gestural meaning and grammatic structure remains the same. (The name comes from the journalist's cliché "if Eskimos have 50 words for 'snow', x must have n words for y ." And much of the art in this section posits objects or ends that are within reach — "If You Want It" — as if being "in reach" is merely a matter of saying so.)
<em>Ecstatic Alphabets/Heaps of Language</em> installation view at the MoMA. © The Museum of Modern Art, New York
Ecstatic Alphabets/Heaps of Language installation view at the MoMA. © The Museum of Modern Art, New York
The historical works here swing between anxiety and ambivalence, emotions seemingly inevitable in response to the immense power (and attendent limitations) of written communication. In an essay in Frieze (June-August 2009), Jan Verwoert puzzled over the complexity of Conceptual art's linguistic idiom, which is at once pointedly neutral and opaquely prickly:
Experimental Jetset's <em>Zang! Tumb Tumb (If You Want It)</em> on display at <em>Ecstatic Alphabets/Heaps of Language</em>, MoMA. © The Museum of Modern Art, New York
Experimental Jetset's Zang! Tumb Tumb (If You Want It) on display at Ecstatic Alphabets/Heaps of Language , MoMA. © The Museum of Modern Art, New York
"At the heart of the code, we sense the presence of a secret: the key to a way of thinking and of doing things that seems intimately connected with the spirit of the early 1970s. To understand the meaning of the radical rupture that Conceptual art constitutes, one would need to find a way of tapping the experience from which it resulted. To say that Conceptual art became hermetic is a way of describing a specific sensation, namely — to attempt a shorthand definition of "hermetic" — that of confronting artefacts or articulations that defy common modes of interpretation and instead, through innuendo, hint at a body of experiences into which one would have to initiate oneself first to be able to grasp the full implications of their significance."
The great malleability of the word — its "arbitrariness" as Saussure saw it — makes it a powerful device to twist, distort, rearrange, and otherwise challenge its comprehensibility without undermining the connection altogether
<em>Ecstatic Alphabets/Heaps of Language</em> installation view at the MoMA. © The Museum of Modern Art, New York
Ecstatic Alphabets/Heaps of Language installation view at the MoMA. © The Museum of Modern Art, New York
Such an "innuendo" runs underneath Zang! Tumb Tumb, along with Kay Rosen's Shaped Words, and Robert Smithson's Heaps of Language, all of which are entangled with the specifically visual aspects of the linguistic sign. The great malleability of the word — its "arbitrariness" as Saussure saw it — makes it a powerful device to twist, distort, rearrange, and otherwise challenge its comprehensibility without undermining the connection altogether.
<em>Ecstatic Alphabets/Heaps of Language</em> installation view at the MoMA. © The Museum of Modern Art, New York
Ecstatic Alphabets/Heaps of Language installation view at the MoMA. © The Museum of Modern Art, New York
At the crossbar of the exhibition's "T" shape, there are double-doors that enter into a more spacious back area, which focuses on contemporary works. Here, the focus on the idioms of printing give way to more recent developments. Tauba Auerbach's bravura RGB Colorspace Atlas at once anatomizes a language of digital color representation and re-encodes it into analogue form: books are printed edge-to-edge, top-to-bottom, based on the three-dimensional red-green-blue color model sliced at various biases. Their pages, across which gradients cascade, liberate into pigment the rippling shades usually caged two-dimensionally in Photoshop's color picker.
<em>Ecstatic Alphabets/Heaps of Language</em> installation view at the MoMA. © The Museum of Modern Art, New York
Ecstatic Alphabets/Heaps of Language installation view at the MoMA. © The Museum of Modern Art, New York
Paul Elliman's Found Fount and My Typographies collect odds and ends — various man-man objects: "dead scissors," "paste jewelry" — that form themselves into matrices, mimicking the internal variety and continuity between glyphs of a given typeface. They are chosen partially, in the words of the wall text, by "a size criterion: each of the elements must be small enough to fit in the mouth or passed from hand to hand, like money."
<em>Ecstatic Alphabets/Heaps of Language</em> installation view at the MoMA. © The Museum of Modern Art, New York
Ecstatic Alphabets/Heaps of Language installation view at the MoMA. © The Museum of Modern Art, New York
If you take a couple of lefts on your way out the exhibition you will come across Mel Bochner's 1970 piece, Misunderstandings (A Theory of Photography) — which includes an index card on which the artist has written an excerpt from Ludwig Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations. Though targeted at photography, the quote casts a net that may better encompass the hypostasis of these heaps of language, that are both language and image, fully abstract and fully concrete. "Let us remember we don't have to translate such pictures into realistic ones in order to 'understand' them ... Something is a picture only in picture-language." Zachary Sachs
<em>Ecstatic Alphabets/Heaps of Language</em> installation view at the MoMA. © The Museum of Modern Art, New York
Ecstatic Alphabets/Heaps of Language installation view at the MoMA. © The Museum of Modern Art, New York
Through 27 August 2012
Ecstatic Alphabets/Heaps of Language
MoMA
New York

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