Joanne Tatham and Tom O'Sullivan

What presents itself as meaningful is not always so; and what at first seems meaningless can be deeply significant. “Lead Rhetoric & Other Category Errors,” the meaning-laden title of this exhibition by Joanne Tatham and Tom O’Sullivan, who live in Glasgow and have been collaborating since 1995, already hinted at this contradiction. But what rhetoric was at work here, and what errors were in question? The rhetoric was that of Minimalism, and sometimes of Land art. Using the same form in various contexts, the artists might place a large cube in a landscape, or a smaller one in a museum on a pedestal under glass; they call this recurring object, which is decorated with a diamond pattern in black and pink, “Think Thingamajig”—a phrase they’ve been using since 2003. Things get even stranger when, in Think, Think Thingamajig, Think, 2005, a meticulous black-and-white drawing, a human figure in top hat and tails “wears” a diamond-patterned cube. Pure geometric form in body-specific application—a minimalist contradiction? More like parody.

The diamond pattern in black and pink appeared again on the long wall of one of the two gallery spaces in Munich, interrupted by circles; this wallpaper, Untitled, 2007, served as a background for small framed drawings hung in a careful row. In these pictures the comical figure reappeared; We are seemingly feeling the meaning, 2007, presents two of these figures gathering mushrooms, which they offer to a pyramid that has the kind of dumb, frowning face a child might draw. Your way into it is our way out of it, 2007, shows two top-hatted figures in front of the entrance of a head-shaped labyrinth. The rest of the space was filled with gigantic brown letters cut out of wood. After a little effort, their meaning became clear: LEAD RHETORIC.

The diamond-pattern wallpaper repeated itself in the next space, again on the longer wall. This time two enormous black, square wooden blocks claimed the floor—one standing, the other tipped over. In the middle of each block the silhouette of a human head in profile is cut out. A wooden pyramid standing on the floor frowns like the one in the drawing. On a tall base stands a sculpture, modernist with respect to form, but rather postmodern in terms of the decorative patterning applied to its surface. In the midst of it all, letters hewn of marble rise almost threateningly: HEROIN KILLS.

One slips unnoticed into narration when trying to describe what is happening in this space, which presents itself as a theatrical stage. Tatham and O’Sullivan undermine Minimalist rhetoric, and although their approach owes something to Conceptual strategies, one can hardly designate it as that either. The parody that lurks around the individual objects speaks against it. This parodic element expresses itself even more clearly in the texts written by the two artists, one of which contains this dictum: “If two people agree on the meaning of an image, that is friendship; if two million agree, that is fascism.” Modernist formalism gets a slap in the face. This work is humorous, playful, and provocative, with unabashed nostalgia for everything that resists the modernist canon: the English taste for patterned wallpaper, the elegance of Biedermeier silhouettes, and the human body itself (especially in a top hat). It is nostalgic but not dusty, fetishlike but not mystical, parodic but not cynical. Lawrence Weiner, Carl Andre, and Sol LeWitt may not be turned on their heads, but they do start to totter. Sometimes the meaningful can also look funny.

Noemi Smolik

Translated from German by Diana Reese.