Last year I vividly recall walking into Hagerty Hall, the building on the OSU campus that houses many of the foreign language departments, and discovering a curious object in the foyer. There was a wooden construction upon which had been carefully placed an unfurled roll of thin, white paper. On peering at the paper I made out some kind of grid structure with scattered letters, half-formed words, all of which made up a hopscotch, crossword puzzle that was demanding to be deciphered. There was no wall-text to guide me and the next time I was in the building it had vanished. I could have thought that it was a linguist’s experiment in deconstructing some obscure language’s syntax, but there was something about the materials, the care and precision of the object and its placement that convinced me that it was an artist’s intervention in the language building.
I later discovered that it was a work by OSU MFA student 조은영 (Eun Young Cho), who I would learn to call Choey (a name she created for herself, by reassembling the part of her Korean name) and by the time that I visited her studio, her practice had already transformed. This new work was still engaged with the breakdown of language according to certain constraints, but it had taken on a different form, both in its material and its mode of display.
These works are wall-hangings inscribed with an alphabet of graphite words, in which punctuation occupies the same space as individual letters. The source of these texts is an English dictionary definition that, following a specific process of re-configuration, are inscribed onto the beige cloth. Choey describes the process as follows:
Based on a mathematical formula, the alphabet forms are manipulated, stretched or stuffed to be given a form for a new writing system. The exact count of a definition is calculated to fit the square border. The mathematical discipline applied to the form and the components dictate the dimension of the boundary. Each letter is then placed under the surface and rubbed with escalating pressure. As the forms occupy the space, the split stillness occurs. Through this process, I force the definition out of its original context to look for silence within its utterance.
My immediate reaction to these works was to make a somewhat simple comparison with ancient stone inscriptions and their study (the field of epigraphy). One way to take a copy of an inscription was to make what is called a ‘squeeze’. A squeeze is created by placing soft, wet paper (or sometimes plaster) into an inscription. When dry and removed, the paper or plaster becomes a mirror-image representation of the inscription that maintains its texture. An alternative process to the squeeze, which lacks the depth of the relief, is to place a dry piece of paper and rub it with powdered graphite. Choey’s work seemed to conflate both processes with her use of graphite and her generation of the stuffed and stretched alphabet forms.
Yet beyond the form of Choey’s work and the process of replicating ancient inscriptions for study, their display resonated with something that I had been teaching as part of a seminar on Ancient Philosophical Handbooks: the monumental inscription of Diogenes of Oenoanda. Set up in the 2nd Century CE in the Greek city of Oenoanda in Lycia (modern southwest Turkey), this massive inscription of over 260 feet (80 meters) set out Epicurus’ teachings and its author’s original Epicurean texts. At various points in the inscription, Diogenes directly addresses those people who are passing by and who if they take the time to read his inscription they will cure their fear of death and learn how to live a life of tranquility. If, with Diogenes’ inscription in mind, we return to Choey’s works, the way that they both call for and resist deciphering by their audience is a result of her forcing the dictionary definition out of its original context so that we may ‘look for silence within its utterance’. While the Epicurean wants his stone to speak so that his readers can pause in their lives and find tranquility, looking at Choey’s work directs us to the silence that persists through the very processes of inscription.
The exhibition Void Writing, which I have curated in collaboration with Choey at the Center for Epigraphical and Palaeographical Studies at OSU, is an attempt to explore these differences, both in how found texts (ancient inscriptions and dictionary definitions) are reproduced and manipulated, and also how their audiences – ancient and modern – are addressed to interact with them in contrasting ways. Accompanied by a selection of squeezes of ancient inscriptions, and positioned within the books, dictionaries and other resources of the working environment of epigraphical and palaeographical study, Choey’s work creates a space for silence that that not only transports us back to the stone language of the ancient monumental inscription of Diogenes, awaiting a passerby to speak to, but also locates the stillness of Diogenes’ lesson in the process of making itself – generating silence and void amid the hustle and bustle of writing.
Join us for the exhibition’s opening reception on Monday April 17 at 4pm.