Barkenhoff, Worpswede, 13.8.2011
So there he sits at a small table, minimally lit in the darkness of the auditorium at the Hochschule für Künste in Bremen. Terry Fox sits there bent over a singing bowl whose rim he gently, wholly intently, blows on in such a way that a faint piping tone can be heard. The sound is acoustically amplified by the familiar characteristics of a singing bowl to the extent that it just reaches the listener’s threshold of audible perception, together with sounds of blowing, inhalation and breathing. Terry Fox sits there and does only this, playing the rim as an act of immediate and utmost concentration devoted to finding a potential tone. It is a work of momentary, serious, not-to-be-taken-for-granted articulation, as if to repeatedly initiate a new act of speaking, a cautious and tentative act of speaking that is dependent upon an instrument not designed for it, an act that is to be harmonized with the materiality of the originally soundless rim. Because blowing too hard is merely blowing, and blowing too little yields nothing. So the task, with the shaping of the mouth and the intensity of the blowing, is to repeatedly fashion the precise, minimal distance between lips and rim that generates the delicate, barely perceptible sound.
There Terry Fox sits on November 9th, 2005, a man etched by illness, a man who does not cease to elicit the solitary, faint piping and who generates a tone that conforms to none of the rules of composition, whose only purpose is its touchingly brief presence, nothing more and nothing less. There is no crescendo, there are no variations or other musical inventions to make what transpires perhaps more interesting. No, there is only the most beautiful regularity of this soft piping tone, again and again, ceaseless, constant. Yet as listening extends, difference emerges. Each piping becomes a different piping, at times nearly clean, then unstable, at times weaker, then triumphant, at times with accompanying sounds, then almost pure. These modest minimal differences from tone to tone allow us to grasp the physical aspect of this exercise, the audible breathing and blowing, the sensitive seeking and tentative finding — in contrast, say, to a concertized flute solo, where instrumental skill is supposed to shun precisely such aspects. This performance, however, is in no way about generating the perfect tone; rather, it is about the act of generating sound — that is, about a fundamental activity for which we must re-sensitize our awareness, because with all of our musical experiences, we have forgotten what a tone, a sound actually means and what it means to make it happen.
For us in the audience, Terry Fox’s physically succinct performance and concentration engendered an almost breathless silence. Concentration responded to concentration: an ideal situation for a perfect performance, interrupted only by noises outside the auditorium, or by the soft throat-clearing and rustling of clothing dramatized by each listener who could not tolerate the entire situation and quietly left the room early. A one-hour performance was planned, but in practicing this concentration, Terry Fox apparently fell into a kind of trance — one that always seems to assert itself when we launch something into the realm of repetition with extraordinarily consistent attention — from which he was cautiously awakened 90 minutes later by his wife Marita Loosen. For me and for others, this performance was one of those life experiences whose intensity remains unforgettable. Unforgettable for me also because it provided an example of the ineffable power of discreet actions and works, which I had thought about on other occasions. For only the discreet act enables us to be capable of attention, still touches us and fascinates us.
But I’m also relating this in such detail because I believe that this performance, for which I had invited Terry Fox to Bremen — at the time he was an artist-in-residence here at beautiful Barkenhoff — shows in a nutshell what really mattered to the artist who participated in the documenta exhibitions 5, 6 and 8 and who died in Cologne in 2008: what mattered were simple, clear actions, precisely performed; what mattered was both the utmost concentration and at the same time, the extreme physical dedication of a ritual. This is especially apparent in his performances, but also in his quiet masterpiece The Children’s Tapes (1974). In his approach to sound as the sheer encounter between body and instrument, that is to say, between sculpture and duration, it is the archaic sounds of things like drops of water or piano strings or cats’ purring that move him. In a seminar in Bremen prior to his performance, Terry Fox explained some of these works, and it again became clear how concrete, humorous, intellectual and precise were the thoughts and acts of this artistic loner of postwar art.
As we have seen, this artistic approach calls for a special quality of attention from the audience, which holds true as well for the artist’s language works on exhibit here in Barkenhoff. The spatial text-image constellations of Terry Fox lack any and all forms of affectation. They are not easy to read or to decipher; rather, they exude a mysteriousness that does not always need to be grasped at first glance, but that calls for the kind of intellectual effort we are familiar with from poetry. These are constellations of letters and texts in which we immerse ourselves in order to wring some sense out of the unknown or unfamiliar. And that movement of thoughtful approach opens other prospects of articulation, of speech. So despite their intended readability, the works are dumbfounding at first, for the sequence of letters stretches onward, changes direction, or combines with actual objects like a three-dimensional rebus, while other objects, without the addition of letters, derive directly from the realm of wordplay.
We find such poetic processes exemplified and epitomized in the novel Locus Solus, published in 1914 by the equally singular writer Raymond Roussel; that book, from which this exhibition takes its name, was also extremely important for that wordplayer Marcel Duchamp. And like Barkenhoff, Locus Solus is a solitary place beyond the big city. In this enclave, far from the hustle and bustle, the novel’s hero concocts his creations as fantastic, mysterious objects that are linguistically legitimized and exhibited in a park. The driving force behind this instrumentally concrete artifice is the homophonic and associative lability of the verbal material, that is to say: an objective expression of immanently flowing linguistic motion, which had a magical attraction for Terry Fox. For Roussel and for Fox, it is not about disclosing the conceivable, but about opening the conceivable in every direction through mysteriousness. For it is enigma that teaches us the pleasure of thinking, and poetics that instructs us in the beauty of the unknown. And so Terry Fox says in his work Statement from 1982:
a headless man had a letter to write
‚twas read by one who lost his sight
the dumb repeated it word for word
and he was deaf who listened and heard
One more riddle, then, that speaks in paradoxes that end not in failure but in a “nevertheless”, through energies that Terry Fox transformed in order to invigorate us in our bleak existence, to reconnect the broken filaments of undreamt-of potential in thinking and feeling, and to bring attention back to the unremarkable. In this spirit, I wish the exhibition many wise and discerning visitors.