A block of glass is a mysterious object, a surface at once transparent and transformative. The Glass Book, the first art piece in Tim Clark’s retrospective exhibition “Reading the Limits,” remarks on the illuminating function common to books and glass. What is “seen” through a book not only presents a different way of thinking, looking, and understanding, but also changes the way that you yourself think, look, and understand. The same can be true for a pane of glass.
I have rarely come across artworks that are transparent; what do they intend to show, if they don’t show anything at all? But The Glass Book, which is engraved with a tree, plays with the idea that sight is a form of seeing through. The idea that it is a book, which we would want to open and read, is reinforced by the open razor blade fixed to one end of the piece. The point is that there is nothing to be read, only the leaves on the tree. They are apparent, but also transformative – they change the nature of what you see on the “other” side, both the other side of the text and the other side of the glass. If to see is to believe, then not seeing – or seeing through – must tell us something about sight itself. Clark plays with this notion of seeing, of working to see both the meaning behind something and the meaning that is in front of us.
The bookcase adjacent to The Glass Book also sets up an interesting conceit (in the best possible way), in that it reveals an interest in philosophy; I did not have to ask Clark whether he was influenced by philosophy, he shows it to anyone who looks. And this transparency is itself a sort of glass book – the author’s intent shows through and reveals to the viewer what his work is largely about. But this does not mean that it becomes a simplistic matter of attributing a work to a philosopher or an idea; rather, knowing the influence forces you to look more closely, to try and understand, and even to discern other possible meanings outside of the ones prescribed. The direct address to the viewer forces one to contemplate other ways of seeing and thinking.
The way we read a text or view an artwork is automatically preceded by our pre-existing knowledge, but the judgments we make are often purely instinctual. Some Thoughts on the Question of Limits in Art brings to bear this duality. It features two projector images shining on the different sides of the same surface. On one side is a page projected, on the other the page is being written backwards. When I was speaking to Clark about the show, he mentioned that he had actually lost the original footage of the writing component of the piece. When the curator approached him about the retrospective, he also asked Clark to re-film that piece.
To re-do a piece is almost to rewrite it, Clark explained, but because the idea was the same, the new piece is essentially identical. I am less quick to dismiss the implications of remaking this work. Clark rewrote a piece of art about the very nature, the indecipherability of the act of writing; of how creative action is so completely veiled from the viewer.
I’ve found it rare that there is anything remotely interactive or physically engaging about artworks, but Clark’s Deipnosophistae is like reading a book. And the piece is actually a book that you are expected to read; in fact, it is the only way to engage with the artwork, otherwise it lies closed and bound. The gallery employee gives you a pair of gloves to handle the book, but turning the pages is left entirely to you. The book’s pages are text – entirely in French, so I couldn’t read them – interspersed with three pornographic images. Clark later explained that the text is from Spinoza and deals with ethics and caution; a balance of the interior, the normative structure, and a position on the outside, as a dissident or critic.
The piece is strangely compelling in the way that you turn the pages and read a history, but one that is told peripherally and visually. Clark pointed out that people often referred to it as a pornographic work – that they were led by their immediate perceptions to draw a conclusion about the work, regardless of the intent, pointed to a meaning beyond simple pornographic images. Even though I couldn’t read the French, I wanted to believe, especially considering the other works, that there was a reason. Having it explained to me, I realized that the reading of a book necessitates that you have some context or referent, but also that reading without one, struggling with deciphering a text, constitutes an act of “reading” in itself; you are reading the impenetrability and incomprehensibility of artwork and even of text – because you can’t know the meaning of a work of art. Unless you ask the artist – and sometimes, not even then.