Baxter St at the Camera Club of New York
126 Baxter Street
March 14 - April 14
“Language is not transparent.” The reality of that dictum (which has appeared in Mel Bochner’s colorful pieces across several decades) is on full view in Jesse Chun’s latest show, here. Indebted to various text-driven Conceptual practices, Chun’s exhibition nonetheless also functions as a reminder: Often, the chosen medium of text art’s most visible pioneers wasn’t just any old language. It was English—a fact that can easily slip past the notice of native speakers.
Chun’s exhibition includes prints, drawings, sculpture, video, and an audio track of vowel sounds emanating from a waist-high, bulbous speaker. Fragments from English-language textbooks and other pedagogical content make up much of the show’s source material, collated into surreal, enigmatic assemblages. In name against the same sound, 2018, a pigment print, italicized Latin roots appear next to their translations, or beside line segments where students might pencil in responses. A video titled WORKBOOK, 2017, features a cavalcade of voices speaking in the insistent, matter-of-fact tones of a Rosetta Stone tape. One of WORKBOOK’s scenes depicts a recorded screen-capture of Google Translate in action. But rather than entering text, an unseen user inputs a hazy image of ocean waves: a futile attempt to squeeze an expansive visual memory into the confines of an unfamiliar language.
With their strategic erasures and omissions, the works can feel inaccessible, but this may be just the point. One could picture a simpler version of this show-stopping short, contented to turn the tables on native English speakers—to give them a taste of the confusion felt by an exchange student in a fluorescent-lit classroom. But Chun goes further. Linguists talk about the phenomenon of “semantic satiation,” whereby a repeated word loses its meaning for a listener. Just beyond that wilderness, the artist seems to suggest, there’s satisfaction to be found in the formal elements of a workbook’s graphic design and typeface, or the warped text of Xerox made too quickly. Where meaning gets lost in translation, there are, apparently, aesthetic rewards to be gained.