Joseph Grigely

The Barbican’s front area is a typical art-center environment, with various levels leading to different parts of the theater, signs indicating the way to the gallery, the usual restaurants and cafés, a bookshop, vitrines displaying craft goods, and, of course, endless racks of flyers and leaflets advertising forthcoming attractions. It’s inevitable that you pick up a fistful of the promotional material, even if only to leave them lying around the house until they become scrap paper. This time, however, it appeared someone had gotten there first—a pamphlet had been scribbled on and put right back in the rack.

“Another bottle?” The scrawled question defaced an apparent advertisement for the Public Art Development Trust. The flyer was, however, one of several pieces by Joseph Grigely, commissioned by PADT and meant to be encountered in the disinterested manner appropriate to this setting. Three different leaflets contained facsimiles of the scraps of paper Grigely’s interlocutors use to write down their side of conversations with the artist, who is deaf. In their misspellings, elisions, hesitations, and omissions, these records display all the richness of spoken language. They provide, however, only half a conversation—what Grigely might have said to prompt such responses as “What?” or “Not in a bar!” remains unknowable, and we can only make up for the lack through force of imagination.

The front of one leaflet shows a sheet of writing paper personalized with a drawing of holly leaves. Perhaps describing the action in some film or book, the comments that accompany this Christmas-y image begin “somebody talks about a camel. . . .”; but the words “a camel” are crossed out, and the final version reads “Somebody talks about the desert, the wet drips down from tropical eaves.” This disjunction of time, place, and physical sensation, in an exhibition animated by numerous encounters between the real and the imaginary, was an index of the commonplace occurrence of such exotic juxtapositions. In the same pamphlet Grigely reproduces Joshua Reynolds’ Self-Portrait as a Deaf Man, ca. 1775, although we should surely take this as an ironic self-reference. The pose, hand cupped to the ear, head straining to that side in an effort to grasp what is going on, could stand for what was taking place throughout the building, not just in the Barbican’s front area, but in all the spaces where art is presented. Viewers were forced to ask themselves, Why did we come here, and what do we hope to get out of it?

A long tale written on a piece of paper napkin describes a night spent at a friend’s house during which the sleepwalking host pisses on the guest’s head, and then, in real or feigned ignorance of what he has done, blames the damp patch on his dog. “I didn’t have the heart to tell him it was his dark side,” the guest recalls. There’s a reference to urination in another leaflet; and those who ventured to the lowest level of the building in need of relief discovered the other half of Barbican Conversations, 1998, a sound piece piped into the men’s and women’s bathrooms. Made in collaboration with Amy Vogel, this sequence of statements, comments, and questions circled around unexpected ways of experiencing pleasure. As one loitered there, trying not to unnerve others more focused on emptying their bladders, the impact of the string of references to physical apprehension through sight, sound, touch, and taste was heightened by the acrid smells invading the nose and the back of the throat. The end of the tape repeated a question we’ve all heard before (and which also appeared on posters hung in the lobby): “Should we go? I desperately need to pee.”

Michael Archer