BY George Stolz in Reviews | 21 SEP 16
Featured in
Issue 183

Ulises Carrión

Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Madrid, Spain

BY George Stolz in Reviews | 21 SEP 16

A Book is a simple yet effective video created by Ulises Carrión in 1978. Two pairs of disembodied hands are positioned on opposite sides of a table. One pair holds a book (titled, unsurprisingly, A Book), which it proceeds to methodically dismember, ripping out, crumpling and tossing away each page. Meanwhile, the second pair of hands gathers the discarded folios, smoothing them out and reassembling them into a more-or-less neat pile. The ripping and crumpling process is faster than the smoothing and piling, so that, for most of the video, the table-top is littered with paper. The harsh sound of paper being mangled provides the only soundtrack. The nearly eight-minute video closes with the second pair of hands re-encasing the pile of not-quite-smoothed pages between the book’s original covers.

Ulises Carrión at Other Books and So, Amsterdam, 1975-79, black and white negative. Courtesy: Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Madrid

It is tempting to ‘read’ A Book in relation to Carrión’s biography: born 1941, he was a promising literary writer and academic in Mexico in the 1960s. He abandoned literature in the early 1970s, however, and relocated to Amsterdam, where he developed an idiosyncratic, multifaceted artistic practice while establishing himself as a key figure in European conceptual art circles of the era. (He died in 1989.) As in A Book, the arc of Carrión’s career traces a kind of reverse iconoclasm: a supplanting of word by object and image. Such a reading, however, would be incomplete, as is made clear by this fascinating retrospective curated by Guy Schraenen. 

Libellus, a monthly mail art publication produced by Ulises Carrión, 1981. Courtesy: Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Madrid

For one thing, although he abandoned literature, Carrión never renounced books: as an artist, he made and sold them, cut holes in them, drew on and in them, and theorized about their nature. Nor did he renounce language: even while he identified himself as a member of the art world, Carrion’s practice includes text works, instruction-based pieces, critical and theoretical essays, as well as writing that in another context would have been considered poetry, such as his series of ‘Syllogisms’ (published in book form in 1991). As Carrión himself once pointed out: ‘A writer, contrary to popular opinion, does not write books; a writer writes texts.’ 

Ulises Carrión, ‘Dear reader. Don’t read’, 2016, installation view, Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Madrid

Carrión had impressive graphic skills, as attested to by early works on paper such as the undated drawing/collage entitled HHH #1 – which consists of two white sheets of paper across which the letter ‘H’ is drawn in neat, well-aligned rows while, in a wry minimalist gesture, the sheets themselves are ever-so-slightly askew – and Print + Pen #16 (1972), in which strokes of dark ink wash vertically, like a thicket of young trees, across the words of a printed page. Period photos of his Amsterdam bookshop and gallery, Other Books and So, show an exquisitely curated space, and the work he distributed and promoted there, such as Dieter Roth’s and Sol LeWitt’s, confirms not only Carrión’s affinities but also his acumen. An insistent, structuralist-oriented analysis of  communication and distribution systems is characteristic of his work, yet he rarely calls attention to it. Instead, he deftly embeds it in pieces such as The Death of the Art Dealer (1982), a filmed performance in which he awkwardly lugs around a TV set as it screens a 1940s noir, his own actions being determined by the camera’s movements.

Carrión was subversive, mildly anarchistic and playful, revelling in jokes and popular culture as embodied by boxers and B-movie actresses. In works such as The Gossip Scandal and Good Manners Project (1981), for instance, Carrión spread false rumours about himself and then tracked their progress around Amsterdam. This opportunity to survey the artist’s body of work renders all the more resonant one of his off-hand statements in the video-essay T.V. Tonight Video (1987): ‘There’s no art and life. Only life.’

George Stolz is a critic and curator based in New York, USA, and Madrid, Spain. He is currently working on the Juan Muñoz catalogue raisonné.