Whispering Sol LeWitt’s Sentences on conceptual art.

Throughout the Gossip and Nonsense project Emily and I have been using Sol LeWitt’s sentences on conceptual art as phrases to ‘chinese whisper’. Written in 1969 these were first published in the magazine 0-9 in New York, and in Art-Language in London (both 1969). I’ve gradually been setting the resulting ‘translated’ sentences using metal letterpress type.

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Possibly the most laborious way to produce a printed page, letterpress appeals to me because of the amount of care that it requires; the decision making and accuracy; and the physicality of the heavy-weight cubes of metal; the sound of the sticky ink; the smell of news print; and the effort required to pull the press.

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To date (August 2015) the following sentences have been whispered and printed in an edition of 30, on newsprint.

1. Conceptual art are eternal optimists.

(whispered by London Met staff Cat Jeffcock, Aimee McWilliams, Charlotte Worthington and Marianne Forest in English)

12. For each work of art that comes from a circle there are many variations

(whispered by artists group members: Rebecca French, Agnieszka Gratza, Karen Christopher, Sheila Ghelani, Clare Qualmann in English)

14. The words of one artist to another might induce an idea strain.

(whispered by artists group members: Rebecca French, Agnieszka Gratza, Karen Christopher, Sheila Ghelani, Clare Qualmann in English)

15. Art can take whatever form it likes, warts are another matter

(whispered by participants in the Gossip and Nonsense symposium, Exeter, June 2013, in English and French)

16. If words come first of all it’s because of art, not literature.

(whispered by participants in the Gossip and Nonsense symposium, Exeter, June 2013, in English and French)

20. Successful art challenges our perceptions by changing our understanding.

(whispered by participants in the Renaissance Rumours event at Inside Out, King’s, October 2014, in English and French)

26. The artist makes the seed, but others do their own.

(whispered by London Met Fine Art students, May 2015, in English)

27. The concept of a work of art may involve the people.

(whispered by artists group members: Rebecca French, Agnieszka Gratza, Karen Christopher, Sheila Ghelani, Clare Qualmann in English)

34. When an artist makes his scene he makes his scene well.

(whispered by London Met Fine Art students, May 2015, in English)

You can compare the original sentences here.

Dominic Hills’s prints for sale

In the early seventeenth century, a highly successful comic anthology written in Latin appeared for the delight of students and other citizens of the Republic of Letters who would have known their classics: the Nugæ Venales, Thesaurus ridendi & jocandi ad gravissimos serverissimosque viros […] (Prostant apud Neminem: sed tamen Uibque, 1642), that is to say Trifles for sale, or thesaurus of laughter and jolliness, addressed to the most serious and severe men […] (To be sold at nobody’s address yet everywhere, 1642).

Among other things, as Annette Tomarken discovered, this collection features numerous passages translating bits of the French comedian known as Bruscambille into Latin, which means that his jokes, including mock learned discussions of farts and how these are good and spiritual, had an unexpected afterlife.

As followers of this blog will know, Bruscambille’s jokes have continued to resonate in the form of Dominic Hills’s prints, and these nugae are themselves for sale through Robert Eagle Fine Art (an online gallery, so truly Prostant apud Neminem: sed tamen Uibque).

To boldly blow…

In his third and final speech on farts, ‘That a fart is a good thing’, the comedian known as Bruscambille cites Cicero, for whom goodness consisted in what was ‘useful, pleasant and honest’ (On Duties, II, 10). The usefulness of the fart, which in turn naturally contributes to its essential goodness, is seen in the widespread proverb, ‘Whoever farts valiantly and with courage extends his life’ (‘Quiconque pette bravement et avec courage prolonge sa vie’). There were indeed proverbs of this type in the air at the time, a variant being ‘Whoever wishes to have a long life should let his arse break wind’ (‘Qui veut vivre longuement il faut donner à son cul vent’). Such proverbs also have their English equivalents, including the (apocryphal?) tombstone bearing the legend, ‘Where’er ye be, let your wind break free, for holding it in was the death of me’, which has its own variant reading, ‘Where’er ye be, let you wind break free. In church and chapel, let it rattle!’

Bruscambille’s piece of age-old proverbial lore has inspired Dominic Hills’s latest print:

Quiconque pette © Dominic Hills

Quiconque pette
© Dominic Hills

Not everyone would agree with this proverb, of course. The great Dutch humanist, Erasmus, would have been among them. In his massive and hugely successful collection of proverbs, the Adages, he cites the ancient saying ‘Suus cuique crepitus bene olet’ (‘Everyone thinks his own fart smells sweet’), but concludes that it doubtlessly originated from the very dregs of society and that he has yet to meet anyone who thinks this way (Adages, III, 4, 2/2302). Yet, from another point of view, the persistence of such sentiments about flatulence across the centuries points to a fundamental continuity in the human condition. Stephen Greenblatt famously opens his Shakespearean Negotiations with the comment that ‘I began with a desire to speak with the dead’ – these proverbs suggest that the answer to fulfilling that desire is blowing in the wind.

 

Conjonction orbiculaire

In one of his two speeches on castrati (controversial figures, apparently ideal lovers for women who did not want to get pregnant, and the subject of an injunction of 1619 issued by the Parisian law-courts as a result…), the comedian known as Bruscambille makes the following observation about Spring:

‘In this pleasing season, the pilgrim starts planting his staff while the shepherd starts playing on nature’s flute and the mute bagpipe in the shade of the shepherdess’s mossy mound. In short, at this time, everything lives, everything dances, and breathes only orbicular conjunction.’

[En ceste agreeable saison, le Pelerin commence à planter son bourdon, le berger à jouer du flageolet de nature, et de la cornemuse sourde à l’ombre du tertre moussu de la bergere. Bref, en ce temps tout vit, tout dance, et ne respire que la conjunction orbiculaire.]

He goes on to comment how sad it is that castrati cannot ‘chime and ring their bells’ to celebrate the arrival of sweet Spring.

The ornately Latinate phrase ‘orbicular conjunction’ / ‘conjonction orbiculaire’ has inspired Dominic Hills’s latest and similarly ornate print:

Conjonction orbiculaire © Dominic Hills

Conjonction orbiculaire
© Dominic Hills

Bending nature’s crossbow

In his speech on the rare and remarkable objects he has brought from Mexico, which he intends to gift to the French nation so it may be seen as the greatest for the sumptuousness of the dresses ladies wear to ballets, the comedian known as Bruscambille (see previous posts, passim) lists, among other things:

  • a pair of underpants of the Roman Stoic philosopher Seneca that are full of moral sayings worthy of profound consideration;
  • Jupas’s lute, which produces such harmonies that whoever hears them isn’t deaf;
  • a pair of marvellous glasses that allowed Saturn to choose a white cloth with which to wipe his bottom.

For his latest print, Dominic Hills was naturally inspired by one of these Mexican objets d’art, namely:

The chamber pot used by Mars and Venus, to Vulcan’s great displeasure, of such size and perfect proportion that it inflames the hearts of its viewers with unbearable lust, and makes nature’s crossbow bend back, to fire at the deer with no nose.

[L’urinal duquel se servoient Mars et Venus, avec un grand desplaisir de Vulcan, de telle mesure et juste proportion qu’il enflamme les cœurs des regardans de luxure insupportable, et faict bander l’arbalestre de nature, pour tirer après la beste fauve qui n’a point de nez.]

Bander l’arbalestre de nature © Dominic Hills

Bander l’arbalestre de nature
© Dominic Hills

Anyone in any doubt as to what the ‘deer with no nose’ refers only needs to consult one of Bruscambille’s speeches on noses, where he establishes in Latin that while men have two noses ‘primum capiti, secundus jacet in braguibus’ [‘this first on the head, the second in the codpiece’], women on the other hand only have one nose ‘ad est capitale, sed abest bragale’ [‘one on the head, but the one in the codpiece is missing’].

 

Renaissance Rumours and Chinese Whispers

As part of the ‘Inside Out’ festival at King’s College this October (2014), Emily and I organised a mass game of Chinese Whispers, drawing upon some earlier experiments at the Gossip and Nonsense symposium in Exeter in July 2013, and the Gossip and Nonsense publication workshop at King’s in June 2014.

We took over the lovely back room at Fernandez and Wells in Somerset House, where Emily introduced the broader project with a talk about the French Renaissance court, libellous pamphlets, and attempts to understand a personal investment in the spread of rumour and gossip. We went on to play several games of Chinese Whispers, using quotes from Montaigne, as well as Sol LeWitt’s sentences on conceptual art.

P1020078P1020091I also talked about the use of  language, and translation, in art – which I wrote about a little in a previous blog. Our participants really enlivened the discussion with their reflections on the process – the difficulty of holding onto the words under pressure, and the intimacy of the whisper.

 

We experimented in English, and with some ‘live’ translation in and out of languages that were shared by members of the group.

We closed the event with an outdoor game – using the architectural space of the courtyard at Somerset House as a frame to whisper around. Our participants spread themselves in a line, and as the first person whispered to the second they left the from of the line and went to the back, waiting for their turn to come again. Using this method we created a Chinese Whispers chain that moved all of the way around the courtyard’s perimeter.

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Interestingly the phrase that we whispered (Sol LeWitt’s 7th sentence on Conceptual art, contracted to ‘The artist’s will is secondary to the process he initiates from idea to completion) soon reduced to a very manageable length, and began to feel like it would not morph any further becoming rather boring to repeat over and over again… as we neared the end of the second side of the rectangular courtyard a participant took action to remedy this, with laughter breaking out along our line as the word ‘arse’ was intentionally introduced. Somehow by the time we had returned to the Fernandez and Wells doorway in the north east corner of the courtyard we were left with the phrase ‘The officer’s arse is scarier than his face which is really heavy.’

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post script: sound recordings from this event featured in the Radio 4 programme ‘Something Understood’ on the 7th December 2014, entitled Gossip and Whispers.

 

 

Umbilical pistol

In his speech in praise of the number three, the comedian known as Bruscambille (see other posts, passim) asserts that the umbilical pistol (‘pistolet umbilicaire’) needs three things:

1. To be well cocked and full of gunpowder;

2. To be charged with a couple of bullets;

3. To have a new holster, for if you put it in a old rotten holster covered in cobwebs, your pistol will be ruined.

Things have changed since Bruscambille’s day, of course, and Dominic Hill’s animated print of the umbilical pistol takes inspiration from Jean-Luc Godard’s observation that all you need to make a film is a gun and a girl:

Pistolet umbilicaire © Dominic Hills

Pistolet umbilicaire
© Dominic Hills

 

 

 

 

Souffler au cul

In the nonsensical court case between the lords of Baisecul (Kissarse) and Humevesne (Sniff-fart) in Rabelais’s Pantagruel, Humevesne observes that among all good bagpipes, when hunting for birds and swinging a broom around the chimney three times, one only blows into the arse (‘souffler au cul’), but as soon as we see the letters, the cows will be returned to him.

Blowing into the arse is of course a waste of time for there is no point breathing into something that is perfectly capable of producing its own wind power. It’s so much hot air, like the court case, which drones on like the bagpipes Humevesne mentions, full of wind but empty of substance.

Dominic Hills’s animated illustration of this expression gives it an industrial feel, like a poster from the Soviet Union, exhorting us to Stakhanovist levels of bottom blowing:

Souffler au cul © Dominic Hills

Souffler au cul
© Dominic Hills

 

Sirens and Secrets

Reading through Montaigne’s ‘De la gloire’, I came across this piece of verse from Homer’s Odyssey which ventriloquises the Sirens and suggests content for their mysterious enchanting song. On his endless voyage home to Ithaca, Ulysses became the first man ever to resist the singing of the strange, monstrous bird-women, who lured sailors off their ships and dashed them onto the rocks of their island – and so became the first man ever to report the words of the song. Homer and Montaigne after him speculate that the irresistible song is in fact an interpellation, a mirror lifted up to the passing hero that offers him an image of himself that panders to his vanity and is thus spell-binding. Montaigne says:

Le premier enchantement que les Sirenes employent à piper Ulisses, est de cette nature, Deça vers nous, deça, ô tres-louable Ulisse, Et le plus grand honneur dont la Grece fleurisse.

The first enchantment the Syrens employed to deceive Ulisses, is of this nature. ‘Turne to us, to us turne, Ulisse thrice-renowned, / The principall renowne wherewith all Greece is crowned.’

I like this idea that the Sirens offer us visions of ourselves that are irresistible and glorious to us, rather than any other enticement. They seem to play the role of the Lacanian mirror, showing us beyond all doubt that rather than the broken, fragmented, vulnerable creature we feel ourselves to be, we are in fact, whole, competent, capable – heroes, in fact.

I remembered reading a poem by the Canadian novelist Margaret Atwood when I was a teenager about precisely this kind of Siren song which left a lasting impression. Her Sirens also appeal to the hero in the passing sailor – you are my saviour! You will rescue me! – but they use the rhetoric of secrecy as lure in a way that Erasmus would have recognised.

This is the one song everyone
would like to learn: the song
that is irresistible:
[…]
Shall I tell you the secret
and if I do, will you get me
out of this bird suit?
[…]
I will tell the secret to you,
to you, only to you.
Come closer. This song

is a cry for help: Help me!
Only you, only you can,
you are unique

at last. Alas
it is a boring song
but it works every time.

Margaret Atwood, ‘Siren Song’, You Are Happy (1974)

What is clever about Atwood’s poem is that it is only at the end that you realise it is in its entirety the lure, the enchantment: the pose of the damsel in distress, the disillusion with the whole business of shipwrecking sailors. From this point of view it is a real siren song: it is not what it appears to be at first glance: rather than a beautiful singing maiden, it is a hideous squawking beast. But it is only because we want to believe them that they have any power.

Shake the feminine tree

In his speech on the pleasure of defecation (‘En faveur de la felicité chiatique’ – see previous post, ‘Hang four hams from a peg’), the early seventeenth-century comedian known as Bruscambille claims that the joy of crapping is greater than that of sex because:

‘one can breathe the air easily for a month, a year, even to the very brink of the tomb, without it being necessary to shake the feminine tree, to get fruit, but it’s entirely impossible to stop oneself going for a crap, because it is such a pleasure that if we are deprived of it for five or six days, we may as well put our boots on to travel speedily to the other side, for it is in such harmony with life, that the one cannot survive without the other.’

One of the main jokes of a speech like this, an ancient genre technically known as a mock encomium, or praise of something normally deemed unworthy of praise, is to use the most elaborate language and argument for the most ignoble of subjects. Dominic Hills’s print of this image, ‘Locher l’arbre fœminin pour en avoir du fruict’ (‘To shake the feminine tree to get fruit’), is similarly elaborate, a three-dimensional animated woodprint with moving parts:

Locher l’arbre féminin © Dominic Hills

Locher l’arbre féminin
© Dominic Hills

Other recent examples of such prints are in the gallery and may well be appearing as a dedicated, indeed unique, art app in the not too distant future.