Concrete Language

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      At the Contemporary Art Gallery until November 5

      At the bird house in the Berlin Zoo, human visitors stare upwards. They tilt their heads back, their eyes dart from side to side, their mouths open and close, and bird sounds””chirping, whistling, chittering, clattering, cawing””seem to issue from their moving lips. What language, Filipa César's wordless video asks us, is being spoken here? What flock do we belong to?

      Recently installed at the Contemporary Art Gallery, Concrete Language features work by 15 emerging and established artists, local and international. The title's suggestion of concrete poetry is intentional. All the art on view employs or refers to language””or its absence””in a way that creates a visual impact while also asking us to reconsider our assumptions about the nature of communication. Media range from neon lettering to etched and tinted mirrors, bronze sculpture, and wave-like stacks of newsprint publications.

      Language is hardly a new presence in western art: words have been folded into images for centuries. The last hundred years, however, have revealed much of language's quite separate potential for formalist beauty, material presence, and intellectual provocation. From Pablo Picasso to Andy Warhol, and from Ed Ruscha to Jenny Holzer, the list of artists who have worked with text is way beyond long.

      Ian Wallace's Times Square Intersection NYC (TKTS), a colour photograph laminated on canvas, flanked by bright yellow and glossy white bars of paint, gives us a compressed view of a language-saturated urban environment. From huge-scale theatre advertising to traffic signs to text-shrouded scaffolding, it's a word jungle out there””and back here, in our overstimulated brains. More introspectively, Denise Oleksijczuk has created a continuous hand crank–operated scroll of run-on quotations, all about the agony that marks the end of romance. Perennial Love's sources range from William Shakespeare and Miguel de Cervantes to Alice Munro and Radiohead. From “pale grew thy cheek and cold, colder, thy kiss”  to “I WANT MY RECORDS BACK” , it's a wonderful piece””hilarious, heartbreaking, and too, too chronically human.

      Language becomes an assault weapon in Dakota, by Young-hae Chang Heavy Industries. A six-minute work of sound and flash animation, it shoots fast-moving block text onto a white screen against a thrashing track of loud and increasingly frenzied drumming. Although it's difficult to read all the words as they flash by, a day-in-the-life narrative of an ordinary Joe emerges with snatches of incident, anecdote, and dialogue inflected by paranoia, despair, and pseudo-metaphysics. It's a brutal and thrilling piece to experience. Eyes, ears, and sternum are continuously battered by something that is much too much like contemporary life.

      Punctuation marks also appear as art here, including Laurel Woodcock's two sets of quotation marks, one worked in pink aluminum, the other in blue neon. Both sets are mounted around conspicuous empty spaces, gaps that evoke many aspects of failed communication, from the “quote-unquote”  banality of everyday speech to the poststructuralist suggestion that language has been emptied of meaning.

      Language void of meaning is a theme that recurs in the show's intelligent and articulate curatorial essay, by Jenifer Papararo and Christina Ritchie. Here, we're reminded that behind language as art stands language about art””criticism, scholarship, theory””which refracts, reflects, and complicates our encounters with the works themselves. Linguistic theory tells us that meaning is elusive, slippery, ungraspable. It's a wiggling eel, a wisp of smoke, a snake slithering out of its skin. Still, at some point, we have to surrender that position and assume that the words we put down here are going to signify something out there.

      We have to believe that they'll find some lodging point of common understanding””or why else do it? Why else draw, paint, sculpt, or make videos? Why print words in tabloid-format chapbooks or cut them out of vinyl or powder-coated aluminium, unless to communicate something to our fellow human beings?