Co-curated by Dr Clare O’Dowd research curator at the Institute and Nick Thurston associate professor of contemporary art and literature at the University of Leeds, the exhibition developed out of a research project they collaborated on back in 2021 that specifically focussed on the longstanding links between sculpture and poetry, two of the world’s oldest artforms.
“We held a series of events over six months including conversations between poets and sculptors about where their practices overlapped and how each discipline was influenced by the other, by the end of that Nick and I realised that it could make a really good exhibition,” says O’Dowd. “We had seen so much interesting work taking place over the course of the project, so we started thinking about how we might present that in an exhibition.”
The result is an intriguing, thought-provoking show that aims to encourage people to consider the literal ‘weight of words’ in terms of their materiality in sculptural form as well as their significance and interpretation. Poetry and sculpture often communicate ideas in a loose or abstract way requiring the reader or viewer to engage fully, reflect and bring their own experiences to bear in order to understand the artist’s intention or message. Both art forms can change the way we think about meaning, space and form.
Selecting works to include in the exhibition was quite a challenging process. “We had the longest of longlists,” says O’Dowd, laughing. “It became apparent fairly quickly that there is a lot of work happening in this area and that artists have been doing this for centuries. So, we decided that all the artists featured should be living and working today – this was partly to narrow the field but also so we could reflect contemporary ways of thinking about the subject.”
Some of the works in the exhibition approach words very directly, such as Glenn Ligon’s neon quotation Warm Broad Glow (2005), other sculptures address the ambiguity of language including the potential for mistranslation or misunderstanding as in Shanzhai Lyric’s playful Incomplete Poem (hedge) 2023 a series of slogan-emblazoned T-shirts and Caroline Bergvall’s Say Parsley 2004-23 a sound and language installation that highlights mis-hearings, assumptions and misattributions and the fact that we hear what we want to hear.
“Although there are some very humorous works in the show, it does also reflect the darker side of language and how it is used,” says O’Dowd. “And also, how an absence of words is often just as forceful.” Issam Kourbaj’s Dark Water, Burning World 148 Moons and Counting is a particularly eloquent case in point. A flotilla of small boats filled with spent matches is arranged across the gallery floor. “Issam Kourbaj is Syrian and he has been working for years to try and raise awareness of the plight of his country and his people,” says O’Dowd. “It is a very interesting work because it is also a calendar marking the passage of time. We add a boat every month and the total changes throughout the run of the exhibition. It is a really powerful gesture.”
There are new commissions including a poem by Anthony (Vahni) Capildeo that takes over the black granite façade of the building. Word Fishing 2023, with illustrations by Molly Fairhurst, features shoals of fish and schools of Yorkshire words. Inside there is also a sculpture of hanging text by Tim Etchells entitled Little Thieves Are Hanged but Big Ones Escape 2023 which explores the function of idioms as a form of social commentary.
The response to the exhibition, since it opened earlier this month, has been extremely positive. “We have received really good feedback so far,” says O’Dowd. “It’s an exhibition that challenges preconceptions about language and people are responding very thoughtfully.” It is also a show that feels very timely in the sense that as today’s public discourse becomes ever more divisive, language has become weaponised. “There is definitely something for everyone in this exhibition and there is a lot that people can take away from it,” says O’Dowd. “I think viewers will relate to the different ideas expressed by the artists and reflect on the power of language.”
At the Henry Moore Institute, Leeds until November 26. Details henry-moore.org