By Stephanie Cristello
In April of 2016, I was invited by Jill Silverman van Coenegrachts to attend the opening of the Philippe Méaille Collection at the Château de Montsoreau—a beautiful renaissance style castle installed at the convergence of two rivers, the Loire and the Vienne. The château was built on the remains of a XI-century construction, then used as a strategic military point, until renovated to completion during the second half of the XV–XVI century. The perfectly picturesque building held, contrary to its outward expectations, one of the largest collections of work by British conceptualists Art & Language. Defined by their rigorously stark and administrative aesthetic, the pieces included within the exhibition are spaced sparely throughout vaulted dining rooms, chambers, and turrets—each painted a stark chalk white, the closest impression to a contemporary art situation the context could achieve. Within the stone walls, the air was saturated and soft; the large expanse of the shallow river drifted steadily by. The first encounter is with Mirror Piece (1965), a line of sixteen reflective surfaces, each a slightly varied size of standard proportions, neatly installed between two inset windows, and flanked on either side by the castle’s impressively large chimneys. Despite its minimal approach, the piece glimmers ornately as the sun sets, casting a myriad of reflections about the room. Each metallic panel captures its surroundings—rather than contributes to them—blithely reproducing passages of the pale green stained glass opposite the piece, catching angular fragments of the wooden timbers that lined the ceiling above, and returning the image of a void that once held fires from either edge of the work. The château is replaced by its reflection.
During the opening, I turned to Mel Ramsden and Michael Baldwin (Art & Language) and made a joke to this effect. Indeed, Mirror Piece alone conquered the space. I suggested the title of the exhibition be Art & Language: A Conquest. This observation was made better upon realizing that a flag—a white waving fabric carrying the group’s name in bright orange text—had been erected by the exhibition organizers on the side of the château that faced the water.
On the second level, a nearly identical grand dining room houses a collection of large-scale text works that one would expect of Art & Language—simple, typewritten words blown up on large expanses of white paper. The works, from the series Paintings I (1966), are installed along the perimeter of the space, as well as on a freestanding partition—its black-edged wall operating at once between a billboard and temporary structure—to make more works visible. While at a distance, the work included on the second floor appears effectively uniform (a deliberate affront to the casual visitor), each unfolds in radically different ways in the eyes of their reader. This quality of unpredictability—which is to say, the uncertainty of how the written word translates into an image within the mind of the viewer—is simultaneously the consistency of Art & Language’s work.
Two texts in particular define this space. The first takes the form of a letter to an unnamed reader—it states: “Dear…The work is glib. The description holds so long as there are things you can go out and buy for the decoration of your house. It describes a class of things offering a class of responses.” The text translates on a dual register; on the one hand, the painting’s form echoes the simplistic (glib) character the text implies. After all, what is more slick than Art & Language’s administrative aesthetic—the wholly unspectacular black, white, and grey of an office? (See: the design of this publication). Yet the letter also presents a persuasive secondary reading of the text—one that precisely undermines the myth of the self-reflexive, self-aware painting its style of open address implies.
Here, the contextual surroundings of Paintings I are no less coopted than in Mirror Piece—the work similarly absorbs its own intentions; while its ‘voice’ is directed outward, toward the (plural) viewer, its declaration belongs to an untraceable, indistinguishable, and nearly anonymous source. Such is the lore of Art & Language’s practice. Under the guise of a moniker, the identity of the artist is forever concealed, belonging instead to the chaos occupied by multiple conceptions of artistic practice. Such was the (purposely failed) mission of conceptual art. Just as no control can ever exist over the utopic possibility of governing the image elicited in the mind of a viewer through language, there is doubly an infinite amount of possibilities with how the tone, expression, and intonation of the text is ‘heard’ and internalized by the viewer. An avalanche of voices.
While the first text gestures toward the voice of the image, the second text addresses visibility in a more applied way. It asks us to participate in a pictorial exercise:
“A cube is placed in position so that one face only can be seen. If the cube is now rotated on a vertical axis the second face will gradually come into view. If the rotation is continued, the first face will disappear and the second face will be the only one visible.
At (exactly) the central point of this rotation both faces will be equally visible. Here is therefore the best possible view that can be obtained of the cube, showing two faces.
If the cube showing an equal area of two faces is tilted forward, the top of the cube will gradually become visible.
Continued tilting will ultimately result in a position where the top only is visible.
At the intermediate position, the top and the two sides are all equally visible. This is therefore the best possible position for viewing all faces at the same time.”
As with the letter, the work attempts to exert its control over the viewer, asking us to imagine, through fixed and measured steps, the correct (and thus truthful) vision hidden within the text. Is this, then, the definition of a perfect image—one that exists only in the viewer’s imagination? By this standard, every image simulated within the mind of a viewer is validated by its mere existence. This is inevitably the warmest quality of the work—despite its distanced character, so long as the viewer interacts with the work, every past engagement is as authentic as the next. How many mirages has Art & Language produced? Surely, enough to fill a desert. For, as with all work by Art & Language, text does not substitute another object, it is the object—in this regard, to think an image is to own it. Perhaps this is the truest conquest of their work.
This publication is produced as a limited edition to accompany the Art & Language Symposium at EXPO CHICAGO (September 22–25, 2016), as part of /Dialogues, presented in partnership with the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.