The Belgian artist Joëlle Tuerlinckx seeks to explain herself through forms and shapes and this latest exhibition held at the Arnolfini in Bristol presents the objects of her imagination like scattered thoughts.
WOR(L)D(K) IN PROGRESS? is the third show in a series of three. The first was at WIELS in her native Brussels entitled WOR(LD)K IN PROGRESS? which dealt specifically with the idea of ‘work’ in Tuerlinckx’s art followed by WORLD(K) IN PROGRESS? at Haus der Kunst in Munich which instead looked at Tuerlinckx’s approach to the world. This third show has as its subject matter ‘words’. Speaking with Axel Wieder who organised the exhibition he explains that the Arnolfini has a strong ‘tradition of projects about poetry and language’ and so this seems an appropriate resting place for Tuerlinckx’s linguistic experiments.
Tuerlinckx’s playful attitude towards language is evident from the titles of the exhibitions alone and the parentheses that shift mysteriously with each change of location. Critics have noted that her art can function like a puzzle; a jumble of parts that don’t quite all fit together with an ever elusive meaning.
As is to be expected from its theme, language is central to the exhibition. Newspaper scraps are collected and framed in long rows and Tuerlinckx’s handwriting scrawls across the floor of the bottom gallery in neat lines. The texts she has cut out often involve politics, but there is no obvious political slant and the mixture of languages in which they are written, rather than opening the artwork to a multilingual audience, seems to elude us still further: we can’t understand all of it and we probably aren’t meant to. Instead we must appreciate the language aesthetically, as an intricate code. The characters become curiously hieroglyphic, little cryptic symbols like the dates and measurements that litter the rooms of the exhibition, duteous annotations to the assortment of odds and ends that are her sculptures. Wielder describes this as her distinct skill of ‘combining a critical approach with beauty and a sharp observation.’
As the exhibition guide points out the overall effect is that of a cabinet of curiosities. For just as with a cabinet of curiosities each item seems to be suggestive of a collection, a part of a whole. They are odd, funny little things; their commonplace nature gives them a certain intimacy. There is something wonderfully innocent and endearing about the act of their gathering- as if they are someone’s strange treasures. There is a cobblestone from Brussels, stones from Ireland and Austria, one from the Retiro gardens in Madrid and a meteorite, collected like curious souvenirs. The careful ordering and labelling seems almost childlike in its meticulous, neurotic assembly.
Indeed the exhibition features what Tuerlinckx believes to be her first work of art, a small fish drawn on paper at age 5. The rest of the work exhibited here spans the breadth of her career, but is presented all together with no concern for chronology.
Tuerlinckx has continually displayed a will to disobey and to play with gallery conventions and at the Arnolfini she once again disrupts institutional norms. A white tape line on one gallery floor presents us with a problem: instinctively we feel like we should not cross it so used are we to the artificial barriers put up between the spectator and the artwork. Labels are hand written on the walls and a glass case, that untouchable reliquary of the art institution with its great power to sanctify all it holds, contains a table with a small knife smeared in bright red paint, an almost comic imitation of blood and a trick that exposes our melodramatic assumptions for all their silliness. Tuerlinckx is questioning cultural values and our criteria for distinguishing ‘high’ art from ‘low’ art. In gallery 1 a stuffed suit is slumped in a chair in imitation of the ever-present gallery steward which Tuerlinckx has said is ‘just for kids’.
It all shows Tuerlinckx’s distinctive sense of humour. She seems to be saying that art is only as serious as one takes it and Wieder described how important a collective sense of humour was to the organisation of the exhibition.
One of the most fascinating aspects of Tuerlinckx’s practice is her capacity for re-invention. The lack of chronology previously mentioned would be wholly impractical because Tuerlinckx regularly creates new works out of old pieces. Her art is forever tied up with her past because it is often literally constructed from it, as with the discs, or ‘ronds’, in the exhibition that are cut from architectural installations exhibited in past shows.
The Arnolfini exhibition will also become a part of her oeuvre. A copy of the edition published for the exhibition has had its pages torn out and replaced by black sheets. The pages torn out now belong to the buyers that supported the exhibition and Tuerlinckx herself will retain the edition with black pages, which Wielder explains functions as ‘a kind of negative version of the edition, that continues a relationship with all the buyers’.
The show will live on too in two strings, one red, one blue, which relate to diagrams of the circulatory system, representing fresh and used blood respectively. One is made of mohair and the other of a thinner material which creates the effect of one being fluffy and blurred whilst the other is distinct and sharp. The strings were originally cut to hang from the ceiling of WEILS, but one has now been cut to the Arnolfini’s height. Tuerlinckx creates a sense of continuity between her shows with work that is forever being adapted to new environments whilst still retaining a part of its own past.
In this way Tuerlinckx creates multiple spaces within one exhibition space. Gallery 1 is covered in a brick pattern reminiscent of her studio back in Brussels and a blue line in Gallery 3 marks its height. This show is not a discreet singular event; rather it is part of a fastidious collection like the objects themselves.