Second-Hand Ellipsis (To Think With One’s Hands 3)

The reason the work was effective was that I thought that I did not read the text that I had to read in order to understand the work.

Katinka Bock, Hygiaphone, 2019. © Pierre Antoine / Lafayette Anticipations, Paris .

Some weeks ago I published a review of the exhibition The International Museum of Resistance 1978–2020 at Södertälje Konsthall. One of the works in the exhibition is a film by Runo Lagomarsino, Untitled (Extended Arguments) (2005). The film shows a short sequence from a strange football game, with only one team. I wrote that the film:

employs the rhetorical figure of ellipsis in order to make a historical document speak. A text on the adjacent wall gives necessary context: the peculiar match was played in Santiago in November, 1973, two months after Pinochet’s bloody coup. It was an international game, where Chile stood against the Soviet Union, which boycotted the event. This one-sided match was played in the arena Estadio Nacional, known because during the early period of the military coup it served as a temporary concentration camp, where thousands of political prisoners were tortured and executed.

Why did I refer to the “rhetorical figure of ellipsis?” In classical rhetorics, elleipsis is the deliberate omission of one or several words that are necessary for the understanding of a sentence. The reader or the listener must fill in the word herself; the technique, a handbook explains, can be used to emphasise the emotional effect of the discourse.

That is how Lagomarsino’s film works. It omits information that is necessary for the understanding of the work. The film itself shows very little: a short, grainy, black-and-white shot of some football players shooting the ball into an empty goal. It is when I understand the background, the anecdotal context of the images, that they begin to signify. A small epiphany takes place when I realise why the team lacks opponents, what has happened or even is happening in the very place where the match is being played, etc. The unclear, low-resolution, semantically austere images suddenly acquire a suggestive, eloquent yet ominous resonance.

But there is a crux: Lagomarsino’s work does not actually omit any information. The information is there, clearly spelled out on an A4 mounted behind a plexi sheet on the wall next to the screen. Without that text I would not have been able to understand anything of the work. Nor, I presume, would anyone else have. The reason I could read Lagomarsino’s work as elliptic was because I thought that I did not really read the text that I in fact had to read in order to understand the work. And this was not only the condition of my reading of the work, but an objective condition of its effective function: had the text been evidently integrated into the work, for example in the shape of a voice over, it would have come across as awkward, overly didactic.

So, does the work still employ the rhetorical figure of ellipsis? I believe so, but with a modification. We could call the figure assisted ellipsis. Rather than actually omitting information, the work plays with different levels of enunciation. One is the level that is perceived as the work’s ‘own’, the explicit one which we read actively. The other is a level that belongs less to the work itself than to the institution, and which is perceived as implicit; we read this passively, as if we did not read it, as if we already knew what it transmitted.

Such a relation between text and paratext, ergon and parergon, is of course something completely normal. It is set into play in the combinations of artworks and informational texts in all exhibitions. It would be simple, perhaps too simple, to construe it as a relation of hierarchy and dominance, where the work’s voice is subordinated to the voice of the institution, the voice of the artist to that of the order, etc. How do we usually relate to such paratexts? Not really – and I am speaking for myself here, but I believe it can be generalised to some extent – in a deferential way, as if it were the voice of the master, the discourse of law or order.

Instead, they call for a peripheral, almost subliminal mode of reading, a reading we can undertake alongside the central one, freely, even with a certain nonchalance – at the same time as they convey information that can be completely central, which is the case in Lagomarsino’s work. In that respect they can of course exercise an authority, but it is a special kind of subtle, often well-meaning authority, an authority that can be the more effective precisely because it can be exercised implicitly, in the periphery, almost subliminally. Untitled (Extended Arguments) is finally a simple montage of a text and a paratext, which makes efficient use of the different levels of enunciation and reading modes, without seeking to problematise or disturb their relation. On the contrary: the work’s elliptic play only functions if the relation remains undisturbed.

But Lagomarsino’s assisted ellipsis is only one way of playing with this relation. During a visit in Paris recently I saw Katinka Bock’s large solo exhibition Commotion in Higienópolis at Lafayette Anticipations. It is an exhibition, we could say, where the hand intervenes at the level of thinking, where discursive and intellectual mediation are taken into account as active artistic elements. Bock’s arrangement of sculptures and photographs stages a sort of disruption in the relation between the level of the works’ explicit enunciations, which we read actively, and the implicit level of the paratexts, which we can read without reading them, and which can peripherally guide their attention.

One of the works in the exhibition can be seen as an allegory of Bock’s complex approach. Hygiaphone (2019) consists of a small block in dark oak, a kind of simple bracket or support, which protrudes from the wall at medium height, about head-level to a sitting adult. Placed horizontally on the support, an approximately one-decimetre-high and half-metre-wide plexi sheet is mounted. A smaller rectangular hole is cut into the upper corner of the sheet. The object is precise and beautiful, as if it were designed with precision and care for an undefinable function.

Hygiaphone: etymologically, the word means healthy voice. In French, it is the name of a special device: the kind of sanitary microphone through which we can speak to someone on the other side of a glass pane, as in front of a subway ticket booth, or as in a post office, back when post offices existed. It is a mediation device where the hygienic separation between two spaces ensures efficient communication between them.

But in Bock’s Hygiaphone there is no such limit, no sanitary separation. The mediation device protrudes freely into one and the same contaminated space. It is possible to walk around it, to look at it from all sides, from the position of the one who is asking and of the one who is responding. The space of the guide and the space of the one who needs guidance is one. Which is to say: there is no paratext, no safe level of enunciation that we can rely upon for implicitly and peripherally guiding our attention, for speaking the omitted words of the ellipsis without speaking them. Or else, which is the same: there is only paratext, which is to say that there is no space for authority, however subtle or benevolent.

Runo Lagomarsino, Untitled (Extended Arguments) (still), 2005.