Learning to Read Objects Like Letters

Gordon Hall performing “AND PER SE AND—A Lecture in 23 Tufts” (2016) (all photos by Stephanie Lynn Rogers unless otherwise noted) (click to enlarge)

PHILADELPHIA — The  “I”-shaped table is set up as if it contained a presentation of recently excavated artifacts. Objects cover most of it — small, soft geometric shapes in many neutral shades and a few punches of yellow, blue, or vermillion. A camera attached to a crane hovers over one side, projecting a live feed of the grey, blank space underneath it, the only part of the table not filled with objects. Each member of the audience has been handed a program that consists of a series of numbered footnotes, with references as varied as “transcript of text messages with Willy Smart” and “Excerpt from Roland Barthes, ‘The Grain of the Voice,’” all printed twice: right-side up and upside down. The artist appears wearing sweats and a T-shirt in slightly different shades of grey. Unobtrusive, like so many of the objects laid out on the table.

This is Gordon Hall’s “AND PER SE AND—A Lecture in 23 Tufts,” a new sculpture/performance/experimental lecture for Temple Contemporary from the non-binary wunderkind, who has recently shown at venues including SculptureCenter, Foxy Production, the Brooklyn Museum, and the Whitney. As the performance begins, Hall selects a few objects, a stack of thin, white, geometric forms that look like rectangles with the edges rounded off or angled out. They move at a steady clip, neither fast nor slow, and with deliberation and care spread the stacked shapes out like a strange tarot deck in the blank space of the table (and thus onto the projection). They pull a pile of notecards out of their pocket and begin: “The – that holds together the parts of the sentence is cumulative … You connect the details accretively, as they – one after the other. A succession of views that ‘oozes at the edge of words,’ I weigh each – in my hand.” I read the first footnote, which tells me the quoted text is a pause-laden, cut-up reconfiguration of words from Hall’s performance last May at the Whitney, now become a set of instructions for viewing the performance I’m watching tonight.

Gordon Hall, “AND PER SE AND” (detail, 2016), wood, joint compound, wood filler, cast cement, colored pencil, acrylic and latex paint, denim, hand dyed cotton, modeling clay, tile mosaic, performance with projected video and sound 58 min, 13 ‘ x 23’ x 36’​​​​ (click to enlarge)

Hall shuffles the geometric stack and returns to the other side of the table to select another object: a pair of “V” shapes, facing opposite directions. “Seeing myself in photos, my hand up in a claw, my talon, resting, grasping. Putting my phone in there just to give it something to hold onto. Always gripping, holding on holding on.” Next comes a white, curved object, like a large handle but with the texture of confectionary icing. Hall reads, “Another interpretation is that the ball symbolizes a polished river stone being held firmly by a crane, who stands diligently over her nest. Resting on one leg. With the stone held mid air by the other, the mother crane watches over her young and would awaken quickly if she were to fall asleep and drop the stone.” Hall selects a cylinder with a rounded bottom, places it below the handle, and says, “I give you my word.” Hall clears all the objects, carefully placing them back in their original spots, before choosing another and starting again.

I try to follow the footnotes, while the objects take on the esoteric meanings ascribed to them by Hall’s words, as if they were shifting shapes before my eyes. Many of the sculptures have referents in everyday items, resembling perhaps a handle, a cup, a brick, or a lemon, but they are none of these things exactly. Hall quotes a line about gardening from Gertrude Stein’s The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, and the spotted triangular piece of paper projected on the screen nearly transforms into a bed of flowers. It’s a kind of linguistic alchemy. I listen and watch, trying to decipher the objects as if they were hieroglyphs, characters that look familiar but can’t quite be understood. Two curved shapes appears almost as parentheses, but turned on their sides; another set could be oblique punctuation marks. The gathering of a yellow ball, a set of blue squares with holes in the middle, and two pink wedges flits on the screen as Hall quotes interviews with artist Scott Burton and writer Ursula K. Leguin. Hall’s hands move with a delicate determination, not quite caressing the objects they made. Each grouping is a fleeting assemblage, calling to mind Erwin Wurm’s One Minute Sculptures.

Gordon Hall, “AND PER SE AND” (2016)

The work’s title, “AND PER SE AND,” is derived from a Latin portmanteau of the letters “e” and “t” or “et,” otherwise known as “and.” Hall explains in the 23rd “tuft” (as they refer to each sculpture/quotation in the series):

Medieval English-Latin dictionaries sometimes taught spelling not letter by letter as we do but syllable by syllable. When an English letter, like I, formed a word by itself, it was spelled I per se I, which is Latin for I by itself is the word I. In the mid 15th century, the & symbol was added to the alphabet as a letter after z, as it was common in print—so you would say w, x, y, z, &. Since the symbol by itself was a word, it was, using the system of syllable spelling, spelled & per se &… But the four words and per se and were gradually slurred together into one word, the contraction ampersand, which in the early 1800’s became recognized as the official word for the & symbol.

Hall’s exploration of changes in the history of the alphabet offers a way of talking about their own ambiguity regarding finite categories of gender; it’s also as a way of discussing the fickleness of so many of the systems that govern our everyday lives and identities. If the alphabet, a system we think of as fixed and timeless, is in fact a construct subject to change, then why shouldn’t our ideas of gender as fixed also be subject to change? Is a cup really a cup, or does it just look like a cup? Is a lemon really lemon, or just a lemon-colored, lemon-sized round object? Assumptions can be made, only to be broken. Although the performance was at times opaque, it’s one of Hall’s most obviously personal pieces to date, in scale as well as in content — in addition to artists and academics, Hall also quotes themself. “AND PER SE AND” first moves forward, counting its way down through 23 sculptures paired with 23 quotations, then backwards, counting up, requoting them all. You follow along, recognizing some of the referents, beginning to associate them with specific objects, retraining yourself to find meaning in these peculiar combinations of words and images. It feels like learning an arcane foreign language. “AND PER SE AND” allows for a strange and pleasurable cognitive dissonance, and leaves you wondering what use there ever was in having binaries to begin with.

The table set for Gordon Hall’s “AND PER SE AND” (2016) (photo by the author for Hyperallergic) (click to enlarge)

Gordon Hall: AND PER SE AND is on view at Temple Contemporary (2001 N 13th Street, Philadelphia) through January 22. The performance took place on January 14, 6pm.

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