176 Prince of Wales Road
London NW5 3PT
01 March to 10 June 2012
Weighted Words shows us words don't have to 'speak' for art or be in a supplementary relationship to it. These nine artists explore how words multiply meaning, playing as big a role as texture and colour in an artwork. Specifically, political language is explored and shown in its multiple dimensions—but the common thread here is that its power to move and incite diminishes over time, for good and bad.
Glen Ligon is the most established artist here, with his print works taking up the first room. His written word artwork Negro Sunshine is suspended above, the pale yellow serif font appearing ethereal in the natural light from the windows. Ligon has previously said that the phrase, taken from Gertrude Stein's Melanctha, a novella about a mixed race woman, is not intended to shock. But Ligon's other works play on the tension between their decorative nature and the historically laden quotes he uses. He prints a young Richard Pryor's words in black block letters on a gold canvas downstairs. It says: 'I was a nigger for 23 years. But I gave that shit up. No room for advancement'. The joke's worn off, but the phrase has acquired new meanings, especially now with the commercialisation of rap and its use of 'taboo' language. It hangs opposite two pieces with black paint so thick it's been sponged off, the words formerly there leaving a pocked 3D texture. They act as a negative to the blithe quotes facing them, showing how words leave powerful traces that inform our actions, even as we try to forget the original meanings.
Similarly, Anri Sala's video piece Lakkat explores how meaning is always escaping us—emphasised by the youth of his subjects. The title hints at this conundrum: Lakkat means 'one whose native tongue is different from the language of the place where he is'. Two Senegalese boys fumble with words in their native Wolof, their attempts at articulation undercut by subtitles in English or French. Eventually the broken words turn into rhythms with their own volition. Their verbal struggles are interspersed with images of a neon tube light with moths draped on it. The strange juxtaposition echoes the complexity of Wolof, shot through with the colonising influences of French and Arabic.
Alexander Singh's dramatic set pieces bring some humour to the show. The Dialogue of The Objects I-V sees quills, balloons, wine glasses, maps and radios arranged in groups of three on podiums. They debate in the manner of characters in a Woody Allen film, discussing dinner party topics like property in Brooklyn and their relationships with their wayward children. The two glasses attack the radio for its passive consumption, for the way it uses other people's words without inputting its own. This is politics in the domestic sphere. All these objects are redundant on their own but they also do not work in conjunction. But Singh cleverly makes us the viewer to their interaction rather than the commentator on their meaning.
Similarly, Mary Reid Kelley's film You Make Me Iliad injects humour into old forms. She uses heroic couplets for her refashioning of the classic which features a sex worker Helen of Troy, resembling a Day of the Dead Catrina with her enormous blank eyes, and exaggerated black-outlined mouth. Kelley makes her the focus of the film. Helen mocks the Homer-like narrator: 'You scribes just utilise a different orifice.’ The pain of articulating her own thoughts on language for the first time is evident, as she childishly pops a sweet in her mouth to draw attention away from her speech.
The relationship between music and lyrics are explored in two complimentary pieces of work. Dani Gal's Historical Records Archive is lined up against the wall of the Zabludowicz's mezzanine floor. Each album is a recording or memento of a historical event, including Diana and Charles’ wedding, the McCarthy trials and Black Family Day. Did buyers sit and listen to narrative versions of historical events, narrated by television presenter Edward R.Murrow, in the privacy of their home? The (superficially) unilateral meaning of these national events with their ceremonies and stamp of officialdom fragment, and take on personal meanings. Together these sampled bits of history in their cardboard sleeves come alive, not cohering to make a neat narrative, but hinting at secret lives and unofficial uses.
In comparison, the songs inside Ruth Ewan's A Jukebox of People Trying to Change the World seem literally entombed in the shiny machinery. Ewan has collected over 2,000 songs, with not more than two by the same artist or band. The ongoing project even saw her create a special digital radio in 2009 which broadcast the archive to Frieze festival attendees. The jukebox is divided into odd 'genres', such as 'people' and 'feminism', with musical boundaries being crossed within these rigid categories. Listeners could listen for oddities such as 'Mitterrand's Last Meal' all day, standing in the otherwise bare room, but there is something antiseptic about the experience, antithetical to the grime and sweat of protest.
Ryan Trecartin and Ed Atkins both use video as their medium, with their respectively manic and meditative works grounded by scripts and preparatory writing. Atkins uses subtitles to propel the choice of images in Death Mask, while Trecartin's episodes of Any Ever build on the fast, compulsive streams of social networking.
But it is the political work here which answers the question in the guide: “How can words produce feelings, emotions and reactions?” Omer Fast's work Her Face Was Covered I and II is the most potent, and the most engaged in this often cynical selection of work. Here, the failure of communication between people and with technology as mediator is fatal. There are two projections in the side room , which both 'show' the same event. Part I features official aerial footage of an "incident" in a war zone where a woman is shot dead for approaching weapons on a US army convoy. No-one was sure that the victim was a woman because of her 'robes', it's repeated by officers. Part II breaks down the footage into slides of pictures correlating to words spoken by the officers, as well as isolated direct quotes from Part I. Fast uses Google images to match words on the first screen, echoing the failure of the camera to identify the woman despite the mention of its powerful lens. The disconnect between the two screens - the genderless woman, and the Google image of a beautiful Greek female nude – is stark. The viewer is forced to alternate between the two versions of the events, neither yielding a definitive account, showing us how we try to interpret even before we understand what's actually going on.
While miscommunication, historical abuses, and re-appropriation are common factors in this selection, there is also anarchic pleasure in twisting words, breaking them up, turning them into noise. The artists at Weighted Words skilfully exploit the sensual and visual aspect of words, while exulting in the impossibility of securing unilateral meanings with them.
Zakia Uddin is an East London-based writer who has previously written for Time Out, Londonist, Dazed & Confused, The Guardian, and The Wire.view all articles from this author