In a time long ago, before photography, and certainly before the internet or widespread world travel, words were the primary conduit to experiencing an artwork from afar. Words aspired to, in the best of circumstances, convey the essence and the sensation of being in the presence of an artwork to readers who might never see the real thing in the flesh.
Nowadays, words seem more important to the art world than ever, and “A Language for Intimacy,” a new online exhibition at Abrons Art Center is cleverly reawakening that age-old symbiosis in our new age of social distancing. The clickable exhibition, co-organized by curator Amanda Contrada and writer Terence Trouillot brings together nine artists working across performance, video, sculpture, photography, drawing, and digital media, and pairs these works with nine writers’ responses to them — in forms that range from original passages in prose to verse.
This receptive and creative dialogue is one rooted in the ancient Greek world — the ekphrasis, or, simply put, the description of a work of art in the rhetorical form of a literary exercise. From that point, it never quite stopped. Here’s an example – we might recall the unlikely, but fascinating friendship between the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke and the French sculptor Auguste Rodin at the turn of the 20th century. Variably adoring, instructive, and turbulent, their generation-apart relationship definitively illuminated one thing: the startling harmony that can be achieved between object and word. Look to Rilke’s famous 1918 poem “The Archaic Torso of Apollo”— an ephraksis on an ancient bust— that stands as a culmination of their collaboration. There, Rilke, as poet, is able to transmute the vision of a sculptor into words and describe, his oracle of stone, whose headless torso nevertheless still appears to “glisten like a wild beast’s fur.”
Such turns of phrase are life-giving to the artwork — but also to the reader who absorbs them, offering other realms of imagination. Here, in “A Language for Intimacy,” the creative unions are similarly effective, as artists and authors converse thoughtfully from across their own isolated, quarantine spaces. In totality, the artworks and words explore new or newly meaningful —or even simply resilient— forms of intimacy that we might try in 2020. Of course, the possibilities for intimacy are threatened and rejuvenated at every turn — and questioned and reconsidered in the face of life in America today: the pandemic that has killed thousands; the rampant insatiability of racism; the tipping of global ecological insecurity into climate disaster; and the rising cruelty of America’s growing wealth disparity.
So what exactly does it mean to be intimate in an age in which touch and proximity are increasingly dangerous when sharing fear is our most visceral sense of connection? Artists answer, and not without hope, and certainly not without intelligence. In Jesse Chun’s video works, for instance, we hear the verbal struggle of a disembodied voice learning English. The sounds are broken down to syllabic murmurs that are raw and guttural. Brooklyn-based poet Daniel Machado responds to these aching fragments, crafting a power-packed poem that swims through linguistic histories, prefixes, suffixes, as it leaps through sounds and their various cultural significances. He writes in slants — “vocal vocab acab / organ organization / author authorization.”In doing so, the poem fractures the English language and its ethnocentric nationalisms’ timely words.
Expectant mothers have had their own strange experiences of intimacy and isolation in quarantine: to be alone and never alone at once. In the most extreme example, a short-lived coronavirus restriction meant that some mothers were forced to give birth alone in New York State. Rachel Devorah, an artist and whose daughter was just born last year, found herself wondering what this internal union of bodies actually sounded like. Using a special recording device called a hydrophone, she made radiant drift an 18-minute recording taken near her cervix.
This hyper-personal is situated into a more universal context by writer Amelia Rina, who notes that “[w]e all begin life as a collaboration, the result of at least two bodies working together. No life, no body is singular, ahistoric, autopoietic.” But, she acknowledges, that from the womb, different bodies are treated with varying levels of care—another reality that has been cast into sharp relief by the pandemic.
In the most concrete gesture of the exhibition, the artist, composer, and performer Jeremy Toussaint-Baptiste has installed a landline in his home for the duration of the exhibition and will be taking calls (+1-917-893-9107) Sunday through Tuesdays, 9:00 a.m.–9:00 p.m. (E.D.T) from anyone who wants to chat. The project, with its commitment of the artist’s time and location in space, feels like a genuine act of communion with the public and it prompted Harlem-based writer Ladi’Sasha Jones to consider how the “spatial constraints of the landline produce a level of intimacy through stillness.”
The latent power of stillness reappears in the photographs of Elliott Jerome Brown Jr. who, like a patient witness, captures small moments of decay—a dust streaked window, black mold growing on an evergreen awning, and new growth too, such as plants springing up in an empty lot. Musing on these quiet images, writer Erica N. Cardwell recalls — as though in reverie — a moment of her fast-paced life before the pandemic, “I shout secrets about the novel I may never write to a friend in town for just the night. That was one of those ‘last nights’ from the life of before. I speak of yearning. It is one story of many. It is what I tell myself when I consider what it means to be free.”
But from here, she expands, pushing out from that nostalgia and into the realities of the present. She writes of the photograph, Not yet titled (After Live, Laugh, Love), which shows a woman reclining — “Did you see the Black woman in her apartment? …Do you notice how she does not look at you?… Please continue to see her, please let her close her eyes.”
Such gestures toward intimacy are tender — painfully so at times — both in their genuineness and the inclusiveness of their longing. We want to let sleepy eyes slumber, we say, and still lingers, burning, the realization of the many words we have yet to learn to speak.
Artists and writers included in “A Language for Intimacy” are Elliott Jerome Brown Jr., Tomás Díaz Cedeño, Jesse Chun, Sougwen Chung, Rachel Devorah, Jesse Draxler, Don Christian Jones, Sophie Kahn, and Jeremy Toussaint-Baptiste; and texts by Erica N. Cardwell, Amanda Contrada, Noah Dillon, Ladi’Sasha Jones, Danilo Machado, Shanekia McIntosh, Amelia Rina, Mebrak Tareke, and Claire Voon.
“A Language for Intimacy” is on view online at Abrons Art Center through August 30, 2020.
Text © Katie White 2020