The Henry Moore Institute, Leeds
7 July – 26 November 2023
The works shown in ‘The Weight of Words’ force an oscillation between looking and reading, with meaning produced by dint of a quivering discomfort. It can be difficult to look at artwork containing and featuring words, partly because as an aesthetic tactic, this has been so successfully recuperated into junk. Surely, I can’t be the only visitor thinking about some spoken-word-
poetry bank advert or a ‘live, laugh, love’ wall vinyl, whilst trying to reach a state of serious contemplation. But much of the work on show here is aware of its objecthood, meaning that the difficulty and discomfort in viewing also serve to highlight the points at which artworks cut through and connect on a level of genuine feeling, and this in turn speaks to the show’s invocation of ‘weight’, in both physical and emotional terms.
The distorting lens of capitalist overproduction and the ubiquity of the printed word are intentionally present here, notably in Mark Manders’s Notional Newspapers (2005-22), which have been pasted over the gallery’s glass doors and seek to use every word in the English language once, and the work of Shanzhai Lyric, whose Incomplete Poem (hedge) (2023) forms a node in their ongoing research practice, which stems from an interest in shanzhai, a contemporary Chinese term for imitation counterfeit products, a parodic copy, like bootleg slogan T-shirts. Materials matter in Lyric’s sculptural border, built from bootleg clothing, with the title referring both to the contemporary global hedge fund and the history of enclosures in Britain. This is also true of Anthony (Vahni) Capildeo’s Word Fishing (2023), which is installed on the gallery’s black-green marble frontage. Addressing the building’s material mineral history, this work consists of slippery phrases like “transparency changes at depth” rendered in cyan-blue vinyl illustrations of fish and text (made by illustrator Molly Fairhurst). This work is also perhaps the most troublesome in terms of its interaction with popular visual cultures, due in part to the peculiarities of this site.
In the context of a post-industrial northern English city where practices of ‘artwashing’ are common, brightly coloured vinyl decorations or commissioned murals can signal an attempt to downplay economic mismanagement rather than creative flourishing. This reading, which might indicate naivety on the part of the artist, is contradicted by my previous experience of Capildeo’s work in an online conversation with artist Simone Forti as part of the Poetry & Sculpture research season which preceded this exhibition when it was delayed due to Covid-19. The seeming incongruity here exemplifies how economic and social context can distort artists’ intentions in interesting ways, and this is a sense that remains with me throughout.
While it is impressive to encounter a breadth of artwork by artists of different generations and geographies, the exhibition as a whole can feel overwhelming and overcrowded. I find myself drawn to the works with a familiar sculptural materiality. In the stony silence of Doris Salcedo’s Untitled (2008), pieces of domestic wooden furniture are fused together by concrete, creating blocks of a statuesque but not monumental scale. The works of Simone Fattal with Etel Adnan, and Pavel Büchler are also sensitively placed in proximity with each other in the central room of three. In Five Senses for One Death (2020) Fattal re-inscribed a poem of the same name by Adnan, originally written in watercolour and ink in 1969 with oxide on volcanic rock, whereas Büchler’s Still Life with Dust (2017) employs years’ worth of dust as ink. In these three works, a fragile sense of stability meets the possibility of being demolished and swept away.
In the furthest room of the gallery are a selection of works in light and sound that exemplify communication and its impossibilities. Caroline Bergvall and Ciarán Ó Meachair’s Say Parsley (2001-23) has been adapted for this presentation to embrace local dialects and political history, with Irish and English pronunciation and spellings speaking against and over one another. The work’s title references a horrific recent example of shibboleth, where tens of thousands of Creole Haitians were massacred because they failed to pronounce perejil (parsley) in the accepted Spanish manner, and demonstrates how the works on view here contain such a depth of significance, in words and in presence. As such, those that have either been remade or commissioned for this exhibition assert themselves, alongside an extensive accompanying programme of events and new writing that emphasises how the themes invoked here are unconfined within the static and temporary exhibition.
Lauren Velvick is a curator and writer based in Huddersfield.