Before Vladimir Nabokov began writing novels, he composed chess problems. A chess problem, unlike a chess game, takes the form of a diagram of pieces presented on a schematic board. The reader must work toward or reverse-engineer the positions on the board to find a solution proposed by its composer. For Nabokov, chess problems were ‘the poetry of chess’, as he put it in an 1970 interview: ‘They demand from the composer the same virtues that characterize all worthwhile art: originality, invention, harmony, conciseness, complexity, and splendid insincerity.’ The second of his Three Chess Sonnets, published in 1924, ends: ‘But fairy rhyme manifests itself / on the board, shimmering in lacquer, / and – ethereal – soars into a whorl.’
In the same way that Nabokov found poetry in the isolation of single problems from an infinite set of moves on the chessboard, the German artist Natalie Czech discovers poems in ordinary, existing texts. In her photographic series Hidden Poems (2010–ongoing), poems – usually by 20th-century authors whom she favours for their ‘quotidian’ language and affinity to visual art – emerge from pages of archival magazines or newspapers through a process of addition or subtraction. Czech sifts out the texts by highlighting or underlining letters or words, or blacking out the others: Robert Creeley’s poetry is excavated from an article about a solar eclipse, e.e. cummings’s words surface in a magazine spread, and Frank O’Hara’s Poem (In that red) (1962) materializes in an old exhibition review. ‘The “hidden” and “found” relationships between the texts are not intended to convey the idea of the occult or secret messages,’ said Czech in a 2012 interview in Mousse, ‘but rather the potential of different forms of reading, ones that bring to light “hidden” poetic constructions in quotidian prose.’ She is not unveiling coded messages but pointing toward the possibility that poetry can exist anywhere, if the reader looks in the right places. In this sense, Czech asks us to ‘read’ photographs differently, transforming images into texts then back into images – rearranging, pointing to and highlighting certain signs within the system. A haiku like Jack Kerouac’s ‘All I see is what / I see – / Red fire sunset’ doesn’t ask to be sought out in a 1965 letter to Donald Judd from the editor of Art International, but it appears, nevertheless, through Czech’s red underlinings.
Czech’s newest series, Poems by Repetition (2013), presented in her current solo show at Kunstverein Hamburg, follows the same guidelines, but here her photographed sources are more like objects themselves: a Kindle reader (which yields lines by Hart Crane: ‘Did one look at what one saw / Or did one see what one looked at?’), a Pink Floyd album cover (which she photographs three times to form Aram Saroyan’s poem ‘ney / mo / money’), or a Yunte Huang poem embedded in three copies of an archival movie review of John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s films. The series Voyelles (2013) is based on Arthur Rimbaud’s eponymous poem (Vowels, 1872), which describes the synaesthetic system by which he assigned a colour to each vowel. Czech asked writers, critics and friends to imagine a synesthetic photograph that she might take, and author a letter to themselves as Natalie Czech: ‘I asked them to write the letters because it was something I couldn’t do,’ Czech told me. Her collaborators’ letters (and Czech’s subsequent photographs) are replacements for lost, unseeable or unrepresentable images: a white owl at night, a red sun, a sunken ship off the Antarctic coast. One, from poet and Rimbaud scholar Christian Bök, tellingly reads: ‘Perhaps I am just asking you to fill in the white blank on my behalf.’ This is what the series is ultimately about – the challenge that both writer and artist share: the difficulty of filling in that ‘white blank’: in the conceptual photographer’s case, the task of exposing that white paper with something other than the ‘traditional’ image; in the writer’s case, the struggle simply to write something.
One of Czech’s most powerful works is a photographic series and small booklet she produced in 2009 entitled Today I Wrote Nothing. Here, Czech herself creates the poems out of a brief entry in the journal of Russian author Daniil Kharms, written while he was imprisoned in 1937: ‘Today I wrote nothing. Doesn’t Matter. January 9th.’ Czech’s series subtracts different words to create a series of 22 new, existential, minimal poems, which, like On Kawara’s I Got Up (1968–79), have both lightness and weight. They are alternately despairing (‘Today nothing’) and affirmative (‘Nothing does matter’). Here, Czech lets the words of the author do the work that the photographer can’t.