A Certain Structure
Su-Mei Tse: Nested
Taipei Fine Arts Museum, Taipei
20.04.19 – 21.07.19
Translated by Duncan Hewitt
His language pours out in a torrent, never seeming to stop. Amid the flood it’s impossible for it to coalesce or to become a structured, finished product. Many Spoken Words ( 2017–19 ) stands at the entrance to the exhibition: a classical fountain in the form of a young boy, pouring forth an endless torrent of dark purple ink. Yet, in gushing until it overflows, it reveals ‘the absence of the completed work’. There is no structure, grammar or logic – the work has not yet fully been born.
In the inner gallery, D’une langue à une autre ( From One Language to Another, 2014 ) is similar in nature. A pile of graphite shavings is placed on a tabletop – it’s impossible to judge their meaning. The work Word ( 2014 ), which hangs above it, spells out ‘Word’ ( in English ) in graphite. On the wall is an accompanying text by the French writer Jean-Christophe Bailly:
Every name contains a distant truth. Not as a treasure, but as a souvenir. The name is neither proof nor opinion, but legend. Names create legends of the earth, and as such are already complete stories.1
The power of naming has been made plain, and the force demonstrated by this group of works reveals one of the key aspects of this exhibition: the source of words raises questions about the essence of language.
How did words come into being? How did they obtain the power to name? What is language? These are not merely the kind of sonorous but actually rather stupid ‘questions posed by artists’: Su-Mei Tse’s stance is implicit in the title of the exhibition. Words, and consequently language, can – just as at the time when they first emerge – capture and ‘fix’ experiences that are intense, yet constantly fade away, giving them a safe place to ‘nest’.
What Le coup scellé ( The Clinching Move, 2014 ) depicts is precisely this ‘captured’ moment, a split second before the stone, in the game of Go, actually lands on the board. The interesting thing is that the form in which the moment is captured is not rigid: it immediately evokes its exact opposite – the boundless possibilities of the next move of the stone. Su-Mei Tse thus redefines the notion of ‘fixing’: words can capture those fleeting experiences, yet they are unable to suppress the possibility of impressions, emotions, memories and images that are continuously changing, or even disappearing.
This type of ‘fixing’ is rooted in the fundamental nature of words. In the first place, it was a process of coalescing that led to the birth of words, a process of condensing a given sensory experience, yet always accompanied by a sense of surprise, and a terror of the power of the unnamed. The origin of language has a mythical quality – it is certainly not just a random composite with a sound, simply brought in as a symbol for an object. The genesis of a word inevitably involves great spiritual agitation, as people’s personal experiences combine with those of others to form sensory impressions. The constant repetition of this type of pathway leads to these sensory impressions coalescing and being transformed into a form of sonic expression; this acoustic unit then becomes a word. A sound, a word… they are the concentration or ‘reinforcement’ of a particular sensory impression. And no matter how indistinct this may originally be, as long as it is fixed and preserved in language, it will become the starting point of a sacred concept.
Things without names have nowhere to exist in language. Silence can only leave them shrouded in endless darkness. The name of an object only contains a certain aspect of that object: the secret of ancient rhetoric is to take this aspect as a metaphor for the entire object; in other words, the part becomes a metaphor for the whole. It’s a kind of mythical way of thinking – for example, that you need only one hair from someone’s head to control their whole body, or that a pomegranate is not just a reference to the universe but in fact is a universe ( A Whole Universe [Pomegranate], 2017 ). Thus, all the light is focused on a single point of ‘signification’. Everything other than this key part of the word is invisible – the places that emit the brightest light, and the other places, which are shrouded in a pall of darkness, have a parallel existence.
In Tout sauf rouge ( Everything But Red, 2009 ), the powerful red light overlaps with the words ‘Everything But Bed’ – yet before visitors notice the red light, their attention is already drawn to the written text, and the perceptual content that was initially the central focus is sidelined. The light is ignored, and the things that are always silent and dark are seen. However, we certainly can’t make a judgement based on this and assume that the artist is telling us a fairy tale of injustice being redressed; she is simply using a subtle artistic approach to clarify the nomenclature of objects.
How to Wrap 5 Eggs ( 2017 ) can be seen as a model of the basic structure, from words to language. The work shares its name with Hideyuki Oka‘s bestselling book on traditional Japanese-style packaging: the basic starting point for wrapping five eggs lies in not allowing them to bump or crack while the customer is taking them home. The Japanese craftsperson’s solution to this problem is to maintain a gap of a certain width between each of the eggs. Such is the importance of this gap, it also becomes the entry point for Gewisse Rahmenbedingungen 2 ( Certain Framing Conditions 2, 2014 ) and the Rome series ( 2017 ). Gewisse Rahmenbedingungen 2 is placed close to How to Wrap 5 Eggs, and the two works share a space with D’une langue à une autre and Word, to form a powerful field of discourse.
Gaps, blanks, silence – and no limits
This is an ambitious topic that even relates to the universe, yet it also permeates our everyday language, impressions, time and memory. Gewisse Rahmenbedingungen 2 is made up of a nest of overlapping four-sided wooden frames of different sizes, with a small gap between each frame: when you look at them head on, you see a number of four-sided blank spaces, big and small. And rather than sitting down and trying to interpret this excessively, it’s best to just return it to the field of discourse that the artist has provided for it, and focus on the structure of the gaps between the works. Gewisse Rahmenbedingungen 2, which extracts the gaps from between the eggs and enlarges them, so that the viewer notices these gaps and blanks, as well as the work located behind it; D’une langue à une autre, where there are no gaps at all between the graphite shavings; and Word, in which it is the gaps that give the word its shape. Four works become a set, the tiny gaps between words create language, and the space between each individual work also turns the room in the gallery into a bearer of meaning with its own syntactic structure.
The Rome series of works is more or less a two-dimensional version of Gewisse Rahmenbedingungen 2. It demonstrates the function of this significant grammatical element – the gap between the images – while the pictures are the vectors on which memory relies. The Rome series is made up of six photographic images and a fresh pomegranate. The images include three photographs of ancient Roman sculptures of heads, a picture of a marble sculpture of a headless torso, a colour image of the arm of a modern woman carrying a basket, and an image of a sculpture of a marble hand holding a marble pomegranate.
This is a Bildkonstellation ( constellation of images ). These unrelated images are placed in a shared space; they have been removed from their original, customary surroundings and, after being relocated on a photographic plate, they come into close contact with each other and thus create a new meaning. Aby Warburg called this ‘the study of the spacing of images’. It’s precisely because the lack of relationship between the images creates distance, space and ruptures between them that there is the possibility of producing a new meaning. And not only that – this kind of spacing is also the rule that guides how memory operates. This is how a link can be created between Rome and the present, how marble, the vector of elevated civilisation, is able to inject its energy into a fresh pomegranate, thus giving it the name A Whole Universe and allowing ‘that fruit that fell here a few years ago’ ( the marble pomegranate ) finally to be revived.
But the first precondition for this type of linking and injecting is removal – it is objects being removed from their original surroundings, objects shedding their original burden of memories. Pays de Neige ( Snow Country, 2015 ) clearly expresses the need for this type of reorganising and regrouping: the artist used a harrow to carry out a Ceremony of Erasure at the Villa Medici in Rome. Even more to the point is the work Nesting/Nested ( 2017 ), which has been placed as a footnote in the same room as the Rome series. It was not actually made by Su-Mei Tse at all: it is, in fact, a nest of tables designed by Poul Kjærholm, including two low cubic tables, their six sides made of marble, and one table where only the struts of the cube’s frame remain – the fine marble surface has been temporarily placed on the floor. On the wall hangs the famous comment of the minimalist artist, Sol LeWitt:
The most interesting characteristic of the cube is that it is relatively uninteresting. Compared to any other three-dimensional form, the cube lacks any aggressive force, implies no motion, and is least emotive. Therefore, it is the best form to use as a basic unit for any more elaborate function, the grammatical device from which the work may proceed.2
Minimalism erases meaning, and seeks to return to the original object itself, just as Su-Mei Tse wiped away the cultural traces when she was in Rome. Once the Ceremony of Erasure is over, the structure and syntax, as the basic units, shed the thick carapace of meaning to reveal the skeleton. This is as far as minimalism goes – the object or structure itself is laid bare. However, today’s post-minimalism attempts to reattach other things to the clarified structure – not layers of clichés deposited over time, but rather the meaning that ‘I’ give to it. If we take the nature of language as the entry point to the exhibition, Nested – the birth of words, ‘silence’ as an important syntactical element, language ‘fixing’ those fleeting impressions – then the greatest concern demonstrated by this ‘garden’ ( Jorge Luis Borges, The Garden of Forking Paths ), with its forked paths, is probably that ‘I’ can finally become a subject that can speak. ‘I’ seek to erase thousands of years of traces from the objects, in order to expose the structure. ‘I’ add my own understanding, emotion and memory onto this cleaned and sifted form – only then can I finally manage to nest in this deconstructed and now reconstructed object.
1. ‘En chaque nom une vérité éloignée est détenue. Non comme un trésor, mais comme un souvenir. Le nom n’est ni preuve ni opinion, mais légende: les noms légendent la Terre et comme tels sont déjà tout entiers des récits.’ Jean-Christophe Bailly, Le propre du langage: Voyages au pays des noms communs ( Paris: Seuil ), 1997, pp. 7–8.
2. LeWitt quoted in Sol LeWitt, ed. Alicia Legg ( New York: Museum of Modern Art ), 1978, p. 172.
他的言语絮絮不休、滔滔不绝，在流泻中却无法凝聚，无法成为有结构的完成品（œuvre）。《许多说过的话》（Many Spoken Words, 2017-2019）位于展览入口处，古典男童形象喷泉喷出无尽的深紫色墨水，这种堆叠的满溢呈现出的却是“完成品缺席”的状态，没有结构、语法、逻辑，作品尚未诞生。内厅中《另一种语言》（D’une langue à l’autre, 2014）与其同构：一堆石墨屑搁在桌面上，无法判断其意义，而位于其上方的作品《Word》（2014）以石墨为质料拼凑出一个英文字母“word”（词）的形状，墙上附有法国作家让-克里斯托弗客巴伊（Jean-Christophe Bailly）的配文：
《封手》（Le coup scellé, 2014）再现的就是这一“固定”的时刻，将棋子真正落定之前的那一瞬固定住。有趣的地方在于，这种固定竟不是僵死的，它立即等同于它的对立面：下一步棋的无限可能。谢素梅以此来重新定义她的“固定”：词语固定住那些转瞬即逝的经验，却无法按捺住这些印象、情感、记忆、图像的持续变化甚至消失的可能。这种“固定”源自于词的本性。最初促发词诞生的是一个凝聚过程，是一个压缩给定的感官经验的过程，然而却每每伴随着惊异和对未名力量的恐惧。语言的起源具有神话性质，它并不是一个任意的声音复合体，仅仅被引进作为物的符号，一个词语的诞生必定伴随着人巨大的精神激动，自我与非我遭遇而形成了感官印象，这种路径不断的重复使这种感觉印象得以凝聚并化作一个音的吐露，这音响单位而后成为词。一个声音、一个词语，即是某一种感觉印象的聚集或“强化”，无论它本身多么模糊，只要在语言中被固定住保存下来，就会变成诸神概念的起点。
没有名字的东西在语言中没有存在之所，沉默只得使它们被无尽的黑暗所包裹。一个事物的名称只包含了该事物的某一侧面，由这一侧面来隐喻整个事物本身，这是古代修辞术的秘密：部分等同于整体的基本隐喻——一种神话思维，比方说只需某人的一根头发就可以控制他的整个躯体，一个石榴并不指代、而是就是一个宇宙（《整个宇宙［石榴］》, A Whole Universe [Pomegranate], 2017）。因此全部的光都被聚集在“意义”这个焦点，处于词语焦点之外的一切都不可见，那些发出最强光的位置与其他被深重的黑暗包裹的位置并行。《红色之外》（Tout sauf rouge, 2009）中强烈的红光与“红色之外”这一文字信息相重叠，然而当观者意识到红光之前就首先被文字所吸引，那些原先作为中心点的知觉内容反而被置于后面，光被忽略了，而那些永远沉默与黑暗的被看见了。但并不能因此就下判断，认为艺术家讲了一个沉冤昭雪的童话，她只是以一种绝妙的艺术形式澄清了物的命名法。
《如何包装5颗蛋》（How to Wrap 5 Eggs, 2017）可以被视为一个从词到语言的基本结构模型。作品与秀幸冈关于传统日式包装的畅销书同名，包装5颗蛋的基本出发点在于不能让鸡蛋在顾客拎回家的路途中磕破，那么日本手艺人的解决方案就是在每个鸡蛋之间保留一定宽度的间隙。这一间隙如此重要以至于它同时成为《某种结构2》（Gewisse Rahmenbedingungen 2, 2014）与《罗马》（Rome, 2017）系列作品的入口。《某种结构2》位于《如何包装5颗蛋》的近处，与《另一种语言》《Word》共同占据一个空间，形成强大的话语场。
但这种联系与倾注的条件首先是脱离，是事物脱离原先的处境，是事物脱去原先厚重的记忆。《雪国》（Pays de neige，2015）就鲜明地表达了这种重整旗鼓的诉求，艺术家用耙在罗马美第奇庄园进行“抹除仪式”。而更点题的是，作为脚注被放置在《罗马》系列展厅内的作品《Nesting/Nested》（2017），它并不是谢素梅本人的作品，而是保罗客克耶霍尔姆（Poul Kjaerholm）所设计的子母桌，包含两张立方矮桌——六个面都有大理石制成，以及一张只具有立方体棱柱的桌子——大理石薄片桌面被暂时移至地面。墙上贴着极简主义艺术家索尔客勒维特（Sol LeWitt）的名言：