Visual Art Mark Mumford: Text Circle or Black Hole?
posted by January 29 at 11:36 AMon
For his second show at James Harris Gallery, Mark Mumford presents a series of brief statements assembled as circles on the white gallery walls. (Imagine the shortest sentence you’ve seen today pulled into a perfect, tire-sized ring with the lowermost words upside down.) Some examples: A MEMORY OF BEING HAPPY IN THE WORLD, A SILENCE SO PERFECT IT CANNOT BE DESCRIBED, and NO ONE CAN SEE US. Described on the gallery’s web site as a response to authoritative communication and advertising, Mumford’s words are fuzzy and vague, wanting interpretation.
The same has been said of Jenny Holzer’s text-based artwork. Throughout her 30-year career, Holzer has shifted between elaborate methods of display, such as huge, site-specific electronic signs, and very ordinary advertising and information media like posters, stickers, and T-shirts. Holzer’s first few text series are thematic strings of contradictory statements presented as the impossible observations of a single voice. As with Mumford, interpreting Holzer’s early writing brings out your history and biases; but Holzer’s writing resonates in a way that Mumford’s does not.
Take, for instance, Mumford’s NO ONE CAN SEE US and pair it with some of Holzer’s texts on the theme of invisibility:
WHEN YOU’VE BEEN SOMEPLACE FOR A WHILE YOU ACQUIRE THE ABILITY TO BE PRACTICALLY INVISIBLE. THIS LETS YOU OPERATE WITH A MINIMUM OF INTERFERENCE.
YOU’RE HOME FREE AS SOON AS NO ONE KNOWS WHERE TO FIND YOU.
MORE PEOPLE WILL BE BUILDING HIDING PLACES IN THEIR HOMES, SMALL REFUGES THAT ARE UNDETECTABLE EXCEPT BY SOPHISTICATED DEVICES.
All of Holzer’s sentences could be implied by Mumford’s statement if you work backwards from Holzer’s heady suggestions to Mumford’s dry assertion, but not the other way around. Mumford’s texts resemble those of a fledgling poet, an author who writes simple, generic statements, relying on the reader to stuff the shell of his words with content. Holzer’s descriptions of the complexities of being and knowing and remembering are more sophisticated and precise. She is both authoritative and ambiguous, controlling the channels she critiques. Mumford’s writing is blank, but not critically so; it’s not anti-writing, but almost non-writing.
Disclaimer: I am a former employee of Holzer. I read and re-read her writing for various work-related purposes for more than four years, so comparisons such as this are a reflex, like smiling.