Indexing Silence

Ruark Lewis: An Index of Kindness
Chalk Horse Gallery, Sydney
10 July – 2 August 2008

In the latest installation from Ruark Lewis, a variety of candy striped objects are arranged on the floor of Surry Hills’s Chalk Horse Gallery, interspersed with other quasi-sculptural painted and tactile curios. They texture the space with a somewhat festive air. In a corner is a wooden mallet, upturned, reinvented by contrasting stripes; against one wall is a baseless globe, spanned by a brass meridian and striped as if in a blur of spin; in the middle of the gallery a fifteen inch ball of red wool supports one end of a black and white piece of timber. The ball suggests a metaphorical centrality, hinting at the delicacy with which things hold their shape and at various forms of consolidation and unraveling.

The central thematic of the show, though, is found in the pieces which hang from the ceiling and line the walls, fabric printed with blocks of text: black and red flags inscribed with combinations of aphorisms and individual letters. The aphoristic writing is from the Russian-born novelist Nathalie Sarraute, with whom Lewis collaborated on the book Just for Nothing (1997). That they are flags, or banners, is a significant gesture to the political undertones of this exhibition: flags mark identity, banners signify protest, and a portion of the work was constructed in Singapore, where the painting of any political slogan can lead to jail. This political edge is grounded by a red transcription hanging at the entry, originating from the Indian intellectual Ashis Nandy. Nandy has written extensively on the evaporation of ethical and cultural values in regions of Southern Asia, but here his words are arranged in a semantically open-ended poetic: IT/WAS A/STRANGE MIX/OF LOVE AND HATE/AFFIRMATIONS OF/CONTINUITY AND/DIFFERENCE/NOSTALGIA/AND A SENSE/OF/ BETRAYAL /ON BOTH SIDES. The enjambment redraws emphasis and meaning, but everything hinges on the IT. This entry statement is one of polarity, of choosing sides despite indeterminacy.

A similar act of reframing occurs with lines from poet John Kinsella, which are stretched the length of a wall, positioned as something between mission statement and language poem in thirty centimetre letters of yellow and black text. This repeated fluctuation between poeticism and a loose demarcation of ethical and theoretical ground goes to the heart of the work: HEXAGONAL MEDALS OF TERRAIN … DROP ZONES IMPLORING ACCURACY… This emphatic language, tempered by polyvalence and deferral, is Lewis’s playground.

So what is this terrain? How do we consider An Index of Kindness? It is by this curiously suggestive combination of words that Lewis has grouped a number of installations and performances in Sydney and Singapore for the last eight months or so, and it leaves us wondering how we might think through any indexical relationship with something as amorphous as kindness? Indeed, is that what we are being asked to do here? Or does the title suggest only linguistic play and paradox, movement toward and away from a notional space? Although an ethical ‘zone’ is suggested, it remains unanchored, and deliberately so.

The puzzle is deepened with the title that encircles the bulk of this collection: ‘An Index of Silence’. Where, it asks, does utterance begin? Where does it end? What are the politics of silence, the braveries of speech? And what is silence at an ontological level—its limits and articulations—the place between signifier and signified, between word and object? What is the movement: letter—phoneme—word—idea?

This sonic query is extended by a collaborative sound piece from Lewis and poet/sound artist Amanda Stewart—An Index of Emotions. This work follows a throaty trajectory of organic noise and vocalisation, skirting in and out of articulation as it plays with pathos, sex, the banal, laughter and much else. This is perhaps the most apparent index in this collection, an emotional spectrum negotiating the boundaries of talk.

Forced to consider each level of the communicative relationship, we find a language that is material in the most basic sense: a word printed on poly-cotton, or a vibration on the air. But in breaking down words to letters and juxtaposing them, in straining vocal cords to emote without resolution, a less concrete linguistic materiality is also emphasised. The flags create associations between sound shapes and concepts, where foot high letters overlay words, ideas: a large black E joins smaller white writing, LIKE AN ECHO, a speech sound is elongated in stretched articulation; Q meets ONE WORD—so we find, in some way, a query at the centre of things, twice placed for remaining unuttered. And at the crux of it all a tacit question of action, of language, empathy, generosity of spirit.

In reflecting on the connection between these contrasting forms, language itself becomes a physically interactive space. The two-dimensional colour blocks, hanging in rows, and the bright solidity of the objects, reshaped and reinvented by paint. Although the first impression on entering the gallery is of primary colours and textures from the combination of fabric, word and object, it is when you begin to circulate on the gallery floor that the spatial arrangement makes sense. I find myself treating the floor itself as a kind of canvas, treading softly, turning half circles, lifting and placing my feet with care while I divide my attention between floor and ceiling. My traversal of the gallery is in some respects controlled, corralled. These assorted objects become barber’s shop road signs, directing our movements; blood and bandages marking out the ‘space of kindness’.

The way in which this exhibition wants to position us spatially corresponds with the way that it positions us ethically: each flag offers a range of possibilities opened between letter and idea, yet there is no didacticism. We can thus view the ‘corralling’ works as a kind of grammar, offering rules of engagement that might be followed or ignored, just as we ignore grammar in poetic composition. The possibilities of reading become more open, emphasising our way through language as one of pathways, suggestions, hops and skips; both corralled and anarchic, characterised by communication and silence, and all the time engaged with the deeper processes of reading and composition.

Such a grammar is suggested in ‘An Index of Horses’, a forty-eight minute film showing Sydney Symphony violinist Nicola Lewis ‘discovering’ her instrument by playing in response to barcodes from Singapore Turf Club betting tickets. Her act of reading, her response, is freed from linguistic grammars, but much of the interest of this work comes from other forms of reading. We read her face, the reactions that mark the act of discovery; we read the moment in which classical form is deconstructed in bow strokes, ricochet and vibrato. Her edging of ‘music’ is like a demarcation of meaning.

This act of reading and response is without escape. How do we locate ourselves—physically, linguistically, auditorily, socially? And what is this location to the act of reading, to our meaning making? To read, even through lines of indeterminacy, is always to assume a position.