Nancy Dwyer

Galerie Renos Xippas

Is it more apparent from Paris that Nancy Dwyer’s sculpture is as much a product of rap culture as it is an extension of recent media art? She owes more to Public Enemy’s lyrics than to Ed Ruscha’s deployment of found language. It is particularly evident from this exhibition that Dwyer’s visual vocabulary does not constitute a simulation or a critical appropriation—that it is in no way a deconstruction of the language of the mass media. Her speech comes directly out of the hard-core culture of conflict that gives the words a new power.

This is a culture that does not make the word into a medium of discourse. The word functions instead as a shock; it is a register of pure emotion, an act of violence that is as physical as it is visual, an aggression that is auditory and mental. The same goes for Dwyer’s sculpture, in which the word becomes autonomous for lack of a capacity truly to signify. It becomes, in some sense, a reality that cannot be evaded; its immediate impact on the consciousness masks an inability to refer to anything other than the act of its own utterance. This is a culture that privileges the impact of the sign over the articulation of a message, the symbolic force of the word over the possibilities of discourse. When there are no more clear ideas, art produces strong images.

These are the contradictions addressed in this exhibition, which flips the counterculture of rap back into the ideological void of its fistlike language. It presents six movable, two-sided sculpted words, all in painted metal: on one side, a sign of panic (NEED, MIND, HELP. . .), and on the other the privative suffix [-]LESS. The arresting power of the word (CARE) is immediately flanked by its contrary (LESS). Thus, on one side there is the hard-core impact of a word and on the other the loss or withdrawal of its meaning. These sculptures are “blocks” of meaning, signs coupled with their privative suffix, one irremediably implicated in the other. They are impasse-words where meaning cannot quite be disengaged from its opposite; words both violent and void, the value of which, as warnings, is issued with an efficacy immediately confronted with its impotence.

This is why Dwyer’s art struggles with the very contradictions of hard-core culture. Words have a value only as slogans. The language is picked up on a rhythmic syncope (unlike the dreamlike melodies of the ’70s). In Dwyer’s sculpture the autonomy of the word is carried to its logical conclusion, referring directly to the violence of the world, which meaning cannot resist. The word, a free sign, gives off all its referential power (HOPE) and no longer refers to anything but its vacuousness (HOPELESS).

One might well wonder about the ideological implications of such a discourse of the contradictory syncope. But Dwyer’s show is not a simple declaration of ending (reading in the direction of MIND toward LESS), or of decline (reading in the opposite direction of LESS toward MIND). Aware of the supraideological nature of present-day forms of artistic opposition, Dwyer is not presenting a defense of the emptiness and loss of meaning, and in no case does she claim that the hard-core impact of words can replace the force of ideas. If this exhibition brings out the contradictions in which counterculture today is caught, it is not in order to give lessons in nihilism. On the contrary, its blocks of language, simultaneously denouncing and despairing, make contradiction into the embodiment of contemporary political consciousness, one stemming from an engagement in which the body itself is implicated and endangered.

Olivier Zahm

Translated from the French by Warren Niesluchowski.