‘Mondegreen’ was a nine-and-a-half-hour ‘exhibition-play’, which comprised a sculptural installation, performance and written element. It was the first collaborative work by British artist Jeremy Millar and Canadian artist Geoffrey Farmer, at the invitation of Project Arts Centre. The title noun was coined by Sylvia Wright, in her 1954 Harper’s Magazine essay ‘The Death of Lady Mondegreen’, where it derives from a misheard poetic fragment: ‘Oh, they have slain the Earl of Moray / And laid him on the green.’ By extension, the exhibition encouraged healthy mix-ups and hearty new interpretations, its audible, visual and legible units regularly reshuffled within a set narrative framework.
Reconstituted daily in the gallery, ‘Mondegreen’ recalled Farmer’s journey to Whitstable, Millar’s seaside home town, on 9 May 2011. A written component was penned from Millar’s perspective, its structure adopting the circadian route of James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922), with initial short, seemingly disparate sentences – sensational newspaper headlines, the huffs and grunts of a departing train, patchy internal monologue – sprouting into longer descriptive passages as the day progresses. Somewhere between live dictation and diarized account, various times between 10:22am and 7:58pm are inscribed in the 40-page document’s left-hand column. The inscriptions determined the intervals at which each page was pinned to the gallery wall by the play’s sole cast member, or ‘agent’, neatly syncronizing with the visitor’s own encounter.
In between these maneuverings, the agent also reconfigured the installation’s physical components, creating a dynamic between the many potentially fixed or static elements. A waist-height steel cord divided a small stage from the gallery-auditorium, which was accessed only by the agent. On stage various measuring, recording and broadcasting devices were neatly ordered on a shelf, desk and plinth, from a metronome to measuring sticks, from a triangle to a PA system connected to a live microphone. Against the wall hung a series of instruments, long thin timbers painted in coastal colours – yellow, green and blue – beside which stood a speaker, partially obscured by fabric dyed in matching seaside hues. A desk and chair provided the agent’s on-stage base, though each faced the wall, so that actions and intentions remained concealed. From here, pages were distributed, instruments played, electronic sounds mixed, objects released into the auditorium at irregular intervals; the stage area like a central nervous system from where indicators are streamed.
From the ‘auditorium’, the artists’ encounter was evoked in a multitude of ways, dependent on the visitor’s time of entry – as we were reminded in the 11:14am text, with typical brevity, ‘we coincide with places’. The train that carried Farmer to Millar was first conjured by the sounds of the agent’s hand muffling the microphone, later by the appearance of a photograph on a shelf, and throughout the day by a freestanding steel structure resembling a signal-post. This post has several perpendicular prongs, on one of which the station names between London and Whitstable were printed and notched in line. Below this was an anagram: ‘A RIVAL ATE BRA MALIDY’ (revealed on the wall at 10:38am, as ‘arrival in Bromley’). The prongs were filled gradually, the elegant frame remaining the installation’s most sculptural element, bestowing a degree of grace on the other objects. Around it, several plywood boxes were upturned and rearranged as the day progressed, the choreography of these pared-down modular units mimicking the surrounding anagrammatic wordplay. Other littoral objects succumbed to meddling: pebbles and stones arranged by size were then remixed; a workman’s overalls hung up were later thrown on the floor; shoes unstrapped from sea-bound feet were divided. As the various elements reappeared, realigned and disappeared with almost tidal rhythm, the agent’s level of improvisation remained ambiguous and one suspected that there was no definitive version, playful directives having replaced a fixed scheme.
Despite the potential pitfalls of an arranged artist pairing and an exhibition that struck so ambitiously across disciplines, ‘Mondegreen’ succeeded in a variety of ways. Both artists’ strengths remained visible. Millar’s sustained interest in John Cage, another devoted Joycean, was evident. In a catalogue accompanying a show about Cage that he curated for Hayward Touring last year, Millar described Cage’s ‘chance operations’ as ‘a carefully constructed order, though not one that gave wholly predictable results’. This deft schema was palpable in the timed yet haphazard release structure provided by the exhibition’s agents. And, in Farmer’s hands, this structure became a nuanced mise-en-scène, a sophisticated ensemble with the mobile contours and bold colour spectrum of its constituent objects assuredly matching the pace of Millar’s agile wordplay. Avoiding a wearying exercise in reading on our feet, or another fatiguing object–association sculpture whose common elements remain innocuous and undisclosed, this work was as lucid and generous in fragments as it was in its entirety. Here, the gallery became the shoreline where our own blundering mondegreens come safely out to play.