Freak Orlando (1981) is an outrageous time-travelling masquerade, structured in five episodes. Classified by Ottinger as Welttheater (World Theatre), it aims to encompass human history from its origins to the present, emphasising prejudice, incompetence, lust for power, fear, madness, cruelty and everyday life. Albeit with extreme irony, Ottinger revisits Virginia Woolf’s novel Orlando: A Biography (1928), considered a landmark of modernist, feminist, queer and transgender writing, which follows a poet who lives for centuries, through various historical time-periods, and while doing so changes sex.

Ottinger’s protagonists are a series of ‘disillusioned characters’ that recall carnival’s embracing of the marginalised, Tod Browning’s film Freaks (1932) and the photography of Diane Arbus. In this way, Ottinger blends Woolf’s novel with German camp into a theatre of difference.

"I began doing literary poetry from every possible angle, then came visual poetry and the object poems. I started doing visual poetry when I felt I needed to go beyond the book as a support. It was a similar experience to the one I had with the theatre in the 1940s. It was an unusual combination of words, actors and curtains that gave me what I missed in a poem: movement. It is a fact that to obtain the maximum of possibilities you must aim at the impossible."

Joan Brossa

Garcia Riera, Joan: ‘Joan Brossa ha dedicat un poema visual a Badalona: el poeta ha acceptat fer una obra per encàrrec de “Reactivació Badalona”’, Revista de Badalona, no. 2830 (6 November 1987).

Dora García takes as her starting point one of the most cryptic works in world literature, Finnegans Wake. Published in 1939, James Joyce’s last novel is one of the best literary representations of the unconscious with a circular text that imposes a never-definitive hermeneutics. Accordingly, perhaps, a group of amateur readers and members of the Zurich James Joyce Foundation have been meeting on a weekly basis since 1986 to read the book aloud and comment on it together. Dora García has recorded these sessions in this Swiss club that boasts Europe’s most complete library of Joyce’s works.

Her video The Joycean Society brings out the highest virtues of conversational practice, literary interpretation and the production of meaning.

García has simultaneously reproduced ten copies of Joyce’s book with all the notes and comments made over the years by the readers of the Zurich James Joyce Foundation. Exhausted Books shows the books after they have been read and repeatedly annotated.

The title of the exhibition Rodney Graham. Through the Forest is also a reference to one of the key phrases of the English translation of the novel by German playwright Georg Büchner, Lenz (1835), which deals with the romantic theme of being lost in the forest. Graham appropriated this text in his homonymous work, Lenz (1983). The exhibition presented the forest as a leitmotiv, a place and a metaphor for the work of Rodney Graham, which is rooted in the conceptual art of the eighties and which playfully and theatrically explores the history of the art of our time through a complex collection of literary appropriations, films, photographs and paintings.

In 1986, Rodney Graham came across an English translation of the story Lenz by the German Romantic author Georg Büchner. In that translation, Graham discovered a peculiarity of the layout: the words ‘Through the forest' appear twice at points where the story continues from one page to another. Graham's interest was piqued and he realised the inherent possibilities of repetition. For him, the text became a loop, as the term is used in film terminology, and a key element to later works. Graham constructed a reading machine that he employed to make this experience both vivid and visible. The first five pages on which he recognised this phenomenon in the layout of the text are arranged so that the rotational effect becomes tangible. The device created appears like a machine for seeing.

Joan Jonas, one of the pioneering artists in performance art, experimental film and video installation. In her work, Jonas reconsiders the clichés of femininity and rebuilds the image of women and their stereotyped behaviour. 

Strongly intuitive, Jonas' modus operandi often begins with a piece of writing, a poem or a story, with elements taken from legends and myths as well as the work of writers such as Eduardo Galiano, James Joyce, H.D. (Hilda Doolittle), Ezra Pound, Jorge Luis Borges and William Carlos Williams. Her interest in semiotics has a correlate in her layering of time and space in her performances. In her early days, the themes of her work were connected to the artist herself, her body, her ups and downs, transformations, distortions and reconstructions through her alter ego, abstractions of the feminine or the contrast of gender roles. Later, the dramaturgy of the text harks back to historic events as recorded in fables and epics. The selection of pieces shows how Jonas' work has remained faithful to a system of expression and a range of themes that are extraordinarily coherent as a body, to the extent that the various installations and videos that she has produced from the early 1970s to the present day seem to all form part of a single programme.

Janet Cardiff (Brussels, Ontario, Canada, 1957) and George Bures Miller (Vergeville, Canada, 1960) use sound and the voice as the raw materials for their installations. Through elaborate recording, editing and playback processes, they create immersive environments that transport spectators to virtual dimensions in which the boundary between reality and fiction blurs.

Each piece imposes its own time and rhythm, and they bring together the live theatrical experience with that of film, bringing us a new genre of narration. This very high reading visuality brings Cardiff and Miller's work close to literature by generating a script which can be read or interpreted according to the eye or ear of each reader-spectator. This produces stories that live side by side in time and transport the visitor to superimposed fictions: of the museum and of the works. Their sources of inspiration are, among others, Jorge Luis Borges, Julio Cortázar, Philip K. Dick, J.W. Dunne, Robert Jourdain and Franz Kafka.

The exhibition Luis Claramunt. The Vertical Journey features a broad selection of works produced by the artist in the period from the early seventies to the late nineties. Although Luis Claramunt (Barcelona, 1951 – Zarautz, 2000) is known almost exclusively for his work as a painter, this exhibition presents a complex cosmology that is nonetheless unified and consistent, based on his drawing series, his photographs and the self-published books that complement his pictorial work and go beyond it.

The first retrospective of his work, this exhibition reveals an artist who uses drawing, photography and self-published books to write innumerable pages in which the history of literature becomes an essential counterweight to the history of painting. His work evokes human places and environments: literary topographies, fictions and stories that engage the eye and the spirit.

Nancy Spero (Cleveland, Ohio, United States, 1926 – New York, United States, 2009) wove feminism, political activism, art, dance, imagination and poetry into a dissident discourse that tore irreversible holes in the patriarchal models of the modernity that prevailed at the time.

Traditional artistic categories blur in Nancy Spero's work: writing becomes screaming, language becomes graffiti, text becomes an incision in the body. A body – her own and that of many other women – which is expressed through rhythm and movement, ultimately, through dance, through a Mallarmean dance, in the form of writing and poetic gesture.

L’Action restreinte (Restricted Action) is the title of an 1897 essay by the poet Stéphane Mallarmé that describes the limits and the concentration of poetic action, and writing’s ability to dramatise the tensions between the ideal and the mundane. The exhibition Art and Utopia. Restricted Action took Mallarmé’s poetics as a base from which to revisit some key moments of the art produced during the first seven decades of the twentieth century. This journey that cut across the history of modern art left aside the traditional antagonisms between formal innovation and political effectiveness and sought to show that the only possible utopia lies in language, in the “restricted” but also expansive action of the poetic act. Marx was reconciled with Mallarmé. And a chain of apparently invisible resonances linked the writings of the French poet to the works of artists such as Odilon Redon, Marcel Duchamp, Antonin Artaud, Marcel Broodthaers and Jeff Wall.

The exhibition brought together a total of 900 works – including drawings, paintings, sculptures, objects, installations, photographs, films, books and documentary material – which set up alternative accounts of the history of modern art.

While there are ideas about psychological and emotional developmental processes held within the sculptures I make, the things themselves are actual physical explorations into thinking, feeling, communicating and relating.
Karla Black