Learn to Read exhibition at Tate Modern Installation view
Learn to Read Installation view

Saâdane Afif
(born 1970, France)

Saâdane Afif’s Brume (Mist) consists of a large highway sign, but one that is left entirely blank. Only the shimmering monochromatic surface is visible. Afif has manipulated a mundane board, usually used to communicate practical information, so that it becomes a large abstract work, its size inspired by nineteenth-century landscape paintings. The mute road sign reveals nothing but its ever-changing opaque surface. Like a large blank page, it exists passively by reflecting its shadowy surroundings. Brume recalls the White Paintings produced by Robert Rauschenberg in 1951, under the influence of Zen Buddhism and the work of composer John Cage.

John Baldessari
(born 1931, USA)

John Baldessari trained as a painter, but soon introduced words, humour and irony into his canvasses in order to distance himself from the contemporary academic art world. From 1966, he also started producing works that linked carefully chosen statements to found images. Baldessari produces text-based pieces, video and photography, which deconstruct the codes of images, their communication and reception. The title of this exhibition is taken from his exhibited work; the words Learn to Read are ironically linked to a seductive picture of a young girl reading a biography of James Joyce.

Robert Barry
(born 1936, USA)

Robert Barry is a key figure of Conceptual art. His early work included minimal monochromatic canvasses whose installation incorporated the architecture in which they were shown. Barry abandoned painting in 1967, and began projects using invisible materials, such as Inert Gas Series or Telepathic Piece, both 1969. He also produced lists of words in the form of slide projections and printed materials. His later work has included large wall pieces in which individual words interact with the surrounding architecture. Barry’s new intervention for Learn to Read consists of mirrored vinyl words placed over a window in the exhibition gallery; it includes both architecture and audience in its composition.

Carol Bove
(born 1971, USA)

Artist Carol Bove borrows the practices of the collector, the cultural archaeologist and the social anthropologist. She selects symbolically and historically loaded objects – pieces of furniture, books and images – and arranges them in wall pieces and installations. Her furniture configurations are structured by formal, historical and cultural interconnections, creating a web of links conceived as spatial and concrete poetries. Her sculpture Composition with My Mother’s Spiritual Manual includes one of the first books on the practice of Zen Buddhism: Philip Kapleau’s The Three Pillars of Zen: Teaching, Practice and Enlightenment, 1965.

Peter Coffin
(born 1972, USA)

Science and the paranormal inspire Peter Coffin’s work. Untitled is a squiggly neon sculpture which mimics the trajectory of an idea, or the electrical activity at the junction of two nerve-cells. Coffin takes his starting point from a famous Conceptual work made in 1967 by Bruce Nauman, which states in spiralling blue neon letters: The True Artist Helps the World by Revealing Mystic Truths. Coffin unwinds Nauman’s sentence to make an abstract sculpture. The resulting white neon work, resembling a squirt of light, could refer to another work Nauman created in 1968: The True Artist Is an Amazing Luminous Fountain.

Anne-Lise Coste
(born 1973, France)

Anne-Lise Coste deliberately refuses to adopt linguistic or artistic conventions in her wall paintings and drawings. She uses both words and images, adopting the spontaneity of graffiti art and infusing it with her personal, romantic and poetic sensibility. The freedom of the sprayed airbrush applied to large sheets of paper allows Coste to express emotional states that fluctuate between idealism, irony and despair. One work is invaded by red and blue sentences such as ‘The Skeleton and Death’. Other, black and white compositions use a range of different drawing techniques in apparently decorative compositions that eventually create an inventory of anxieties and neuroses.

Shannon Ebner
(born 1971, USA)

Shannon Ebner’s photographs consistently involve a visceral experience with language, as well as an economy of materials linking her to the Conceptual practice of Ed Ruscha and Bruce Nauman. Nauman’s drawing and neon work Raw War 1968–70 inspired Ebner’s Raw War, a temporary outdoor installation with large cardboard letters spelling out the word Raw reflected as War in a pond. Language is less explicitly present in her latest series. Words and signs are treated as physical entities, subject to destruction and decay. In Democratizing parts of the word, composed of sand on asphalt, are ironically dissolved by running water.

Simon Evans
(born 1972, UK)

Simon Evans uses language as an integral part of his work, which often takes the form of collages and drawings. He manipulates words as he does surface textures, with their various meanings and double-entendres. His humorous statements and observations are highly personal and introspective but resonate with universal truths and a poetic poignancy. His DIY aesthetic of skateboard culture often subverts lists, maps and diagrams. In Untitled (Cigarette Burn) the paper is removed to create an intricate constellation, while in 28 Years Evans uses pencil shavings to construct the rings of a tree on which he marks important moments and events in his life.

Mario Garcia Torres
(born 1975, Mexico)

Mario Garcia Torres finds inspiration in Conceptual art, in particular the work of Robert Barry and Alighiero e Boetti. Torres re-enacts their work, raising questions of ownership and originality. Both the passage of time and the position of the audience are central to his performances, videos and installations. The obsessive repetition of a simple but meaningful sentence that eventually disappears in its own hypnotic repetition gives an existential impact – one that is humorously absurd – to the video exhibited here.

Graham Gilmore
(born 1963, Canada)

Graham Gillmore has described his works as ‘multi-layered texts, palimpsests of memory, revisions, cancellations, second thoughts’. His works characteristically consist of Masonite boards covered with several thin layers of enamel paint, into which he carves words. The letters are then painted and highlighted on the glowing enamel. The resultant colours are suspended, translucent and smooth, on the surface, sometimes freely bleeding into each other. In Vull and Noid Gillmore offers one of his distinctive puns: the slippage between the words ‘null’ and ‘void’ encourages the viewer’s perplexity, allowing Gillmore to explore the depths beneath the surface of both painting and language.

Mauricio Guillén
(born 1971, Mexico)

Guillén’s photographs, video and installations address notion of boundaries and concepts of migration and translation. In two separate frames, the opposing and paradoxical definitions of the word ‘Cleave’ reveal a potential miscommunication. The artist describes this work as dealing with ‘the co-existence and the possibility of living with contradictions’; it unravels the failure of all communication. In the photograph Unmeasurable Distance Guillén uses the word ‘Me’, which becomes ‘We’ in a mirror. This reflection is an illusion that reveals the impossibility of any real communication and the sheer solitude of the human being.

Kevin Hutcheson
(born 1971, UK)

Kevin Hutcheson’s collages contain found text and images which he has removed from their original context, juxtaposing and combining them to create new narratives and compositions. By appropriating printed and media images, Hutcheson is reconfiguring and manipulating them to his own agenda, at times creating images with the dreamy nostalgia of vintage crime novels and posters. Others have a Constructivist and postpunk rebelliousness that challenges the relationship between image and text and the boundaries of narrative.

Bethan Huws
(born 1961, UK)

Bethan Huws uses language as a critical tool in literary explorations, poetic reflections and plays on words. With a sharp sense of humour she proposes a personal interpretation of Conceptual art centred around the notion of translation: translation of a culture, a language, a situation. Words are flexible materials allowing an exploration of the role of the artist and the construction of reality. Huws is fascinated by Marcel Duchamp; her works are inseparable from the contexts of their display, playing with irony, cynicism or riddles to reveal the complexities of all discourses.

Július Koller
(born 1939, Slovakia)

Reacting against the modernist academicism prevalent in his country in the mid-1960s, Július Koller began producing work he described as ‘Anti-Pictures’ and ‘Anti-happenings’. The question mark began appearing in his pictures from 1967-8, quickly becoming his signature. In 1970 he began a series of interventions he called ‘Universally Cultural Futurological Operations’ (UFOs), in which the question mark always has a prominent place; it may be formed by a line of teenagers ending with the artist himself, or drawn on a tennis court or on a photograph of Venice. With humour and simplicity, Koller questions the validity of social behaviours and cultural codes.

Christopher Knowles
(born 1954, USA)

Diagnosed autistic when he was a child, Christopher Knowles achieved artistic recognition in New York in the 1970s, quickly becoming an important figure of the avant-garde. Knowles’s poetic experiments with typed texts are inspired by daily life, social situations, dialogues and obsessive lists of words. His typographic arrangements in black, blue or red ink resemble abstract compositions. They are inherited from the poetry of the Symbolists and Cubists (Mallarmé and Apollinaire) and contemporary concrete poetry by artists such as Carl Andre or Vito Acconci. Knowles’s formal poems, structured by precise design, are as much to be seen as read.

Friedrich Kunath
(born 1974, Germany)

Friedrich Kunath works in a variety of media, including painting, video and drawing, but commonly uses text to accompany an image. He explores universal themes of disenchantment, love, desire, vulnerability, hope and despair in works that are often humorous, despite their pathos. One work bears the inscription ‘The whole town is laughing at me’. He frequently appropriates elements of popular culture, making his explorations of human situations all the more pertinent. The title of The Four Seasons of Loneliness is borrowed from a song by Boyz II Men, and Kunath arranges his own body into letters spelling out the words.

Glenn Ligon
(born 1960, USA)

Glenn’s Ligon’s childhood interest in literature reappears in his work as a fascination with the political and social uses of language. His paintings and prints are structured with words questioning the formation and perception of identity, sexuality and race. Ligon is best known for paintings featuring carefully selected quotes from sources such as James Baldwin, Jean Genet and Mary Shelley. These are stencilled repeatedly onto the canvas or printing plate. Untitled (Cancellation Prints) features phrases adapted from Zora Neale Hurston’s essay ‘How it Feels To Be Coloured Me’. 1928. The text disappears on the surface of the work, ironically demonstrating the meaning of Hurston’s lines.

Maria Lindberg
(born 1958, Sweden)

A sense of disconnected social experience infuses Maria Lindberg’s work. She takes her inspiration from the 1960s Fluxus Movement and the history of performance, rather than the purely pictorial tradition. She uses a wide variety of media, from installations to photographs and performances, but she is best known for drawings in which she explores the myriad small frustrations of language, word games and different associations between words and images. Her simple techniques allow variations and distortions, and focus on failed and often humorous attempts at communication.

Kris Martin
(born 1972, Belgium)

Unresolved notions of time are at the core of Kris Martin’s practice.He takes ordinary, everyday objects and makes simple interventions which defamiliarise them. In his on-going series End Point he takes both literary masterpieces and more everyday books and manuals and entirely dematerialises them, so that all that remains are their end points and their titles written at the bottom. Once read, these books diffuse their influence only through the reader’s memory of them. In Idiot Martin appropriates the novel The Idiot by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, copying the entire book by hand and replacing the name of the main character, Myshkin, with his own name.

Jonathan Monk
(born 1969, UK)

Playfulness and a certain irreverence characterise Jonathan Monk’s work. In Edgware Road Translation he selects a statement by Minimalist writer and sculptor Carl Andre, which he then translates into one language after the other as he encounters them in the shops, bars and restaurants of Edgware Road (a central London street is known for its diverse ethnic cultures). The last of the 13 frames returns to English, along with the distortions and errors produced by the intense translation process. The work not only reveals the possibility of miscommunication through translation; it is also a process of displacement of authorship and authority.

Lia Perjovschi
(born 1961, Romania)

Recovering, collecting, and disseminating information are Lia Perjovschi’s main activities. Over the last 15 years she has developed a highly personal archive from recent art history, filled with objects, diagrams, texts, images and films. Her subjective chronologies, mind maps or displays of information should be seen as materials with which to build up relations and dialogues, to encourage individual research or collective debates. For Learn to Read Perjovschi has created a series of new mind maps which explore the exhibition itself and its selected artists. These delicate, abstract drawings are made of art history, theory and language.

Philippe Parreno
(born 1964, France)

For Philippe Parreno ‘a good image is always a social moment’. Parreno belongs to a generation of artists who, since the 1990s, have been trying to find a new definition for art through collaboration and experiment in all media, from film to fireworks and carpets. Speech Bubbles is an installation featuring cartoon-like speech bubbles floating on the gallery ceiling; a reference to Andy Warhol’s 1966 Silver Clouds made from helium-filled balloons. Parreno’s work was originally conceived for a French trade union strike; workers were invited to write their demands and aspirations on the white balloons.

Kirsten Pieroth
(born 1970, Germany)

Kirsten Pieroth’s art involves the destabilisation of the structures of order and logic. Through the alteration and displacement of everyday objects, she emphasises the fragility of linguistic and cultural constructions. With an inventive humour, Pieroth creates multiple readings, strange systems of reference and absurd chains of association. In Around the World in 40 Days, she splits Jules Verne’s classic in two. Does this also halve the fictional time spent travelling by Phileas Fogg? The integrity of the book is broken up and reformed by a simple gesture that attacks both the narrative arc of the book and its original title at the same time.

Damien Roach
(born 1980, UK)

Working with a variety of media and methods, Damien Roach explores the indeterminate and the transitional. His careful interventions capture fleeting occurrences that play with perception and illusion. Stacked books become a landscape of colour, while objects which appear worn and covered with random markings turn out to contain intricate scenes of birds and flowers. Mobil is a collection of found objects on a shelf; their arrangement appears accidental, but when seen from a particular angle they form a word highlighting the transience of human perception and reflect the nature of the word itself.

Vittorio Santoro
(born 1972, Switzerland)

Vittorio Santoro’s works draw attention to the conditions of perception and the processes through which meanings are created. They are often based on processes of decay: time, reflections, translations and memory. For his ongoing series of works Untitled, the artist selects sentences which have a particular meaning for him. He communicates them to a friend, asking him to translate the fragments into pencil drawings. The process of transmission and communication produces new texts, broken or obsessively repeated. For How can I / make it right, March-August 2005 Santoro traced the same letters on the same sheets of paper every day for six months.

David Shrigley
(born 1968, UK)

Mostly known for his drawings, David Shrigley also works with animation, painting, sculpture and photography. His work is marked by a bleak humour, revealing thoughtful truths about the human condition below the surface. Shrigley manages to pinpoint precisely the absurdity of our lives and social behaviour. He constructs a playful relationship between black-and-white image and words in the series of photographs and texts shown in Learn to Read. Works such as A big lens poked in your face highlight the absurd details of our everyday surroundings, linking text and image through contradiction, repetition and absurdity.

Frances Stark
(born 1967, USA)

A writer of fiction and critical essays as well as a visual artist, Stark has also taught critical theory and played in lo-fi bands. These activities suggest the scope and subtlety of her interest in language and the visual patterning of communication. She says ‘I’m interested in working with language, not with visual images … I just love how literature can be mimetic and revealing at the same time’. Repeated letters and cut out words become pictorial representations in Stark’s collages. The intricate relationship developed between image and text reflects the difficult lines of communication: thoughts to words and words to image.

Sue Tompkins
(born 1971, UK)

Sue Tompkins uses the spoken and written word in performances and installations of newsprint paper. She accumulates notes then edits and refines them to create disjointed yet succinct texts that combine repeated words and fragments. Their rhythm and style stem from her experience of being in a band, but are also notable for the starkness of their hypnotic delivery. Consisting of text that is either original, altered or borrowed, the strength of Tompkins’s work is in its disruption of verbal communication. Through complex yet eloquent layering of repetition, non-sequential juxtaposition and re-contextualisation, Tompkins reinvigorates and gives new meaning to language.

Jordan Wolfson
(born 1980, USA)

Many of Jordan Wolfon’s works are characterised by an economy of materials, minimal interventions and a sense of melancholy. He uses collective mythologies, cultural icons, nostalgia and language in his videos, installations and photographs to investigate ways in which stories and myths are originated. In a recent work, he re-photographed a portrait of the deaf blind American writer Helen Keller (1880–1968), adding a mystical aura to the original photograph with his camera’s flashlight. This portrait of a talented blind writer suggests another way of interpreting readings associated with this exhibition.

Texts by Vincent Honoré and Justina Budd