Joseph Kosuth

Musee Champollion

In Charlotte Brontë’s novel, Shirley (1849), we read, “Order forbids details in a picture; she puts them tidily away, but details give charm.” I suspect that very few observers have used the term “charm” with regard to the work of Joseph Kosuth, but Brontë’s detailing of the antipathetic relationship between order and detail, between the general and the particular, seems appropriate as a means of approaching this artist’s continued attempt to strike a balance between language, pictorial effect, and the process of description. Ex Libris, J.F. Champollion (Figeac), 1991, commissioned by the French Ministry of Culture as a permanent installation, is a rare example of a project in which the intentions of both artist and producer seem to coincide. On one level, the piece commemorates the work of the French egyptologist Jean-Francois Champollion (1790-1832), born in Figeac, who devoted most of his career to a rigorous description of the country that Napoleon had recently colonized. In particular, he was instrumental in deciphering the hieroglyphics of the Rosetta Stone, a mystery that had baffled linguists for centuries.

Kosuth has installed a black granite enlargement of the Rosetta Stone, approximately one hundred square meters, in the plaza marking the entrance to the museum. It is an impressive structure that dominates the space and is conceived as a series of steps over which the visitor may walk. In appropriating, magnifying, and recontextualizing the Rosetta Stone, Kosuth points to language and description as the common factors linking his own work with Champollion’s. For the latter, it was the desire of a politically dominant nation to overcome, both physically and intellectually, a foreign culture, which formed the basis of his investigations. The barriers of language and of representation proved more formidable than any army for the French conquerors. The Rosetta Stone and Champollion’s dogged interest in solving it became the symbol of a 19th-century “new world order.”

For Kosuth, Champollion’s work on decoding is linked to his own work’s emphasis on translation and the distance between the basic categories of signifier and signified. Here, the use of text and language are both elements of an elaborate decoding and, at the same time, of a description or representation. In addition to the Rosetta Stone, the garden situated above the entrance plaza, which the artist has planted with a number of botanical species grown in ancient Egypt (papyrus, jasmine, etc.), is but another part of that description.

Of course, the mere transposition of these objects to a “foreign” context cannot be naively accomplished. Like the space that exists between language and meaning, there is an obvious temporal gap that marks Kosuth’s intervention. Seen in this light, his work becomes much more than a celebratory monument to a kindred soul. It is also a testament to the still very active urge to describe, and often transpose, cultures other than our own. Here, Brontë’s “details” are far from charming: they threaten the very order that we attempt to create. The resulting discordancy is central to Kosuth’s work.

Michael Tarantino