On the Origin of Art exhibition,
MONA (Museum of Old and New Art), Berriedale, Tasmania
Guest curators Mark Changizi, Stephen Pinker, Brian Boyd and Geoffrey Miller
Commissioned for the exhibition.
Plywood panelling, brown and black stain, speakers and sound track.
Sound developed by Paul Roberts.
10m deep x 5m wide x 3.5 m high (approx)
2@ 240cm high x 60cm deep x 240 cm wide 1@ 150cm x 150cm x 150 cm
5 November 2016 - 17 April 2017
Photo Credits: Mona/Remi Chauvin
Images Courtesy Mona, Museum of Old and New Art, Hobart, Tasmania, Australia
With special thanks to: the MONA crew, especially Dylan Banks, Tim, Sabina and Errin; Campbell Muskett of Xanderware, and Sara Lindsay, Phoebe Adams and Phil Blacklow.
Graphos, which is the ancient Greek word for writing, is a creative response to Mark Changizi’s ideas about how writing systems have evolved through a process he calls 'nature harnessing'.
Changizi describes reading and writing as complex and mysterious riddles, as systems and processes that are not instinctual, but rather, are the result of cultural selection. He tells us that writing is everywhere and that ‘Cultural artefacts don’t merely appear. They evolve. They get shaped.’ They are harnessed from nature and undergo a cultural selection process. Changizi argues that letters and writing systems actually look like the ‘stuff’ of nature, the natural shapes that the brain has evolved to process. So ‘rather than the brain knowing about letters, letters have come to know about the brain.’ And that is the answer to the reading riddle. Music and speech have also evolved culturally, but in contrast to language, have developed from the natural sounds of the body in movement, specifically through hits, slides and rings.
Graphos has aimed to represent the essence of Changizi's complex ideas in a way that is both poetic and conceptual. The work makes reference to the words of the late French author Marguerite Duras (1914–1996) who said, ‘Around us, everything is writing; that’s what we must finally perceive. Everything is writing.’ She also described writing as ‘wild’, as the ‘savageness of the forests, as ancient as time’. (Duras, Writing, 1993) I see a poetic symmetry here between the theories of the scientist, the ideas of the creative writer, and my own views about the nature of language: we all claim that reading and writing are embedded in the world, are deeply connected to nature, and are underscored by an essential mystery. However, where our thinking parts, is that Chagnizi offers a potential key to unlocking that mystery through his theory of nature harnessing.
Graphos takes over an entire room in the Changizi section of On the Origin of Art, creating an all encompassing environment. Everything in the room is wooden – walls, floor and three very large sculptural objects that dominate the centre of the space. The lighting is soft and the walls are embedded with giant black wooden letters of the alphabet. These spell out the phrase 'Around us everything is writing', but this is not immediately apparent.
The three very large black wooden objects in the centre of the space directly reference the 1960s minimalist sculptural forms of Robert Morris and Donald Judd, and Changizi's idea that letters of all writing systems have evolved from seeing opaque objects in nature in relationship to each other. At one end of the space there is a giant upside down V, at the other end is a very large angular C shape, and in the middle is a big black square. As viewers move around the space, these objects are seen in relationship to each other, in relationship to the letters on the walls, and in relationship to the viewers themselves, and they begin to transform into letters of the alphabet, such as an A, an E, or an O.
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The final element of Graphos, developed in collaboration with Paul Roberts, is a sound track that emanates randomly from each of the three large sculptural objects and from unspecified locations in the space. It is a combination of the sound of three different voices saying the phonemes of the words on the walls, interspersed with percussive sounds that represent the hit slides and rings Changizi claims are the basis of spoken language.
The experience within Graphos is all encompassing, offering viewers a physical as well as psychological experience, and an opportunity to question their own relationship to language and its emergence from the world around us.