BY Paul Teasdale in Features | 01 NOV 11
Featured in
Issue 143

In Focus: Michael Dean

Symmetry, distance and intimacy; poetry, concrete and grass

BY Paul Teasdale in Features | 01 NOV 11

According to Ludwig Wittgenstein, in principle there can be no such thing as a private language – an untranslatable lexicon of which only one person can make sense. According to Michael Dean, in practice the opposite would seem to be the case. At Herald St gallery in London earlier this year, the artist presented four large concrete sculptures propped at intervals against the gallery walls, all called Cope (Working Title) (2011), each work spelled out the exhibition title in a triangulated and abstracted three-dimensional typeface of corrugated plains. An accompanying book (which viewers could tear pages out of) had the same word, ‘cope’, spelt out in a typeface formed of interlocking pieces of grass. It was the only cipher to the underlying theme of the exhibition. The word appears from the triangulated lines; the brute thing-ness of the pieces gives way to a nuanced, intricate typography. In the second space at Herald St were hung four c-type prints, two titled In (Working Title) and two titled Out (Working Title) (all 2011). They depicted photographs of marbled, purple meat, shaped into roughly oblong forms, folded in the same typeface as the sculptures to spell their titles and then re-photographed against a MDF backdrop. Mirroring the variegated monoliths in the first room, these photographed sculptures-in-miniature registered another step of removal from the physicality of the work – their positioning at eye level providing another line of sight; their medium another transmutation from the word to the objecthood of its presentation. The repetition of this typeface (one of the many that the artist has been designing since he was a teenager) occurs throughout Dean’s works, reprising the binary oppositions Yes (Working Title) and No (Working Title) in the ‘Analogue’ series (2009–ongoing), the first of which were shown at his 2009 exhibition at works | projects, Bristol, ‘near to no attention to fears and without anything between the opposite of tears’. 

Yes (Working Title), 2011, concrete, 175 x 65 x 9 cm. All images courtesy Herald St, London, Supportico Lopez, Berlin, and the artist

Allowing meaning from a seemingly private source to become uncovered is central to Dean’s practice, which – aside from sculpture and photography – includes poetry, short plays and publications (the latter of which have accompanied each of his exhibitions). Exploring the transmutation of language from the spoken word to its graphical representation and on to its subsequent reading, Dean’s work marks the different relationships between the word as idea and material form. The cryptography inscribed in the sculptural and photographic pieces is another relational manouevre: Dean sees this as a tactic, whereby he ‘writes’ himself into the work just enough for it to exist; he then erases himself, leaving viewers to find a meaning within these mute objects that isn’t prescribed. His practice explores the mediating position of language between the author and the reader, as well as the active-to-passive-to-reactive flow of the force of a word upon an object and how the meaning of that word is then transmitted.

Three words occur over and again in Dean’s writing: symmetry, distance and intimacy. For Acts of Grass (2011) at the Peter Zumthor-designed Serpentine Pavilion in September, the artist employed 50 actors to explore these concepts in a one-to-one performance with an audience restricted to the number of actors. (This was the first time the artist employed actors to perform one of his texts.) The actors greeted each audience member by tearing off the pages of a play printed in a specially commissioned booklet and passing them an almost-identical copy. Actor and spectator sat facing each other around the edge of the pavilion, a bunker-like structure containing a hidden garden of wild flowers. Knees almost touching, the actor was instructed to mimic the physical movements of their newly met partner, to look them in the eye and hold their gaze. Eventually, the actors began reading aloud from their version of the text, which the audience member could follow at the same time. Upon completion of the reading, a further four actors, positioned on each side of the central garden, read a final coda, which was based on a text produced for Dean’s solo exhibition ‘Symmetry of Intimacy’ at Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle, last year. Enacted in the pavilion, the artist’s interest in the natural world as the setting and inspiration for much of his writing was both apparent and necessary. The repeated references in Dean’s texts to natural materials – rocks, grass, valleys – standing in relation to human hands, arms and faces found their natural setting, albeit for a brief moment that is both shared and undocumented:

The back of your hands the front of your legs

From the soil to the culm with the haulm bearing leaves in a description of coincidences at the stance your body starts to these fields.
(Act II.i, Acts of Grass, 2011) 

Hours (Working Title), 2011, concrete, 175 x 65 x 9 cm

For his exhibition ‘State of Being Apart in Space’ at the Kunstverein Freiburg in October, along with the accompanying text the stone walls of yes and no (2011) four black concrete sculptures from the ‘Analogue’ series were placed upon a large plinth which took up most of the gallery atrium. A large sculpture titled Yes No (Working Title) (2011) was positioned opposite and made to the dimensions of a facing doorway in the far wall. Dean hung four inkjet prints of an ordinary loaf of sliced bread, concertinaed and abstracted, around the gallery mezzanine while four more white concrete sculptures, made to the same dimensions as the loaf, stood in corresponding positions to the sculptures below: commonality and symmetry, separateness and difference, fixed in a rebounding dialogue waiting to be read.

Michael Dean lives and works in London, UK. He has had solo exhibitions at Supportico Lopez, Berlin and Lorcan O'Neil, Rome (both 2010) and this year at Herald St, London; Kim? Centre for Contemporary Art, Riga, Latvia; MAK Austrian Museum of Applied Arts, Vienna and at Kunstverein Freiburg, Germany. His performance Acts of Grass was presented at the Serpentine Pavilion, London, in September as part of the gallery’s ‘Park Nights’ series. Next year he will have a solo exhibition at the Henry Moore Institute, Leeds, UK, from 12 April to 17 June.

Paul Teasdale is editor of He is based in London.