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Critical Dictionary

After the success of the CD online magazine, David Evans curates a new exhibition that looks closer at the unfinished nature of language

Tonight London's WORK gallery opens its doors on Critical Dictionary, an exhibition curated by David Evans and showcasing the work of young artists from around the world to ask the question: what is in a word? Featuring work by Rut Blees Luxemburh, Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin, Justin Hibbs and Simon Faithfull, we spoke to the curator, as well as contributing artist Simon Cunningham, to find out why words are the driving force behind their work.

What does a ruling class do when it rules? Amongst other things, it attempts to control what a word like ‘civilization’ can mean. Critical Dictionary tries to put a few spanners in the works

Dazed Digital: This is an exhibition about words. What are the benefits of exploring linguistic ideas in a visual form?
David Evans: In part, the show is inspired by the anti-dictionary that Georges Bataille and colleagues developed in the dissident Surrealist journal Documents, published in Paris in the late twenties. The aim was to un-define, to de-classify – and eclectic photographic imagery was an integral part of the project. Brecht’s War Primer, first published in East Berlin in 1955, is another reference point. It’s mainly a collection of photographs clipped from the newspapers in the Second World War and four line verses offer alternative captions. Bataille and Brecht were very different, but both of them were down to earth personalities who used word and image to corrode mainstream cant.

DD: How did the show come about and how did you find so many artists working in a similar vein?
David Evans: Critical Dictionary began less than ten years ago as an online magazine, and then Black Dog published a book version last year. There are obvious affinities between the website, book and exhibition, but it is taken for granted that the gallery wall is not a computer screen or book page. The website runs on a shoestring so I thought it would be appropriate to have a similarly modest exhibition. No limited edition prints! No fancy frames!

Take Penelope Umbrico. She is a New York-based photographer who collects amateur snaps of sunsets that she finds on Flickr. Last week she uploaded 390 files at her home in Brooklyn that were then printed by Asda somewhere in the UK according to her specifications and delivered to WORK Gallery, London. This week a wall-size grid was made, following her instructions. A lot of the work in the exhibition was produced in a similar spirit.

DD: The works might be described as visual jokes or puns. Is this something you invite, or would you like people to take something more from the show?
David Evans: Illustrator Chloé Regan has contributed three drawings called The Pencil Test. The first drawing refers to animators who use the term to describe a movie made from the original rough pencil drawings. The second drawing is about a test to determine if a woman needs a bra or not – if she can hold a pencil under her breast without dropping it, then she’s failed the test and needs a bra.

And the third drawing is about South Africa in the era of apartheid – if there was uncertainty about a woman’s race, then she might be asked to put a pencil in her hair and lean forward. She was white if the pencil slid out … This work is emblematic of what Critical Dictionary is trying to do, opening up meaning without slipping into cynical relativism.

DD: Simon Cunningham’s Duckrabbit is a nod to Wittgenstein’s original and clearly embodies the whole spirit of this show. Can you explain how an image like this works and what it says about the slippery nature of language and its meaning?
Simon Cunningham:
‘We see with the mind as well as the eye. Duckrabbit represents the perceived activity between one and other whilst attempting to be both simultaneously.’

DD: Who owns words? Do we, the users, decide on their meaning or is there some greater authority?
David Evans: What does a ruling class do when it rules? Amongst other things, it attempts to control what a word like ‘civilization’ can mean. Critical Dictionary tries to put a few spanners in the works.

Critical Dictionary, WORK Gallery, January 27 - February 25, 2012, 10A Acton Street, London, WC1X 9NG