The recombination of image and text has seen a surge in contemporary artistic practice. The exhibition Descriptive Acts, on view at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) from February 18 through June 17, 2012, highlights this phenomenon with a selection of recent acquisitions by Aurélien Froment, Dora García, and Tris Vonna-Michell, contextualized by contemporary works by Anthony Discenza, Shilpa Gupta, Lynn Marie Kirby, and Li Xiaofei as well as a 1976 work by John Smith. Involving film, video, text, performance, installation, photography, and audio, the works in the exhibition all reflect the artists' interest in process-based and performative practices. These "descriptive acts," shown in two consecutive configurations curated by Rudolf Frieling, SFMOMA curator of media arts, are acts of mediation. Some are presented as performative installations that involve an open structure, others as carefully framed reflections on their temporary identity.
"These artists try to grasp language as a fundamental way of addressing the world, but at the same time they exhibit the futility and precariousness of that effort," says Frieling. The works by Smith, Froment, Vonna-Michell, and Gupta variously use recorded speech in relation to visual representation, while Discenza, García, and Kirby and Li focus on our text-based online presence, hinting at the political and social conditions of our access to online global communication. Whether spoken or written, these artists' uses of text foreground the complex and often fraught processes of description, narration, translation, and communication. They do so using a strikingly broad range of technologies to achieve their ends.
The exhibition also reflects "contemporary and more conceptual concerns with performance and performativity," says Frieling. Vonna-Michell's practice, here represented by GTO hahn/huhn, variation 1 (2010), includes live performance but as part of a larger, ongoing process of documenting, archiving, and time-shifted storytelling. García's Instant Narrative (2006–8) and Kirby and Li's Hello? 你好！(2010) "perform" the development of texts over time: the former in the act of live creation, the latter after the fact, documenting a conversation that gradually evolves into the work itself. Other works, like Froment's Pulmo Marina (2010) and Discenza's A Viewing (The Effect) (2010), consider notions of staging, spectacle, and the ways in which methods of display—including museum display—generate effects and construct meaning.
The presentation of the exhibition in two "acts" references the traditional construction of a stage play, but without the sense of narrative progression usually associated with theater. While the works on view will change, the themes will not, and—as in many of the works themselves—the "story" will remain unresolved.
Act I: Aurélien Froment, Dora García, Shilpa Gupta, John Smith, Tris Vonna-Michell
The exhibition begins on the museum's fourth-floor landing with a historic anchor: The Girl Chewing Gum, a 1976 work by Smith. In this dryly witty film, an off-camera voice "directs" the action of a documentary street scene in East London.
In García's Instant Narrative (2006–8), visitors pass a writer typing on a laptop; when they enter the gallery they start reading a projected text gradually posted on the wall, only to discover that they have become part of a narrative: a running description of the space and its visitors is being typed in real time. Instant Narrative will be performed live during museum hours by a series of local writers.
Froment's video projection Pulmo Marina (2010) consists of a single long shot of a jellyfish in an aquarium, with a voiceover drawing attention to the conditions of display. In describing the image, the voiceover borrows lines from high-definition flat-screen advertising, zoological guides, mythologies, and interviews conducted with staff at the Monterey Bay Aquarium during the French artist's residency in the Bay Area. Pulmo Marina exists in other formats as well: a 35mm print to be shown as a short at SFMOMA's evening film screenings and a digital version to be presented online, highlighting a shift in contexts and meanings.
Tris Vonna-Michell's installation GTO: hahn/huhn, variation 1 (2010) is part of the British artist's ongoing practice of building and reconfiguring an archive of images, audio tracks, and performance-based narratives. The viewer is presented with an array of slides, photographic prints, and audio materials to explore, including Vonna-Michell's rapid-fire monologue of impressions and urban histories from Berlin and Detroit.
Indian artist Shilpa Gupta's I Have Many Dreams (2007–8) presents a series of four photographic portraits of Indian adolescents accompanied by an audio track in which the subjects describe their dreams of future identities. As Indian society is deeply impacted by the globalizing economy, these fragile portraits resonate with a moment of change.
Act II: Anthony Discenza, Shilpa Gupta, Lynn Marie Kirby and Li Xiaofei, John Smith, Tris Vonna-Michell
In this second configuration of the exhibition, scheduled to begin on April 21, the works by García and Froment are replaced with two works by prominent Bay Area–based artists.
Discenza's sound installation A Viewing (The Effect) (2010) compiles a series of fragments of text found online, all of which include a specific phrase like "and the effect is," into a single narration read aloud by a professional speaker and played back in the gallery. The sources and referents of the fragments are not revealed, and the seemingly coherent text moves forward without getting anywhere in its argument—a speech as sound effect that becomes more disconcerting the longer one listens.
Kirby collaborated with Shanghai-based Li on Hello? 你好！(2010), a two-channel silent video projection that documents an email exchange over the course of a month during a time when access to Google search was blocked in China. The texts in English and Chinese have been translated using Google translation software and are projected simultaneously. The resulting conversation in both English and Mandarin thus triggers a sense of gaps, delays, and misinterpretations, but also a sense of unexpected poetry in the communication process. Ultimately, the work also describes its own coming into being.
Over the course of the exhibition, a prominent roster of Bay Area writers will interpret the writing instructions for García's Instant Narrative in their subjective ways. In May, Rudolf Frieling will introduce a program of related films and videos in the Phyllis Wattis Theater.