Saturday, 30 August 2008


Rosa Almeida: Who Is Speaking?

Barry Schwabsky, in Culturgest Museum Cat

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“Je est un autre,” wrote the poet Rimbaud—“I is somebody else.” At the beginning of her career, even before she left her postgraduate course at the Slade School in London, Rosa Almeida likewise noted that “there is something confessional in the work, though the written phrases are not confessions, as they were not written by anyone.” They are not personal, but neither are they collective and nor are they anonymous; furthermore they are not fictional, though they may be or perhaps simply seem (how could one tell the difference between being and seeming here?) personal or collective or anonymous or fictional, variously, from moment to moment.
I’d like to speak, for a moment, not as an art critic but rather (if it be permitted on this occasion) as a poet, because as a critic I can speak of my admiration for Almeida but as a poet I must speak of my envy of her. In their origin writing and painting are indistinguishable—when aleph was an ox, was it a letter or a picture? and who can say whether the pictograms on cave walls should count as inscriptions or images?—in fact their creation precedes the division between the two. Even once the two activities were definitively differentiated they remained intertwined. A Renaissance Annunciation will bear the text of the Archangel’s greeting to the Virgin; a Cubist still life will lend you a scrap of its morning paper to read. But these texts-within-the-picture remain secondary. It’s really only been since the ‘60s that language has reclaimed its full rights within the work of art. And the recentness of art’s repossession of language seems to allow the language-artist (if that’s the right word) a greater degree of freedom, a greater sense of ease and possibility, than is possible for the poet, burdened as he is by so many centuries of history—or at least that’s the case when the language-artist is Rosa Almeida.
Almeida takes her liberty with language and runs with it. That’s what I envy. Perhaps it’s not only the freedom of handling language as an artist rather than a writer that comes into it. I suspect it also has something to do with her choice of which language to use—the fact that the language in her work is English, not her own native Portuguese. If I could write this essay in Portuguese, which I can’t, perhaps it would be written with a simplicity that would allow only the most urgent parts of what I want to say. That there is a freedom in the limitations that come from using a second tongue I know firsthand: As an American who once lived in Italy, I remember how my very awkwardness and limited vocabulary allowed to take refuge, at times, in a seeming naïveté; and how this enforced simplicity, like the three simple chords through which a garage rock band must express their all, allowed me the utter clarity of utterance that’s been lost, I fear, in the nuances of my own language. I remember, too, how when a girl laughed at my funny accent or artless phrasing, I knew I was getting somewhere, knew that she liked me. And so when my eye lights upon a curious phrase in one of Almeida’s drawings or wall works that a native speaker of English would be unlikely to have hit upon—“each time lets be more simple”; “we have a skinny relationship”—or when I notice how she uses song lyrics as readymade vehicles for communication (don’t foreigners really learn English from songs more than from books? No wonder Almeida’s video More Respect gives props to Aretha) I am reminded that here that a certain passion is being made to pass, as it were, through an opening that is just a bit too narrow for it—and therefore emerging with all the more force. And I don’t laugh, but I smile, and I know this art is getting somewhere with me, that I like it.
There are really two ways to look at any of these works—but those two turn out to be one, or an infinity. You can look at them on a molecular level, starting with particular little fragments of language that catch your eye and letting their visual and semantic tone and weight sink in before starting to let your brain go to work on linking them up. Or you can take in the whole “field” comprised by the work at once, as a network of varying visual and semantic tones and weights that segue in and out of each other, and then start letting your brain pick out particular fragments to focus on, rolling around in your mind as you might roll a hard sweet candy around in your mouth. But really you inevitably do both of these things at once—and having done so, you inevitably come up with something a little different each time you look at the same work, because (taking it from the point of view of the fragment and working on up from there) these are stories that you have to rewrite for yourself each time you read them—or (this time seeing the work starting from the whole and then finding one’s way down to its molecules) they are maps that constantly change according to the constant mutation of the territory they represent, which is the wondering, wandering mind.
Whose mind, though? The inclusion of the artist’s “signature” within the drawings—but not at some secondary level of representation as in the traditional artwork but in the guise of one more language-fragment like all the others—might seem to settle the question: This is art in the first person; the voice is that of Almeida herself. But not so fast. Incorporating the name into the work this way does not accord it any special status; the point is precisely that it exists on the same level as everything else. Remember how the artist cautioned us: “They were not written by anyone.” But they—the phrases and their relationships—are constantly being rewritten every time I look at them. The constellations of thoughts reconfigure themselves, according my perceptions and desires. Suddenly another French author’s dictum comes to mind—that of Flaubert who, speaking of his most famous character, remarked, “Madame Bovary, c’est moi!” Likewise, each time I see and thereby recompose a work of Almeida’s, I have to admit, “Rosa Almeida, c’est moi.” As I enter into the feeling of the thing, it makes me its own.

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Drawing and Language,
Nuno Faria, in Afonso Henriques Foundation Cat.
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If it is true that drawing is closer to language than painting, it is equally true that it relates to language through distinct contours, appearing as aphasia, dyslexia or stammering.

Drawing is frequently that which never actually becomes, which reiterates, ever moving, which announces. Therefore there are so many designations to refer its uncertain origin: outline, draft, sketch, layout, vignette, and plan. A drawing has no structure nor is it a structure; it comes before the origin and then declines, failing to assume the form of an image, a shape or a body. A drawing is movement, wavering, it does not emerge, being at once pure emersion. Monosyllabic, as in the Ursonate from Schwitters, a vision of the far-off in Teixeira de Pascoaes; offering itself in Mallarmé, as a virtual gesture consumed by its enunciation; ill-defined as a spider or spittle, to use an image from Bataille, in Victor Hugo; a small perception of the inner seism which is merely visible, with Michaux; or nearly an expression of clairvoyant disorder, with Artaud.

This is the linage we should reclaim here, of poet-artists or artist-poets (the order is random) who have dived into de abyss of language-drawing.


Language, or rather still, the line-out of language is the theme of Rosa Almeida’s work. In this sense, Rosa Almeida’s creations pose straight on a question: drawing cannot be placed at a two-dimensional plane. It is not, in fact, confined to any type of preconception.

The artist places the drawing on a distinct plane, an intermediate space of invisibility. In this case, drawing is not a character, nor a line, nor is it known by the uniformity of a surface, paper. We recognize in the drawing what we don’t see, and thus identification as a drawing becomes so curious, regardless of the drawing in question - a drawing which lines out language.

Maybe the emersion of the drawing occurs precisely when two planes are articulated. On one hand, the plane of writing, traced out, filled through a mould, typed, always disburdened from a handwritten quality, even though its manifestation occurs at the surface, as a virtual and distanced mark, as a fictional space. On the other hand lies a reality plain, embodied by the use of semantically dissonant materials – wire, plastic, small pieces in metal, corrector paint, a sheet of reflective plastic, and so on – often appearing as a violent, erased, spatial distortion.

The first is placed at a conceptual space; the second belongs to a physical space, conveying each spectator towards a reflexive relationship in their own space, their own linguistic coordinates, and their own “word/entity body”. A drawing appears precisely in that indistinct plane between myopia and hypermetropia, between aphasia and stammering, tangible as a poem or circular as a litany.

Regarding this, says Rosa Almeida: “In my work, language in drawing always refers to the living experience of space.”

Articulation and movement are two structural vectors of Rosa Almeida’s work. The question of drawing as an articulation is a reasonable one. It is the spectator’s function, while facing a determined piece, to understand that a drawing begins at the exact moment a perceptive relationship is established, that such is a fundamental axis. To command, to choose, to classify recurring sentences and fragments which appear and cross the spectator’s visibility space is a task which reveals the assemblage. It is at the spectator’s level that a drawing emerges from the plane of the work as moving image, continuously being edited.

The hors-champ of Rosa Almeida’s images ends up by renouncing the page, as the faltered and reiterated space of drawing, and overcomes writing as a machine which produces meanings. Space can be thus understood as a fundamental coordinate in Rosa Almeida’s project. The real complexity of the author’s work can be consequently assessed, as a demanding perceptive totality in which the body of the spectator completes the sense of the work.

Memory is also between two planes: time and imagination. In Rosa Almeida’s work, memory appears as narrative element, not given as theme or sensation, but as matter or has a material component.

Rosa Almeida’s works built convulsive and fragmented narratives with no apparent meaning. A piece of wall found in the ground echoes a fragment from a conversation transcribed at the wall; the photograph of a drawing over a sheet of paper shows that the question is not the image but what one chooses to see in it; editing a video enhances the issue of edition. Working through framing and reframing, the artist sends us back, us the spectators, to the sphere of perception, returning meanings to us and entailing those in a game of irony and spirit, in the construction of the (non) felt, of what for lack of better word, we call the work.

To put it maybe more explicitly: “a rose is a rose is a rose”.

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‘In Between’, Rosa Almeida and Gavin Turk, Presenca Galeria, Porto, Portugal

Betwixt and Between

David Barrett
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The exhibition’s title is drawn from a specific conversation – part of ongoing discussions – between Rosa Almeida and Gavin Turk. The two artists imagined a text-based installation by Lawrence Weiner. The middle line of this fictional work was the phrase ‘In Between’. It’s a peculiar origin for a show, and it reveals that, at its heart, the exhibition is bringing together several conceptual strands. There is the idea of the fragment (the title is a section of a larger text), the referencing of other artworks (in this case, fictional ones), and an interest in exploring different modes of representation, or – more specifically – methods of constructing meaning.

While the first two strands are self-explanatory, the third strand is less obvious but it relates to the title itself. If ‘In Between’ is the middle line of a larger text, then it is a phrase that describes its own state; it is actually in between two other lines. So the phrase is not just a piece of text in itself but it is also its own description: a closed-circuit loop that operates in two modes.

This is an important point because Almeida’s text works, which operate as a visual analogue for the experience of language, also play on the edge of two orders of meaning: referential and linguistic. For example, in crowded, urban areas, we often pick up fragments of other people’s conversations. Some of these will be indecipherable, while others will have poetic resonances for us. This latter phenomenon is what Almeida responds to with her spotlight installations, using coloured lights to literally highlight sections of her text-drawings in the gallery space. Hence a visual reference is used in place of linguistic meaning.

But it is not just the overheard snippets of conversations that have fragmentary qualities to them, as Almeida’s drawings acknowledge. If you have ever transcribed a conversation verbatim you’ll know that everyday speech rarely follows clear oratory standards, and therefore how tenuous the play of meaning in spoken language is. Much of the meaning is actually inferred in the non-linguistic utterances – the ums, ahs, and pauses – spaces that Almeida reflects in her installations through the use of apparently absent-minded doodling.

So it is the breakdown of the symbolic codes that Almeida is interested in: emphasizing the fact that meaning resides in the actual experience of spoken language rather than in the codified text itself. Taking this one stage further, Almeida then includes photographs of her own text-drawings in her installations. If writing has a peculiar relationship to the spoken word already (insofar as it is a symbolic translation of an existing code), then photographing this text adds a new order of representation to the mix, treating the written text (which is already secondary) as some kind of primary experience. Again, the gap between modes of creating meaning is explored.

Almeida manipulates viewers, mediating their experience of her texts in order to mimic the actual experience of spoken language. It is a spatial experience of language that requires a precise theatricality in order to convince. (Think about her use of holographic reflective paper; it literalizes our temporal experience of language – its meaning shifting through time.) This may seem odd, but consider another, related practice: the writing of Raymond Carver. Carver’s choppy prose style is celebrated for convincingly conveying the experience and rhythms of natural dialogue, even though his prose style is in fact an utterly artificial construct. Both Carver and Almeida produce theatrical manipulations that operate on different orders to the speech that they are mimicking, but for some paradoxical reason this overt theatricality actually enables the works to be convincing.

Turk’s works also flip through modes of representation, and this is particularly evident in his rubbish-bag monoprints. On one level they are direct, indexical images of bin bags (the bags are covered in paint and pressed onto the canvas), on another they are transformed representations of Yves Klein’s nude monoprint ‘Anthropometries’ (on whose process they are based), and on a third they are displaced representations of the human body (i.e. the body understood through its waste).

But Turk’s work is much more strongly connected to another root concept of the exhibition: the idea of referencing earlier artworks as shorthand for artistic concepts, a tactic evident throughout his practice. The ploy of utilizing borrowed logics allows Turk to give complex ideas seemingly simple expression, setting off conversations in the viewer’s head (which is where all the work is done). So while the sculpture, Duck Rabbit, appears to be a relatively simple object, its web of references include: Piero Manzoni’s Achrome sculpture; Meret Oppenheim’s iconic fur-covered cup, saucer, and spoon, Object; René Magritte and Salvador Dalí’s obsession with eggs; Joseph Beuys’ How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare performance; and even Carl Andre’s use of bricks in his ‘Equivalent’ series of sculptures. The work is a set of questions – Wooden bricks? A furry egg? Is this by Turk or Manzoni? – and its title is based on the optical illusion where a drawing appears to be either a duck or a rabbit, depending on how your brain chooses to interpret the pattern, begging the question of whether the pattern was initially drawn as a duck or a rabbit – or was it originally conceived as an illusion? This conundrum ties in with the egg motif because the egg is also inherently linked to the question of originality. It’s another fundamental concern of ‘In Between’: in a world of cultural super-saturation, pretending to steal ideas can be an excuse to create.

In taking motifs from a range of artists’ practices, Turk utilizes the power of another strand that runs through the whole show, that of the fragment, but he takes an almost entirely opposite approach to Almeida’s. Where Almeida deliberately ensures that her artworks are seen as parts of a larger conversation, Turk presents sculptures that are whole, complete objects in themselves. The game of recognition that Turk sets off, as we have seen, is one of references; the fragments that his sculptures rely on are the fragments of art historical ideas that they embody.

Fragments necessarily have a direct relationship to their mother objects, but they can take many forms, and sometimes they are not easy to spot. Textual fragments are perhaps the easiest to recognize: languages have extremely strict rules codifying grammatical behaviour and vocabulary, and we immediately notice when these rules are not followed. This is why Almeida uses written text in her work. The fragments are obvious as being just that: snatches of discourse that the artist has set adrift, untethered from their moorings within a larger unit of language, be it prose, poetry, conversation, song, etc. Of course there is a further complicating factor, and that is the use of different languages. Almeida specifically chooses to work with fragments of the English language, which is not her native tongue. This raises the possibility of multiple languages within the work, and suddenly an uncertainty is introduced: Is this a fragment? Or a word from a language I do not understand?

Such questions are further provoked by Almeida’s use of faux-archaeological panels. These connect to ancient forms of writing that are only known from such tablets. Cuneiform, for instance, was long considered to be a form of decorative patterning before it was finally recognized as 5,000-year-old writing. The clay fragments that had been discovered went through a journey of understanding in the 19th century: from being considered decorative items, to chunks of incomprehensible but recognizably syllabic writing, to finally being deciphered as declarations, inventories, contracts, wills, histories, myths, etc.

So there is a clear difference in the two artists’ use of fragments. Almeida’s texts are like drops of rain from a downpour: single elements pulled from an endless stream. But for Turk, if all fragments are triggers, then his works might be considered conceptual hand-grenades; their perfectly finished, traditional sculptural forms are a deliberately incongruous condensation of the explosion of thought that they set off in the viewer’s mind. These two approaches illuminate a broader conversation between the artists, and reflect two ways of presenting the same ongoing discussion. Ultimately, the diverging artistic practices allow us to recognize that the exhibition is, of course, both a duck and a rabbit.
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