Instead of houses slated for demolition, Thompson makes an entire boxed edition of paperbacks her stage. I really thought the task she had set herself – to create a different response to each of the 50 works in Penguin’s Modern Classics series – wasn’t possible. When I met her in June 2019, she had completed 32 and I doubted whether a further eighteen ideas would be viable before the exhibition opened in September 2019 at Shandy Hall in Coxwold, North Yorkshire. Formerly the home of Laurence Sterne, author of The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman (1759-1767), one of the first novels to blur the distinction between visual and verbal content, this place is claimed by some as the spiritual home of experimental literature. I would have found the task Carolyn set herself daunting as I only have about one idea every three years, so eighteen good ideas over a single summer would be totally beyond me. I convinced myself that some of her creative re-workings of each book would be forced, but I was wrong. I visited the exhibition twice to hear the artist talk about her work and there were no makeweight ideas, just echoes of other people’s, given a new resonance.
In his essay, ‘Tradition and Individual Talent’ (first published in the Egoist in 1919), TS Eliot writes that
No poet, no artist of any art, has his complete meaning alone. His significance, his appreciation is the appreciation of his relation to the dead poets and artists. You cannot value him alone; you must set him, for contrast and comparison, among the dead.
If one’s work must be seen in dialogue with what has gone before, then what is Thompson’s field? ‘Conceptual Writing’ perhaps covers some of the approaches taken in Post Moderns, but not in a canonically prescriptive sense. For example, in After Capote: When Truman met Marlon (2019), the astrology report she inserted into The Duke In His Domain (a transcript of an interview between Marlon Brando and Truman Capote), though it had to be composed, is more an act of collage in the irony of its juxtaposition than a literary intervention. Similarly, in After Ekwensi: All the Single Ladies (2019), the careful editing of sentences from Cyprian Ekwensi’s novel Glittering City into a list that describes just one woman, when its male protagonist is in fact an admirer of several women, feels less like a literary act for being executed on a sheet of concertina’d paper, like the product of a game of Exquisite Corpse.
In other words, the point of departure – what the artist starts with – is more prescriptive than the outcome. What she starts with is of course the book, considered as both a physical and conceptual entity, and the issue is how to undo it while retaining some fidelity to the original text. The fact that her responses assume a visual as well as literary form sets them apart from the analytic lengths to which the average reader would be prepared to go, their highly selective materiality lending them a sort of comic authority. Indeed, the obsessively particular and occasionally perverse methods chosen make her seem like the text’s ideal reader. ‘In the particular is contained the universal’, said James Joyce. In other words, the whole is metonymically inferred from one of its attributes. Every work in Post Moderns identifies an attribute of a text, giving it back to us as a visual fragment that has a metonymic relation to it.
Such is the versatility of Thompson’s approach, it is unsurprising that some of the works in Post Moderns use methods employed by other practitioners known for their deconstruction of the book form. For example, After King, Jr., Marginalized/Segregated, 2018 is reminiscent of Pavel Büchler’s overwritten diaries, published by the Whitworth in Manchester as Idle Thoughts (2013), while After Nin: Heavy Breathing (2018) reminds me of the work of Language Removal Services and Derek Beaulieu’s a, A Novel (2017). After Beckett: Assimilating the Vowels and Omitting the Consonants (2019) makes me think of Nick Thurston’s print, He Wore, He Might Find, & He Moved (2009), while After Acker: Residents, 2019 is redolent of Thompson’s earlier The Eaten Heart (2013) and also the textual excavations of Brian Dettmer. After Nabokov: Study for a Quilt Pattern (2019) brings to mind Thompson’s own Black Mirror (2011) as well as Derek Beaulieu’s Local Colour (2008) and Alison Turnball’s A Spring Snow: A Translation (2002). There are many more connections that could be made. Suffice to say, this is an artist working in a prescribed field, but one with methods as diverse as the range of texts at one’s disposal, each requiring new skills that must be mastered in order to pull off each ‘re-reading’. The desired tension between the visual outcome and its literary origin is especially satisfying when the logical structure of the visual cuts across that of its literary host, like an unruly but eloquent dinner guest.
Post Moderns could also be seen as a set of ‘conceptualist performed readings’. My yoking together of these three terms may be useful for understanding how literature is here navigated through the lens of visual arts training. The first term, ‘conceptualist’ refers to the privileging of the concept in the making of a work. As Sol Le Witt maintained in his ‘Paragraphs on Conceptual Art’ (1967): “The idea becomes a machine that makes the art.” This extends to the viewer’s engagement with the work as well. The ‘performance’ is manifested in Thompson’s conversion of literary content into material form: how she re-deploys the existing words of others with a sleight of hand and mind. These strategies may involve re-writing, re-reading or a purposeful misreading of the source material. But the emphasis is always on ‘reading’, or rather how to extend the act of reading, which is taken to be an aesthetic experience in its own right. Reading is usually a private act, but these performed readings are entered into from the start as experiences to be shared through public exhibition. The reading is undertaken by the artist with the specific goal of rendering it as an artwork, which could be considered an exaggeration of the biases all readers bring to a text. This is radically different to the kind of idle or disinterested attitude that most of us have on opening a book, before a certain passage grabs our attention and we enter a more engaged state. Thompson is pre-engaged, and through the multifarious forms her readings assume, she ask questions about what kind of reading goes on in a general sense in our culture: what one must ‘do’ in response to a text to honour one’s engagement with it. Despite its playful character, then, there is a ‘bibliocratic’ politics at work in Post Moderns, one that is by no means at odds with Penguin’s desire to market what might be considered ‘difficult’ literature for a middlebrow public.
The results are something like a three-dimensional version of Raymond Queneau’s celebrated book, Exercises in Style (1947), in which the author tells the same story in 99 different ways, examining how changes in tense, grammar and voice transform the meaning of what is said, as though to prove that, when it comes to writing a text, what is sayable is always a stylistic consideration rather than a simple matter of ‘content’. Thompson does a similar thing with respect to our reading of a text, each ‘solution’ effectively standing as one of many possibilities that might be open to the reader should they wish to expand the scope of literary analysis into new ontological realms. She uses all the skills she has acquired as an artist to persuade us that it’s worth doing: overwriting, handwriting, collaging, cutting, splicing, erasing, deleting, drawing, painting, paper engineering, layering, fading, typing, weaving, cancelling, excising, incising, folding, censoring, pinpricking, stitching and sewing.
She inhabits these books, their stories, their words, their ink and paper and makes her individual mark on them as a reader. Rather than just read the book and leave no trace of her engagement, Thompson creates a diminutive monument to each performed reading. And not forgetting the remnants, the many pages and bits of printed matter left over from her investigations, piled up on a shelf and very much part of the exhibition. Evidence of her invasive re-workings, these discards recall Matta-Clark’s idea of creating new architecture through removing material. As he said in a draft statement for an early exhibition:
Completion through removal. Abstraction of surfaces. Not-building, not-to-rebuild, not built space. Creating spatial complexity, reading new openings against old surfaces. Light admitted into space or beyond surfaces that are cut. Breaking and entering. Approaching structural collapse, separating the parts at the point of collapse.
From a rejected draft exhibition statement Matta-Clark authored for the exhibition at Vasser College, 1971 in Thomas Crow, ‘Alchemy & Anthropology: 1962-71’, Gordon Matta-Clark, (London: Phaidon., 2006), p.33.
Reading new openings against old surfaces. Breaking and entering – I think that’s a good way of thinking about what Carolyn Thompson has done to the edition of fifty short paperbacks in Post Moderns. By breaking their existing forms, she allows readers new points of entry into the language, ideas and materiality of books, and with it the potential for different ways of reading.
Post Moderns was at Shandy Hall, Coxwold from 08th September – 04th October 2019.
Post Moderns will be at Eagle Gallery, London from 13th February –18th March 2020.