The Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit’s new exhibition, “Words Fail Me,” explores the relationship between visual art and language. As a non-collecting institute with curators that cycle by show, MoCAD brings to its space expansive talent and organizers to match. And the new show, the museum’s fourth, maintains the ambitiously high bar.
Curated by Matthew Higgs, director of the esteemed New York gallery White Columns, the exhibit loosed itself upon Detroit with a special reception last Saturday night. Music acts Little Claw, Pink Reason and Michael Yonkers performed. But most befitting the exhibit was a reading by poet John Giorno, joyously exercising his still-spry septuagenarian voice and body in a display that proved the power of words as art. Performance art.
“People traditionally think that poetry is something you read sitting in a chair,” said Giorno, founder of the Giorno Poetry Systems collective and its Dial-A-Poem experiment (although the most easily recognized as subject of Andy Warhol’s “Sleep”). “But there are other avenues. You can make it an art form.”
For the crowd gathered in the MoCAD’s central room Saturday, Giorno alternately barreled and tiptoed his way through half a dozen pieces. He read excerpts from “The Death of William Burroughs,” about being with friend Burroughs before and immediately after the author’s death 10 years ago.
“I kissed him,” he read. “An early LP album of us together, 1975, was called Biting Off The Tongue Of A Corpse. I kissed him on the lips, but I didn’t do it . And I should have done it.”
He performed other poems like “Welcoming the Flowers” and “Thanks For Nothing” in full. “Countless lovers of boundless, fabulous sex,” he repeated again and again during what he declared the world premiere of “Thanks For Nothing.” Giorno had performed it once before, a year earlier at the Howl Festival in New York. But that didn’t really count, he said, to an appreciative audience.
What worked so well with Giorno’s performance was that it complemented, rather than stole attention from, the artwork on display. What Giorno does sonically when he plays with the English language, the 16 installations that comprise “Words Fail Me” do visually. The presentation matters as much as the content.
For “Words Fail Me,” Higgs has collected posters, paintings, videos and various signage. Some pieces are as deceptively simple. Martin Creed’s “Word No. 336” consists of the word FEELINGS in pink neon lighting. Both the medium and the word are ripe with connotation. The louche commercialism of the sign – reminiscent of strip clubs and convenience stores – contrasts the response suggested by the word.
Another installation, Ryan Gander’s “Encrypt Encrypt Encrypt,” relies on the absence of language. A trio of television screens play karaoke videos united in their complete lack of words. Instead, bouncing cartoon cues hint at the non-existent lyrics below. Clearly intended to be especially thought provoking, the piece is mostly frustrating.
With varied presentation and media (materials in the show include thumb tacks and hand-knitted sweaters), the inherent meaning of a set of words does not always match the message. Anne-lise Coste’s dripping, blue-black messages paper the walls of the MoCAD’s foyer in “Parmi les singes et les signes (tristesse et beaut