BY Nicole Scheyerer in Reviews | 10 OCT 04

Taking as its cue the centenary of Bloomsday, 16 June 1904, the day on which James Joyce sent his protagonist Leopold Bloom on an odyssey through Dublin, this exhibition examined the influence of Ulysses (1922) on artistic production. After all, as early as 1939 the American critic Clement Greenberg declared the book a paradigm for the fine arts. He drew particular attention to the highly developed sense of form within Joyce’s chef-d’oeuvre, saying that avant-garde art should take a lesson from the way the novel reflects the workings of its medium through the use of different literary genres and narrative techniques. In spite of Greenberg’s dictum, the novel has left few clearly legible traces in the visual arts: only half of the works on show existed previously; the rest were created specially for the exhibition.

In itself, an exhibition about a 1,000-page classic considered one of world literature’s most difficult novels is already quite an imposition, with visitors inevitably split into novices and initiates. But at the very start of the tour Julius Deutschbauer’s Bibliothek der ungelesenen Bücher (Library of Unread Books, 2004) soothed any traces of guilty conscience: the installation – part of a larger library project – featured eight copies of Ulysses accompanied by amusing audio interviews in which Deutschbauer talks to the books’ owners about the reasons for their failure.

Unlike music, painting and sculpture play no part in Ulysses. Love’s Old Sweet Song (2004), by the Viennese artist Markus Schinwald, refers to the novel’s only description of a picture: ‘The Bath of the Nymph over the bed. Given away with the Easter number of Photo Bits: Splendid masterpiece in art colours.’ For his vision of this ironic aside on the Blooms’ bedroom décor Schinwald had a print made of a nymph painting by Gustav Klimt and used the canvas as the cover for a perfectly ordinary loudspeaker playing songs from the repertoire of the singer Molly Bloom.

Joseph Beuys was particularly fascinated by the aspect of Celtic myth in Ulysses. The exhibition featured two issues of Art Rite magazine (from 1981) in which the artist immortalized a curious declaration of love: for Beuys the lamb’s kidneys eaten by Leopold Bloom for breakfast become a unit of affection. The Pop art veteran Richard Hamilton began work on illustrations for the novel in the 1940s. In this show, however, his conventional drawings only appeared as fragments in collages by Schinwald: for the four pigment prints After Hamilton, After Joyce (2004) Schinwald mounted Hamilton’s figures into historical photos of places where Joyce’s novel could have been set.

Numerous pieces in the show had a casual feel, like greetings or tributes from fans: Birgit Jürgenssen’s poster Don’t Forget June 16th (1983) recalled the 79th Bloomsday; Franz West dedicated his monumental Gerngrosssäule (Gerngross Column, 2000), made of rubbish bins, both to Ulysses and to the Viennese architect Heidulf Gerngross; and in Thinking of U on the East Coast (2004) the Korean artist Koo Jeong-A traced the contours of Dublin’s coast as a line. The theme of the exhibition was best suited to Lawrence Weiner’s Conceptual strategy: his mural Opus # 843 (2004) features two densely poetic phrases that play on the wanderings of the novel’s protagonists and the topographic mode of thought in Ulysses.

Of the works with no direct reference to Joyce, Raymond Pettibon’s drawings (Untitled, 1999 and 2003) were presumably chosen because of their general affinity with literature. Jonathan Monk’s film The Distance between Me and You (2003) shows a car journey that lasts as long as the available film stock. As well as sharing Joyce’s all-pervasive theme of real time, this was also the only piece in the show to feature ‘the city’ at least as a setting. Overall this ‘visual compendium’ (as the show’s curator, Thomas Trummer, called it) was rather disappointing. Those unfamiliar with Ulysses may have been better off for having been spared the temptation to measure the art on show against this great 20th-century novel.

Translated by Nicholas Grindell