On a train from Berlin to Amsterdam, I found myself reading “On Language as Such and on the Language of Man” by Walter Benjamin (the train didn’t have Wi-Fi). In his essay, Benjamin takes an expansive view of the concept of language, writing “all communication of the contents of the mind is language, communication in words being only a particular case of human language”. Benjamin’s definition is, in part, predicated on the idea that language is a precondition of communication and that communication in itself is a manifestation of language. Contemporary linguistics deals with a much more restrictive concept when it deploys the term “language”—at best a set of mind internal protocols that make an infant’s mind distinguish language from other sonic signals—nevertheless, Benjamin’s essay turned out to be good preparation for the Seth Price retrospective, Social Synthetic, showing at Amsterdam’s Stedelijk Museum.
Price’s practice has always always paid special attention to the status of language as a medium, but Price’s approach as perhaps been at once more expansive and more narrowly constructed than Benjamin’s conception. For Price, language is a medium that can contain the world, but it is not restricted by the world, nor is it restricted to its capacity for communication. Language may be larger than the world, but if this is true, we shouldn’t expect to always understand what it is saying. This capacity to illuminate and obfuscate is another major theme within Price’s work that is particularly central to the Stedelijk exhibition. A number of Price’s works referencing envelopes, themselves media for the concealment and diffusion of language, are featured in the show. These include his paintings depicting envelopes in different states of openness. On view as well are fabric works which imagine a curious middle ground between envelope and clothing. For me, these works have always been a bit too literal to truly reach the kind of conceptual potential they evoke. Indeed, Price’s own desire to communicate his ideas as clearly as possible can at times feel a bit like having your hand held by someone who believes that the mere act of holding hands can keep a rocky relationship on track. It is when Price’s works dispense with their explanatory architecture and permit ambiguities to settle and proliferate that they truly soar. Fortunately, the generous selection of works in the Stedelijk offer plenty of opportunities to engage with this more elusive strain in Price’s work.
It is visible in the early vacuum works which provide just enough visual and material information to let you know they aren’t telling the whole story, and to accuse anyone who expects it from them. It is also true of a video work in which the artist intones something like a faery tale as a number of art historical stills flash by leaving the viewer a few steps short of resolution but, rather like the protagonist of the story, confronted by the allure of the unknowable. Price’s extensive series of mylar works based on an internet image of the beheading of the Wall Street Journal reporter, Daniel Pearl, in the early phase of the war in Afghanistan, also are shot through with a determination to contemplate what is beyond contemplation. The distortion of the image in the prints and the further warping created by the mylar support reproduces the intractability of the image itself, as does Price’s positioning of the works in dialogue with other images of famous beheadings from art history. It is a gruesome spectacle to be sure, one many viewers will find hard to take—and which some may even question the validity of exhibiting—but Price’s works from this series seemed to me grimly prophetic rather than exploitative, as the internet has found new ways to become abusive towards its users; this is true particularly when they are paired with the images of beheadings from the Bible and the French Revolution. Price seems to be warning about the glamour of depictions of violence, and the power such images convey, a kind of aspirational nihilism, a dynamic from which he does not appear to exclude himself. Less portentous but no less important to the key themes of the exhibition is the inclusion of some of Price’s early video works, referencing the concept, if not necessarily the subject matter or iconography, of music videos. Price appears to have made the works only for his own amusement, but later understood them as part of his broader artistic practice. This capacity for discovery, even on the part of the artist creating the pieces, is what makes Price’s works more than mere instructional essays on the status of language, technology and communication or didactic tutorials on obvious subjects. They are essays in the sense of the origin of the term: attempts, attempts that understand that by falling short of expressing a totality, they find their most eloquent meanings.
1070 AB Amsterdam
Until 3 September
Image: Seth Price, Hostage Video Still With Time Stamp, 2008. Fluorescent signage ink screen printed on archival polyester film, grommets. Installation dimensions variable