Exhibition explores the material qualities of language in contemporary art across a wide range of mediums

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Exhibition explores the material qualities of language in contemporary art across a wide range of mediums
Ferdinand Kriwet. Walk Talk. 1969. Silkscreen on PVC, 39 3/8 x 35′ 5 13/16″ (100 x 1081.5 cm). Courtesy BQ, Berlin. © Ferdinand Kriwet.

NEW YORK, NY.- The Museum of Modern Art presents Ecstatic Alphabets/Heaps of Language, an exhibition that looks at some of the ways contemporary artists have experimented with language, freeing it from the page and from its communicative and descriptive duties. The exhibition is on view from May 6 to August 27, 2012. Works by 12 contemporary artists and artists’ groups are presented in juxtaposition with works by key 20th-century artists, all of which concentrate on the material qualities of language—visual, aural, and beyond. The exhibition includes painting, sculpture, film, video, drawing, prints, and audio. The title is taken from two touchstone objects in the exhibition, one historical, the other contemporary: Robert Smithson’s seminal illustration of words as material, A Heap of Language (1966), and Shannon Ebner’s video The Ecstaticalphabet (2011), which animates, atomizes, and presents language as a time-based experience. Ecstatic Alphabets/Heaps of Language is organized by Laura Hoptman, Curator, with Eleonore Hugendubel, Curatorial Assistant, Department of Painting and Sculpture, The Museum of Modern Art.

The contemporary works featured in this exhibition belong to a distinguished history of poem/objects and concrete language experiments dating to the beginnings of modernism, and include both Futurist and Dada objects as well as Neo-Dada experiments of the late 1950s, and works that sprang from international literary movements like concrete and sound poetry in Europe, Latin America, and the United States. This history is presented in the form of a timeline of objects in many mediums that tell a story of concrete language in visual art, including Filippo Tommaso Marinetti’s iconic Vive la France drawing from 1914; Marcel Duchamp’s disc poems for his film Anemic Cinema (1926); Noigandres (1952–58), the publication by Augusto and Haroldo de Campos that introduced the concept of concrete poetry to a wider public; Robert Smithson’s A Heap of Language (1966); and a re-creation of poet and performer John Giorno’s Dial-A-Poem (1969–), an interactive telephonic work exhibited in MoMA’s legendary Information exhibition (1970). Dial-A-Poem, which features poems by poets, artists, and musicians like John Ashbery, Joe Brainard, William Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg, Philip Glass, and Laurie Anderson, among many others, allows visitors to access poems inside the exhibition space, for free via telephone by dialing the following local New York phone number (347) 763-8001 (active from May 1 until the exhibition closes on August 27, 2012) and through MoMA.org.

Although they are similar in inspiration, the contemporary works in Ecstatic Alphabets/Heaps of Language represent a radical updating of the concrete language experiments of the 20th century. Moving freely among disciplines, the contemporary artists in this exhibition function simultaneously as poets, writers, performers, and graphic designers, producing hybrid works of art in which the letter, the word, and the phrase are transcribed into sounds, symbols, pictures, or patterns, scrambled, negated, and most importantly, freed from the page and, in some cases, the duties of communication altogether.

In the spirit of earlier concrete language experiments, all of the recent works in the exhibition have an abiding connection to poetry, which runs like a subtheme through the show, adding the ecstatic element to each work. The contemporary section of the show includes works by Ei Arakawa/Nikolas Gambaroff, Tauba Auerbach, Dexter Sinister (David Reinfurt and Stuart Bailey), Trisha Donnelly, Shannon Ebner, Paul Elliman, Experimental Jetset, Sharon Hayes, Karl Holmqvist, Paulina Olowska, Adam Pendleton, and Nora Schultz. Among the notable installations included in this portion of the exhibition is Paul Elliman’s Found Fount (1989–present), an ongoing collection of more than 10,000 manmade found objects (in the words of the artist, “a system to describe the world using the world itself”), which together create a usable font in which no character is used more than once. A legendary project that has been influential to artists and graphic designers alike, it is exhibited here for the first time. Other works include Auerbach’s RGB Colorspace Atlas (2011), a series of three computer-generated books, which offer a vibrant physicalization of the color spectrum in book form; and Arakawa and Gambaroff’s Two-Alphabet Monograms (2011), a set of 325 unique canvas flags that contain all combinations of two-letter
monograms, which is combined with a single-channel audio recording of the phonemes being pronounced.

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