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Texts (Waiting for-) for Nothing, Samuel Beckett, in Play; Titled (Art as Idea as Idea) Nothing; and “Ulysses,” 18 Titles and Hours (review)

From: James Joyce Quarterly
Volume 47, Number 4, Summer 2010
pp. 670-673 | 10.1353/jjq.2010.0003

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Have you ever imagined yourself walking into James Joyce’s Ulysses or Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot? Well, your wait is over! During April 2011, New York’s Sean Kelly Gallery mounted a new Joseph Kosuth installation entitled Texts (Waiting for-) for Nothing, Samuel Beckett, in Play, plus two Kosuth recreations, Titled (Art as Idea as Idea) Nothing and “Ulysses,” 18 Titles and Hours. A New York Times reviewer commented on these installations favorably as “an unusually effective show.”1 Kosuth’s Ulysses is a sister piece to one previously exhibited on the ceiling of the Royal Hibernian Academy in Dublin on the occasion of the Bloomsday Centennial Celebration in 2004. Thus, this was at least the third chance for Joyceans really to get inside Kosuth’s Ulysses.

Born in 1945, Kosuth is one of the progenitors of the Conceptual Art movement, which was underway in the late 1950s and early 1960s but actually grew out of the groundbreaking work initiated by Marcel Duchamp (1887–1968) at the beginning of the twentieth century. Simply put, Conceptual Art is art in which the idea is the most important aspect.

For Duchamp, art most famously took the form of a signed urinal, a bicycle wheel on a stool, or the addition of a mustache to a reproduction of the Mona Lisa. For Kosuth, whose creations are best known for being “language-based,” art is represented by his giant copy of the Rosetta Stone embedded in the ground in Figeac, France, the birthplace of Jean-Francois Champollion, the decipherer of Egyptian hieroglyphs, or by his 1965 One and Three Chairs, composed of a chair, a photograph of that chair, and the written definition of the word chair. Kosuth is also one of the earliest theorists of Conceptual Art, and his foundational essay “Art After Philosophy” posits that “[a]ll art (after Duchamp) is conceptual (in nature) because art only exists conceptually.”2 I take issue with the “only” in that statement, but who am I to quibble? Kosuth’s essay also argues that “the ‘value’ of particular artists after Duchamp can be weighed according to how much they questioned the nature of art” (18). That is a sentiment with which I (and probably Joyce) could agree.

In any case, Conceptual Art, with its three-dimensional, site-specific installation form, is designed to transform the viewer’s perception of space, and each of the three Kosuth installations at the Sean Kelly Gallery achieved that goal. The new work Texts . . . Samuel Beckett, in Play was the most dramatic. It consisted of a large, pitch-black room that, from outside, appeared to have a black curtain in front of the entry—it was that dark. Once inside, a visitor’s eyes slowly adjusted to see words spoken by the characters in Waiting for Godot, as well as words from the little-known Beckett work Nothing strung out in a single line of white neon running completely around the crown of the black walls, at the point at which the walls met the black ceiling; the names Vladimir and Estragon were prominent along the left side. The most interesting aspect of this installation is that the words were unclear unless viewed up close or at an angle due to the dot-like lighting of each of the letters. Aside from these words, the only other object in the room was a reproduction of a foreboding Caspar David Friedrich tree and night sky landscape, suggestive of the stage set of Godot. It was scary to enter this room; exiting was much easier.

Titled . . . Nothing (sharing a title and thematic connections but no direct ties to Beckett) was the apt title for the second installation, a recreation of Kosuth’s first gallery exhibition shown in Los Angeles in 1968. Nothing is a white room with a series of black-backed billboards posted along the walls at eye level. The billboards present definitions of the word “Nothing,” actual photostats taken from different dictionaries and written in white letters; the specific dictionary sources are not identified. Dictionary definitions are a signature characteristic of much of Kosuth’s work. Nothing effectively conveyed Kosuth’s perspective on “meaning” as the essence of...

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