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Alan Munton reviews the Wor(l)ds in Collision exhibition

Wor(l)ds in Collision: An exhibition of artwork intersecting with the philosophy of Ludwig Wittgenstein

(Curated by Jaime Robles and Mike Rose-Steel. At Byrne House, University of Exeter, Streatham Campus, 12 June to 31 January 2016.) 

This outstanding exhibition is, of course, a game. ‘The artworks here’, writes Mike Rose-Steel in his ‘Wittgensteinian introduction’ to wor(l)ds in collision ‘are engaged in various forms of play, translation or reconfiguration’. The setting for this show was a house at the edge of the main campus of Exeter University, where you walk in upon the exhibits in the hallway, there to encounter a screen busily engaging in wordplay. You could then either go upstairs, engaging with artworks on the walls, or head into the main exhibition room, where the sheer variety of objects became apparent. Notable among these was the structure that held, hanging to be read, cards bearing the 50 or more poems written by the Exegesis collective, who are Jaime Robles, Mike Rose-Steel and SMSteele. The hanging poems are entitled The Wittgenstein Vector, which was first exhibited as an outdoor campus installation attached to a tall Victorian brick wall; on each card is a proposition from the Tractatus, with a poem on the reverse. You engage by reading the exhibit. 
Vectors are important here, which is why I began by describing the direction(s) you might have taken through the exhibition space. Arrows in collision appear on the cover of the catalogue, for vectors not only indicate direction, they also have magnitude: so as you walk up to (or past) the suspended poems, and read them you are, as it were, behaving vectorially. So it is that vectors work with objects in space at the same time as they persuade us to consider what is being said, which may belong to time. And what is being said here – whether in the poems or the artworks or the animating quotations from Wittgenstein – is complex and fascinating. 
These artworks speak. Look (literally) at what one of John Hall’s framed word poems does with the word ‘lucidity’. The new word divides like this: lo/ose/id/ity – but the ‘id’ is sideways in red, the ‘ity’ upside down in dark blue (a description in words isn’t possible, such is the artful disturbance). Extractable meanings: being lucid can mean being loose; don’t lose it; the id is involved with the identity that speaks; and the ends of words (a) don’t matter so much, or (b) are crucial to meaning, whatever you have done to the word.  
Among the Vector poems, Mike Rose-Steel admires a cat: ‘it is princely/toying with a cat’s ear’; then, as the cat settles on a table, language supervenes:
If/so          if/so.
Your name and its momentum 
    Run with the grain of fur.
As the cat gets named – though we don’t learn the name – that unknown word is given momentum, so that it now possesses the forward force of an embodied vector. The vectored cat enters language. The other members of the Exegesis group think variously about Wittgenstein: for Suzanne Steele ‘it was about love and trying to make sense of love’, and in a poem she inevitably turns to specify language: ‘What is it in the noise of love/That we so silent speak so loud…/Lament the words we said we’d keep’. Jaime Robles chooses opaque quotations from the Tractatus and elsewhere that permit her then to write ‘as if the central terms meant something other than they did in the course of Wittgenstein’s logic’. Robles describes this approach, strikingly, as ‘perverse, naïve and sensual’. For these writers the philosopher’s words do not dominate, but are a resource that establishes new relationships. 
This is true of the other writers and artists here for whom Wittgenstein is a direct point of reference. The most distinguished is Johanna Drucker, the American artist and theorist, whose Wittgenstein’s Gallery (1989) was represented here by an intriguing pair of images named Transitive / Intransit(ive). In the first a real velvet square is threatened by an ink drawing of a knife and its cutting blade, and in the second the knife has ‘cut into’ the actual velvet. This is interesting enough on an object-image basis, but is made more complex by the question that Drucker asks: ‘What does it mean to ‘take’ an object – that is, if one is a verb?’ Here – and the point is difficult – the artist is enquiring into what happens when language behaves as if it were an object active in the real world, and an object behaves like language. The wider point is the Wittgensteinian one that the misuse of grammar causes most of philosophy. 
There was also plenty of work in this exhibition not conceived with Wittgenstein in mind, but which nevertheless ‘intersects’ with his thought, as the show’s subtitle carefully puts it. Tony Lopez’s striking installation More and More is (he says) ‘a kinetic poem’ made up of 66 quotations that appear on a simulacrum of an airport departure board, whizzing through the letters of the alphabet until the intended words compose themselves. Several of the quotations are from Gertrude Stein, but others are from guessable and unguessable sources: this might be from a Vatican announcement: ‘THE POPE IS/BREATHING ON HIS OWN/BUT HAS BEEN TOLD/NOT TO SPEAK.’ The effect is mesmerising, as the viewer encounters a succession of different registers, variously enigmatic or comic or bland or spectacular. This is a display of the living language in all its dismaying limitations. 
Alan Halsey published a selected poems in 2000 entitled Wittgenstein’s Devil, but the work here is from 2010’s In White Writing, a digital print series where a complex process beginning with a collage (materials from the wastepaper basket) is worked upon by hand in pen and then scanned electronically, again worked upon and scanned, and reversed to give white print on black. The outcome is a fascinating mix of designs and words, squiggles and letters, which shows how language may be played with. It is a knowing game done within range of the philosopher, and witty and enigmatic at the same time. 
Digital technology recurs in Richard Carter’s Morse Matrix (2015) where written messages are encoded by a Morse system, the words eliminated, and a design created through digital display technology. The process is fascinating, even if the outcome is rather formal; this work signifies that what we call ‘digital’ now has a history that can be (re)enacted, as here. It is intriguing that this process should eliminate language altogether, and favour the visible. 
Like Drucker and Halsey, the American Sas Colby is a maker of artist’s books, but hers are one-of-a-kind. Here, language and painting meet arbitrarily: a detail from Piero is copied and then overwritten in contemporary language: ‘GIVING/ OURSELVES/OVER/TO ART/MAYBE THE/LEAST/GUARDED/THING THAT/WE DO IN PUBLIC’. What has been copied is a detail – in Italian, particolare – from Piero’s The Legend of the True Cross that shows the Queen of Sheba and her attendants. Colby has copied it rather crudely, and altered the colours somewhat, but the real point is the intrusion of contemporary language upon this disrespectful version of a revered original, to give us Piero della Francesca: Particolare (2004 and 2015). The words over the image are by the New Yorker’s art critic Peter Schjeldahl, and they impose his subjective point of view upon the objective ‘greatness’ of the original. 
David Connearn’s white is also a kind of black (2015) repays close attention. It is an ink on paper design of minutely-wavy horizontal lines, drawn with close intensity. The first line is executed freehand, and is inevitably not entirely straight, so when the second line follows the first it must waver slightly: and so on down the page. Connearn has been doing this for many years. There seems to be no language-content to this work. Connearn’s link with Wittgenstein lies in his sustained attempts since 2009 to conserve and restore the house at Skjolden in Norway where the Philosophical Investigations were written in 1936-37. The house, designed by Wittgenstein, was removed in 1957 and poorly set up elsewhere, and both that and the original site require conservation. 
Finally, Dan Wood’s acrylic paintings draw attention to an important aspect of the exhibition as a whole, its concern with space and trajectory. These designs have a pleasing angularity and bright colour, as if Mondriaan had become animated by unusual shapes. They insist that space is a determinant, both of the created image and of this exhibition space itself. If we factor in the special determinant here, that language has caused these art objects to exist, then a more complex situation arises. There is structured mental activity that breaks out disrespectfully into the world; the language-relation between the given and the imagined; and the creative subject surrounded by inanimate but provocative objects: this exhibition embodies such relationships. As Jaime Robles writes in the catalogue: ‘Here the worlds of the spoken and unspoken, the seen and the unseeable, collide, and are reborn’. That is what makes this exhibition so interesting, so important. 
26 November 2015