Reviewed by Tiziana La Melia
Flooring the floor. Dooring the door. Walling the wall.
— To / the look of touch.
In the video of bpNichol, Echoes Without Saying (1983), the Canadian poet says: “One of the things that you have when you have a book, anybody’s book, from an accounting textbook on, is you do have a hunk of sculpture . . . You have a little piece of sculpture that you can do things with.” bp is known for making books that tried to get out of books. Michael Dean makes books that are occasionally weighted down under a sculpture that must be lifted up to get to the book. In Government, a hefty, ‘diminishing book’, viewers perform the work when pages are ripped out. Other times pages of writing strewn across a carpeted floor are picked up by gallery staff who recite the texts periodically for the duration of an exhibition.
Selected Writing is the first book Dean did not make himself, but was printed to accompany Government, an exhibition curated by Lisa Le Feuvre at the Henry Moore Institute in Leeds, England. Impressions of touch are fleetingly left behind on the grey velvet cover. I wouldn’t use it as a coaster, but it’s the perfect place to rest some earrings, a sprig of mugwort.
Inside, the artist’s writing is prefaced by reproductions of the sculpture, many photographed by Dean, plus essays: “Giving flesh to words” by Pavel S. Pyś’ and “The Miracle of Objects, or, ‘the wind bloweth where it listeth’” by Lisa Le Feuvre. Different content is printed on different paper; its weight, colour, and patina functioning, to evoke differentiated spatial frequencies. Inside the gallery, Dean choreographs the movement of hunks. Sweat and spit. Hunks of book, hunks of sculpture, hunks of words that contort your mouth with speech. How does a hunk of sculpture write? What makes anything writing? The sculptures themselves begin with the act of writing. The thing-ness or object-ness of words become ways to formally inscribe material.
One way Dean translates words into object is by using edges of typographical layout of text on a page as a guide for shapes. Directions for voice, or movement in the text also become instructions for how people can lift, caress, or make practical use of the work. The multiple ways the text is used in the sculptural process corresponds to the basic, multipurpose, and elliptical way that the sculptures can be used. The words weigh heavier than the sculptures to somehow evoke the inverse of the rhyme, i.e. sticks and stones may break my bones but words may never hurt me. The writing is heavy in its directness. And what is made of concrete (the pictures of his sculpture) feels light, and even less certain, by contrast. He writes: “The mouth a mold. They fill your mouth with the fleshiness of the words on the page. The face of concrete lifts up striations of wood. A trail of fingerprints and stains on fingers.” Dean leans on language, creating dense concrete poems—the result of translations of how subtle shifts in his writing, in particular with suffixes, effect perception.
An example of how Dean modifies/models monosyllabic words is laid out as —‘faces’ → ‘face’ → ‘faced’ — the movement implied in the noun ⇆verb of face, braced by the directions enter, exit. The sculpture faced and with these modifications evokes a pivoting body, the plié of the person moving around. Prior to reading the essays introducing Dean’s writings, I tried to understand the relationship between the objects and language through pictures alone — I return to the question of how does the material write? I have the disadvantage of only seeing the sculptures through reproductions in the book, and so my first associations were with writing pre-law, pre-agriculture, on tablets and on cuneiforms. Of stone surface: scratched, lifted, collected. It made me wonder if books started out as pebbles carried and touched in your pocket? —to help us keep tabs on people and property, but also sometimes they were carried close to the heart because they resembled something other than itself, and belonged to the imagination, such as in the case of the Makapansgat pebble ca. 3,000,000 before the present), that looked like a face.
I wondered, how to write chunky? In the past, smaller chunks of writing, such as the aforementioned pebble, if you can call it so, if you can call it writing, carried significance because of where it was found: buried in a grave site in South Africa, in the hand of a corpse. However, Dean doesn’t appropriate materials as much as he subtly shifts their appearance in a way that scrambles their reading. Lifting textures with appearances, producing apparitions of different skins. Dean writes with his entire body. By bending, lifting, pressing, squishing, offering visual puns to the grain of the voice. Strong looking sculpture is based on a very intimate understanding of text, the outcome of the delicate edges of print. The scale of the work ‘paraphrases’ the architecture, while relating to the body of the artist, who makes his sculptures in a single sitting. Combining the cryptic inscription of monosyllabic words as forms for the sculptures, they also inherit a minimalist syntax placing, “subjectivity, intuition and personal experience above any direct address to the viewer.”
I am again reminded of bpNichol, who made a giant H once, and carried it around like a big valentine.
I think back to the titles, like “Health” and “Education”. Moving a heavy sculpture produces heavy breathing. If I think of who has to move heavy things, I certainly think of both health and education, though I can’t be certain if it’s what Dean meant.
Looked at casually. Mottled with casual sequences of nonchalance. (p.71)
Michael Dean. Selected Writing. Mousse Press, 2012