The poem “Man Carrying Thing” by Wallace Stevens begins with this koan-like sentence: “A poem must resist the intelligence/ Almost successfully.” While it feels somewhat contrary to the spirit of Steven’s assertion to attempt to wring a single meaning from the sentence, there is an intuitive resonance that would seem to apply to other forms of art as well. An artwork, too, must resist the determination for it to “mean” one “thing” – perhaps to “carry” any given “thing” in the way the word “carry” is used in the title of Stevens’ poem. Nevertheless, as Stevens notes, the resistance cannot be too successful; it must be a kind of token, futile resistance that ensures the struggle to mean and not mean continues. I was reminded of Stevens’ poem when I visited the exhibition “Conceptual Installations of the 70s” by Teresa Burga at Galerie Barbara Thumm. The works on show not only directly explore the relationship between poetry and understanding, but also the dialogue between resistance and engagement between viewer and artwork.
Burga has been a major figure in the art of Peru for more than five decades and this exhibition is one of many in the US and Europe to focus on her work this year. The rush of attention is perhaps belated but richly merited. There is something intensely contemporary, even urgent, about Burga’s conceptual creations. In her work “Borges” Burga takes the phonemes of a poem by the Argentine writer, Jorge Luis Borges, and translates it in musical notation, and into a variety of forms of visual information across a number of drawings and diagrams. “Borges” feels like a necessary work in an age obsessed with data, streams of information and attempts to understand and exploit the affective information constantly being uploaded to internet media platforms. The source poem may be unfamiliar to many viewers, but Burga’s determination to be both precise about the work and also to estrange it from its context means that the poem is both integrally connected to everything the viewer sees, but also completely irrelevant. The chasm between information and understanding and “knowledge of” and “knowledge about”, as expressed in the distinct Spanish verbs that express the two concepts, “saber” and “conocer”, can feel unbridgeable in the presence of “Borges”. The musical interpretation of the poem is also playing in the gallery on a loop. The composition is the poem, of course, but it is also anything but the poem. Borges’ work is present only in its absence, it is beyond the reach of the intelligence but hidden in plain sight, or, indeed, plain sound. The exhibition’s centrepiece, “Work that Disappears when the Viewer Tries to Approach It”, is a light sculpture housed inside a chamber fitted with sensors to determine the proximity of the viewer. Regions of the grid of lights switch off as the viewer approaches the work and then switch on as the viewer moves away. The art work “disappears” as the viewer stands closest to it, but the viewer inhabits the piece most fully at that moment as well, or perhaps even as the viewer moves away and hears the lights clicking back on. The work is present in its absence, but not absent in its presence, a fascinatingly Stevensean metaphysical position. It, like Borges, is a work that resists the intelligence masterfully.
Conceptual Installations of the 70s
Galerie Barbara Thumm
Until 29 July
Images:Courtesy the artist and Galerie Barbara Thumm, Berlin
Photo Jens Ziehe