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Long ago, writing one of my earliest exhibition reviews (when I hadn’t seen enough contemporary art to be any good at writing reviews, but you have to start somewhere), I discussed the show in question with a German art-editor friend. The exhibition was up in a Berlin gallery district that no longer exists (though the gallery, Nordenhake, still does). I remember a lot of white, heavy balls on the floor, and that these balls had something to do with camels. I mentioned the artist, Not Vital. But I pronounced it the way a clueless American would, as in the opposite of lively; inessential; maybe dead. My friend laughed (and laughed … and laughed) and told me, quietly and (thankfully) kindly, “It’s “NOTE vee-TALL.”
It’s embarrassing admitting this, but in looking back over my many mistakes operating in the art world, some of my most egregious errors regard the names of the people populating it, how easy it is to get some of them wrong. This has happened in writing (German curator Nicolaus Schafhausen’s last name has one f, not two, and to the editor who complained to some people that I initially misspelled an Eastern European name in an admittedly awful, rushed first draft of a review of a particularly contentious show: it got back to me), then in pronunciation. Thankfully neither of these eff-ups made it to press.
Despite the Vital confusion, Germanic names usually work for me since I’ve been living in Germany and Austria for two decades. Thomas is “TOE-mas”; Demand, Struth, Ruff, and Scheibitz are “DEH-mand,” “SHTROOT,” “ROOF” and “SHY-bits”; Neo Rauch, “NAY-o RAUKH,” trips up most English speakers but is easy for me. (Although saying the Leipzig-based painter’s name correctly demands mastery of the German “ch” sound, which can sound like coughing up a hairball.)
But non-German and non-Anglo names have at times been a minefield. I have referred to Danh Vo as “Dan” (his first name is more like “Yon”). Just last week in a meeting with a museum director I stumbled over sculptor Nairy Bagrhamian’s last name, which isn’t particularly difficult, but I forget the consonants’ order unless I’m reading them. Right now I’m remembering that the co-founder and editor of this publication, Hrag Vartanian, has an online audio file that readers can listen to to get his name right in both its North American and Armenian forms (I listened to this little clip before I met him back in the day and again when speaking with him about this article). The more people I meet coming from a certain geographical region, the less likely I am to slaughter their names, although I avoid trying to say “Apichatpong Weerasethakul” even if I finally mastered “Rirkrit Tiravanija” a few years ago.
After his spectacular intervention “Untilled” (2011–12) at the 2012 Documenta, I had the foresight to ask a PR guy exactly how to say French artist Pierre Huyghe’s (“HWEEG”) name before having to speak about the artist to someone important. But that strategy isn’t always available. (By the way, I just had to look up how to correctly spell Huyghe, after trying twice and having it not look quite right.)
I vividly remember a moment in 2013, standing in the front courtyard of Dakis Joannou’s Deste Foundation exhibition space in Athens a few days after the Venice biennale opening (on display was The System of Objects, an exuberant remix of Joannou’s entire collection, curated by Maria Cristina Didero and Andreas Angelidakis, whose names I can easily pronounce) and discussing with a fancier-than-usual group how moving the Belgian pavilion’s Cripplewood exhibition was. But I’d backed myself into a corner, uncomfortably dancing around actually mentioning the artist until a museum curator uttered Berlinde de Bruyckere’s name first, saving me from certain mortification. (Thank you; you know who you are.)
Even with Anglo names, one can never quite be sure. Phil Collins is easy to say and read, but is not the same guy as the drummer/singer. I was truly confused the first time I heard of artist Collins, years ago. Lawrence Weiner is “WEE-ner,” not “whiner” (knowing German here can backfire). Robert Mapplethorpe’s last name begins with “maple” like the tree, not the apple; David Salle is “Sally” and not “Sal.” I have mispronounced all of these names early on in conversation, in low-stakes interactions, but still, I appreciate being corrected, as long as the nudge is not arrogant or public.
I have corrected, when necessary: for my own piece, I had to convince an editor at The New York Times’s copy desk that their former transliteration of Hito Steyerl’s last name (a 2014 review had indicated that her name should be pronounced STYE-rill) wasn’t quite right. (It’s much closer to “SHTYE-earl.”) To do so I had unearthed a video clip of a lecture performance in which the artist introduces herself. But I bit my tongue a few months ago when someone referred to legendary American artist Ed Ruscha as Ed Russia, like the country. It’s “roo-SHAY.”
Strangely, I honestly can’t remember just who said that; I mostly remember being surprised at the mistake, but also bemused at my own lack of judgment. Maybe that’s because I’ve had so many mishaps myself and that I believe that mispronouncing an art-world name, or any difficult word, usually means the speaker is perhaps scholarly, reading and writing more than they talk. (In the past couple years copy-editing South as a State of Mind magazine, I realize I have never heard out loud and cannot properly say the names of, say, Olu Oguibe or Suhail Malik, but I’ve read both their names over and over.) For me, years of teaching and a few gigs as a panel-discussion moderator have improved the situation somewhat, but I still have to practice artists’ and panelists’ names, at times still getting things entirely or almost wrong and feeling awful afterward. I remain most comfortable behind a screen, where I have the supreme luxury of thinking in a considered way, about my responses to art and the artists who make it and have the safety net of a hopefully understanding editor for those moments in which the art-world news cycle goes too fast or when my eyes, brain, and heart are weary.
And as boring as my own name, “Kimberly Bradley,” is to English speakers, I’m sometimes reminded that it’s not easy for everyone — some Germans end my last name with “lay” and not “lee,” and nonwestern people don’t even know where to start. And that’s okay (unless, like a Viennese gallerist once did, you call me “Slater” — wrong Bradley — but I know he was messing with me). By the time I saw the work of Not Vital outside of the gallery and in its natural habitat, I’d gotten it right. I was visiting the Lower Engadine Valley in Switzerland where Vital has an outdoor sculpture park and an entire building housing artworks, materials, and his foundation. A lovely assistant gave me a grand tour of it all, and I spoke to the artist himself on the phone, very much alive and active and … vital. VIE-tel.
Just don’t ask me to say David Wojnarowicz.