“Neon in daylight is a / great pleasure, as Edwin Denby would / write, as are light bulbs in daylight”
Projected on a white wall in white light, somebody’s name appears, then slowly fades, followed by another, and then another, and over the next few hours, had you the leisure, hundreds. Some are famous in European and American art / literary modernism, others rang a bell; many went unrecognised and may be practically unknown, giving rise to associations based more on the shapes and sounds and (where applicable) meanings of the words in their names, and not on anecdotes and images we already have in mind. It was everybody Gertrude Stein (or, in other versions, Frank O’Hara or Peggy Guggenheim) ever met, in chronological order; a piece of text art, blank and teeming, but synchronic not simultaneous -- by contrast with the blankness of teeming, and, too, with the fantasy that biography (as a literary form) evokes: that a life is a party where everyone is always present. Possibly even with the idea of society: a proper name erases a real face, if only momentarily. Did we meet? if at all, it was in the space quietly left behind each name, unhurried, but too briefly to become attached. For half an hour or so this was rather satisfying; I wish we could have stayed to see whether the long durée would eventuate in some sort of transcendence, or a restless insatiability (Derain, Matisse, Picasso, who else is there?), or something else again, perhaps some usefully recovered memories.
This work is accompanied solely by two posters (a third is in the other room), with texts derived from (as it happens) Hans Christian Andersen’s fear of being buried alive. He kept a note on his pillow, that read (if I recall) “I only appear to be dead”. This is printed in black letters on one large sheet of paper that bears crease marks of having been neatly folded up small; its pair reads, “I only appear to be alive”. Resonant in themselves, these lend a further depth of field to the projected names, the majority of whose owners (do you ‘own’ your name?) are by now technically dead. But pace Lynne Truss, add a comma half way through each sentence: no sooner (in the grand scheme) do we appear in the world, than we are dead; but then again, the sight alone of our name can in some sense bring us back to life. Further readings again would be possible.
The artist’s name is Ian Whittlesea. The show at the Cairn Gallery, Pittenweem, Fife, ends this week (20 August), but there are some great installation shots on his website: