We Are Behind the Object Emily Wardill & Ian White

Book Works, London & de Appel, Amsterdam, in tandem with the exhibition windows broke, break, broke together at the de Appel Art Centre, 152 pages.


This simultaneously slim and extremely dense volume is a collaboration between British artist Emily Wardill and curator/artist Ian White. Built upon the structure of a triptych of lectures they presented at the beginning, middle, and end of Wardill’s exhibition windows broke, break, broke together (2010), the book itself is not a triptych.

Instead, the helmet is the initial (or ur) object introduced. These helmets are reproduced with their various different shapes, but all are intended to protect the head, thus signifying that heads are more important than bodies. Heads can be rational or irrational: some heads have more choice in these matters than others do.

And these heads behind the helmets are rather formidable. Wardill’s films and videos including The Diamond {Descartes’ Daughter} (2008) and Gamekeepers Without Game (2009), mess with psychoanalysis, the Irrational, and melodrama (music plus drama). For instance, her installation Sea Oak (2008) announces a leftist focus group scenario but then strips everything down to a 16 mm. projector and a strand of black leader - with no other images present. Her curator and cohort Ian White is also an artist of mischievous bent. (His Ibiza performance {2009} conflates a flawed Internet date with the un-representable Mr. Wonderful and the restrictive banality of gay personals, and this performance posits an outrageous parallel between the modernist abstractionism of Tony Conrad’s Flicker {1965}and the pure physicality of bare backing).

The first chapters of this volume - all demarcated by images by Hipgnosis created for Led Zeppelin’s 1976 LP Presence -and which are large intrusive sculptural constructions designed for separating people - are concerned with objects and their framing. Who frames what for whom? And, what has become impossible to continue framing? Sea Oak argues that the political Left has stagnated due to the Left’s inability to move beyond endless framings of The Rational, while the Right is plundering the Irrational to generate Internet hits and other gut responses in the media and especially in cyberspace. Similarly Descartes’ Daughter is the perverse mirroring of the Father of Rationalism itself.

Here the expectations of a hybrid book/catalogue are seriously perverted. Script excerpts and appropriate images are the stuff of so many publications, and appropriate to even one as collagist and borderline free-associative as this one. But Wardill serves up a chapter titled The Irrational, and then pulls out all the stops in rendering Irrationality. She paint-prints, with colours as well as black ink, she taunts readers into moving the book around the pages, which are now rooms, but not necessarily from left to right or clockwise and she enters the realms of concrete poetry and of colour-field painting, while foregoing mathematics. (The Irrational must, of course, be hand-drawn.) In doing so, Wardill reminds viewers and readers that reading and thinking are elemental bodily acts - one must literally contort oneself in order to decipher this chapter.

After Wardill has pushed the limits of framing and what might be represented and thus be considered an object, she and White engage in a dialogue titled Windows (pp. 95-118). They begin with a quote from Fassbinder about how his films are his walls. “If films are the walls, then where are the windows?” queries Wardill. Windows are, perhaps, the present, the unscripted, and the thus more artificial. While their dialogue is transcribed as relatively conventional academic conversation - but it is really a collage. Wardill and White bounce from the lapidary nature of film (the material demands incisions and inscriptions) to mirrors (windows are of course mirrors, and melo-dramatists love their mirrors) to distinguishing walls, windows, and portals (are stained glass windows portals or, in fact, walls?) and so on.

The book’s third section or chapter is titled The Theatre and it seems to promise a relatively-straightforward essay concerning framings of live action, how proscenium arches link theatre and film, and Dan Graham’s garden-theatre-museum spaces. But this “essay” then veers into a series of (self)-dialogues about Wardill’s works, in particular Sick Serena and Dregs and Wreck and Wreck (2007), a film focussing on stained glass windows as a means of communication in largely illiterate medieval societies. Wardill keeps returning to her windows, mirrors, and case studies.

The artist also runs score pages of the computer generated soundtrack for her film Basking in what feels like ’An Ocean of Grace’ I soon realize that I am not looking at it, but rather, I AM IT, recognizing myself (2006) throughout this volume - halfway through the book the score becomes its own mirror, not unlike the echoes intrinsic to dub music. Wardill and White discuss music as a means to communicate directly with the will while bypassing the intellect. It makes sense - music can convey emotions that words and images cannot. But music also has its own codes and structures.

In the end, We Are Behind the Object is a dizzying and dazzling collage of the authors’ own writings, smartly appropriated texts, explorations of ideas by a bevy of thinkers ranging from materialist filmmaker Peter Gidal to Internet theorist Seth Price (“art is public when it is desired”) and a large number of images and stills from Wardill’s films. Printing all the illustrations and images in colour would have been ideal, as the authors frequently reference their luminosities and distortions. But not everything is possible, even in a volume that blows apart so many set notions of catalogue, monograph, lecture, and other significant nouns or objects. Take your protein pills and put your helmet on.


Andrew James Paterson


Published in “C”, # 110, Summer, 2011, pp. 52-53

2011 C The Visual Arts Foundation