BY Sam Thorne in Reviews | 01 JUN 09
Featured in
Issue 124

for Fans and Scholars alike

westlondonprojects, London, UK

BY Sam Thorne in Reviews | 01 JUN 09

'for Fans and Scholars alike', 2009, installation view

On entering ‘for Fans and Scholars alike’ at westlondonprojects, a faint but insistent series of names could be heard. Playing from a small speaker placed on the floor next to the doorway, Ulises Carrión’s Hamlet for 2 Voices (1977) is a recording of a man and a woman reading the character names in the exact order that they appear in the script of the eponymous play. Hamlet, more than any other work of Shakespeare’s, is both explicitly concerned with the precepts of performance and uncommonly worried about the confusions of naming. As such, the sound piece offered an excellent introduction to the little known activities of the Mexican-born artist and poet (who died in 1989), whose work, influential in late-Fluxus circles, focused on repeated structures and stripped-back networks of communication. Curated by Gregorio Magnani and named after one of Carrión’s poems, ‘for Fans and Scholars alike’ was a wordy show that required time. Presenting poems, photocopied books, pamphlets and posters in large vitrines and wall displays, the exhibition also included the work of two younger artists: Karl Holmqvist and Jean-Michel Wicker.

Carrión was particularly interested in alternative postal services, and, in 1977, initiated the Erratic Art Mail International System, through which he claimed users could support an international community of artists. As the exhibition title suggests, though, ‘for Fans and Scholars alike’ was not a show about selecting audiences: neither Holmqvist nor Wicker are much concerned with circulating work via alternative networks; their printed works on paper are more indebted to mail art’s handmade aesthetic – which, shown alongside Carrión, made Wicker in particular feel somewhat lightweight. His aimless scrapbooks and quickly made posters of repeated single letters and dots, photocopied on coloured paper (mini e, 2008 and Dot Books, 2008), did little more than add colour to the largely black and white proceedings. Holmqvist, himself a poet, presented a number of artist’s books, many of which were photocopied for display (such as Cat People, 2006, and I*M WITH YOU IN ROCKLAND, 2004), while in the second room he exhibited two identical low-hanging lanterns onto the thin frames of which were glued A1 photocopied posters that incorporated nonsense poetry, a heart and globe logo, and several photographs (OneLove WorldLamp, 2009). The lanterns vaguely traced an unlikely lineage of how the figure of the young, doomed poet has been portrayed: Leonardo DiCaprio is seen in Titanic (1997) alongside a photo from David Wojnarowicz’s ‘Rimbaud in New York’ (1978–9), below which is DiCaprio playing Rimbaud in Total Eclipse (1995). This design was repeated on two of the walls and a wide, knee-high pedestal (used on the opening night for a performance by Holmqvist), as well as several photocopied A4 books hanging from the walls (ONELOVEWORLD, 2008). Holmqvist’s sentimental prints look both smart and friendly at first glance, though a second look reveals little more than a hazy pacifism.

Carrión was more concerned with printing as a politically invested activity, stating his approach in a manifesto of sorts, The New Art of Making Books (1975), in which he coined the term ‘bookworks’. Presented at westlondonprojects in its original form of typewritten sheets, in it Carrión insists that the traditional method of publishing sees the book as nothing more than ‘the accidental container of the text’, an arbitrary contrivance controlled by publishers rather than writers or artists. He argued that ‘the new art’ would involve the writer assuming responsibility for the whole process, from writing to design to printing to distribution. This artisanal mode of high modernism certainly feels a little anachronistic, and a lot of Carrión’s work shown here – mostly from the 1970s and early ’80s – was made some decades later than you may expect. Commissioned by a television company in 1985 as part of a series in which artists responded to various aspects of the media, Aristotle’s Mistake (1985), the only video work in the show, was an intriguing oddity that hinted at the wider breadth of Carrión’s work – a 26-minute documentary in which seven people from seven different countries (one of whom is the artist’s mother) give their opinions on Aristotle Onassis leaving Maria Callas for Jacqueline Kennedy. The banality of these kitchen-sink reminiscences was unexpectedly unsettling, as none of the talking heads seemed to be speaking their native language.

Sonnet(s) (1972) was Carrión’s first artist’s book and the most successful work in the exhibition; it showed up Wicker’s and Holmqvist’s sentimental designs, though skipped the dogmatism of The New Art of Making Books. Sonnet(s) comprised 43 versions of the same poem, each of which has a different inflection based on a slight change to its typography, layout or wording (Carrión doesn’t state his source, but it is Dante Gabriel Rossetti, another poet–artist). These alterations are mostly straightforward: ‘Capital Sonnet’ is all capitalized, while the same poem underlined is titled ‘Underlined Sonnet’. As the sequence continues – variously placing the poem in quotation marks, phrasing it as a question, as prose, as mirrored text or as a footnote to the title – Sonnet(s) exhausts what is surely every way of altering meaning without drastically changing or adding to the text. The final, truncated version is titled ‘Famous Sonnet’ and goes only so far as the second line: ‘Sometimes thou seem’st not as thyself alone, / But as the meaning of all … et cetera’. Within 43 variations, Carrión cycles through a number of strategies: unattributed appropriation, scholarly exegesis, and finally canonization, to deal with how slight formal alterations shape reading.

Sam Thorne is director of Nottingham Contemporary, UK.