Joseph Kosuth A More Powerful Meaning

The father of ‘Conceptual Art’ maps the mind’s image – Review

‘‘The Mind’s Image of Itself #3’, the new installation by Joseph Kosuth, the artist often referred to as ‘the father of conceptual art’, is a deeply self-referential exploration of the relation of language to art. Within a ‘line drawing’ of the Spruth Mager gallery rooms (an off-centre black line that follows the existing lines of the building’s architecture), Kosuth presents us with over 150 eclectic quotations scattered across the walls. Immediately, the piece presents the viewer with a puzzle, its meta-meaning encrypted within these micro-utterances – the individual units of language suggesting the purpose of the whole contained within the architectural unit.

This is an intellectual journey in which we are prompted everywhere to search for connections, the words of Isaiah Berlin, for example, explaining that ‘to understand is to perceive patterns’, while E.M. Forster imparts even starker wisdom: ‘connect, only connect’. It is quickly made clear that the quotations themselves hold the key to understanding, and that the line drawing facsimile which replicates the existing morphology of the building is merely a framework, ‘a container of something’: we are to ‘enjoy not so much the teacup but the tea’ (Yoshio Taniguchi). But equally, the texts are frequently unnerving, repeatedly undermining the authority of their content via that oh-so-postmodern suggestion that the gap between language and reality is simply insurmountable: W.B. Yeats asks us ‘How can we know the dancer from the dance?’ (the authorial meaning from the text?); William James reminds us that ‘The word dog does not bite’; Foucault warns that ‘it is in vain that we say what we see; [that] what we see never resides in what we say’.

Despite sowing the seeds of doubt, it is ultimately the quoted words of a postmodern theorist – and the greatest champion of ‘the death of the author’, at that – which give us the best clue to the meaning of Kosuth’s piece. According to Roland Barthes, ‘the force of meaning depends on its degree of systematization: the most powerful meaning is that whose system takes in the greatest number of elements, to the point where it seems to encompass everything notable in the semantic universe’; in other words, the very multiplicity of utterances – some incompatible, others obscure – is the point. The lack of overall coherence within Kosuth’s piece is its great claim to authority, and presents the viewer with a far more accurate ‘architecture of the mind’ in consequence. Rather than engaging with the individual quotes per se, the artist is preoccupied first and foremost with the vibrations between the quotations, the interactive interconnectedness being generated by forcing so many ‘ideas’ into a defined space. In the words of Theodor Adorno;

‘where thought has opened one cell of reality, it should … penetrate the next. It proves its relation to the object as soon as other objects crystallize around it. In the light that it casts on its chosen substance, others begin to glow’

‘‘The Mind’s Image of Itself #3’ is proof that Joseph Kosuth has not lost his touch. This pioneering artist remains formidable, a virtuoso in ‘emotional algebra’ (Anais Nin). Words/Photo: Thomas Keane © ArtLyst 2011

10 September -1 October Spruth Magers London