If concrete poetry is a form which confounds the reader’s sense of meaning, then perhaps it is easier to think of it not as poetry – something which can be read and (eventually, in the case of some poems) understood – but as an arrangement of letters and sometimes words which pleases the eye simply in its presentation of forms and shapes. Ian Hamilton Finlay believed that concrete poetry is voiceless, not meant to be spoken.
I was thinking of this when entering the
recent exhibition of Mira Schendel’s work at Hauser and Wirth. The creation of
her monotypes was occasioned by the gift of a ream of Japanese rice paper, so
fine and thin that Schendel wanted to exploit the difficulty of the material.
But every time she tried to draw or paint on the paper, it would tear. What
emerged, she said, came ‘out of chance and curiosity’. The
process she adopted was to cover a glass surface with oil paint, then laying a
sheet of rice paper over the top and using either her fingertips or the side of
her hand she would create shapes. What we get feels handmade because it is –
the hand being the tool employed, rather than a brush or pen.
Like Gego, Schendel came to South
America from Europe. Words and phrases enter the work in multiple languages.
She was inspired too by Stockhausen and his Song of the Youths which took texts
from the Book of Daniel. These fragmented and layered languages and texts might
give the impression of many voices at once. Laid out in the gallery in a
stretch of cases along the walls, the reflections of West End buildings also
merged with the frail marks, to give the impression of birds taking off into
Schendel wants us to associate these
drawings with movement. Sometimes she lifts the sheets out of the cases and
suspends them from wires, as in the sculptural piece Trenzinho / Little Train, a train moving through an
imaginary landscape, a train of thought, a flimsy sheet of paper trained to
become something more than itself. But ‘little’ keeps us focused on the scale,
thinking about the artist stringing these sheets herself, no higher than her
body can reach; the intimacy of the hand. Hand made.
Schendel liked the fact we can see
through the paper, so that each drawing, whether laid flat or strung along in
air, is itself, but also what we can see through it. The drawings in the cases
and their reflected city in the glass providing us with a double view, but also
the illusion of something reflective rather than transparent – pick a sheet up
our of its case, and we would see our own hand through it.
I followed Schendel’s train out of my
own city, and to another – Edinburgh – where her work is part of a group show
of South American constructivists. Her disk of letters, like the monotypes, stems
from the idea of ‘seeing through something’, how that expression really means
gaining the truth by exposing the artifice; but Schendel subverts that by
asking us to ‘read’ a text that isn’t fixed, that dances in the air and is
I love being confounded by her wor(l)d.