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“Václav Havel: A Word About Words”

“Milliseconds to Millennia: The Art of Time”

The mystery of words—their complex relationship to consciousness, their use as weapons of liberation or oppression, their causal relationship to the world of real events, and particularly their perversion by governments—is the ambitious subject of the exhibition “Václav Havel: A Word About Words” in the rotunda of the Corcoran Gallery of Art. The actual words are those Havel wrote in 1989 as an acceptance speech for the International Peace Prize of the German Booksellers Association. The speech was read for him in October ’89 by Maximilian Schell because the playwright and future president, who had started the year in prison, was still forbidden from foreign travel. By the end of that year, Havel had been elected president of Czechoslovakia.

Havel’s intense creative and political life informs the text of “A Word About Words,” which has been enlarged and printed on 14 giant pages in type designed by the Czech-born designer George Sadek. The exhibit presents the speech in seven sections, each one in a modern European language: English, Czech, French, German, Italian, Russian, and Spanish. (A complete English translation is available.) The text is further ornamented by Czech artist Jirí Kolár, who juxtaposes the prose with pages of abstract design. Kolár’s patterns are based on the Latin letters that appear in a fragment of the Gutenberg Bible (a reproduction of the fragment appears next to the first page of Havel’s text).

These Latin design fragments are variously enlarged, colored red, jumbled, cut into apple-shaped pieces, or aligned into columns as the text progresses. They provide a visual parallel to the confusion of language (and to the obscuring of meaning that the various translations represent).

The installation is both inspiring and frustrating. It’s not the translations that are frustrating—they are an effective device for demonstrating visually and experientially the dilemma involved in the use and misuse of language. Frustration results because this is a text that everyone in this word-obsessed town should be reading and making a part of political life. Of course, Havel knows that the leaders of governments are not likely to be interested in the lessons he has learned as a writer and political activist. Words, he notes, are a “mysterious, ambiguous, ambivalent, and perfidious phenomenon.” He traces the way the words of Lenin, Marx, Freud, and Christ have been used for both illumination and destruction. Words “must be kept under adequate observation” because, alas “even a fairly minor and momentary lapse in this respect can have tragic and irreparable consequences; consequences that transcend the nonmaterial world of mere words and penetrate deeply a world that is all too material.”

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Havel’s observation that “events in the real world, whether admirable or monstrous, always have their prologue in the realm of words” has an ominous resonance in light of his conclusions—so at odds with current American political rhetoric—about the way words have participated in the horrors of history and modern life. Havel describes “the human world as it really is: a complex community of thousands and millions of unique, individual human beings with hundreds of faults and negative tendencies. The beings must never be lumped together into a homogeneous mass beneath a welter of hollow clichés and sterile words, and then, en bloc, as “classes,’ “nations,’ or “political forces,’ extolled or denounced, loved or hated, maligned or glorified.”

Havel’s text is a challenge for the visual artist in the way that the word “peace” remains a challenge in the political world. Sadek and Kolár wisely refrain from attempting to illustrate the political and historical events referred to in Havel’s political-philosophical investigation. Instead, they seek analogues on the level of form and symbol—enlargements, distortions, and, quite brilliantly, translations. The close interaction with words that these great pages require—as both visual images in their own right and as references to entities beyond themselves—opens up a space of aesthetic complexity and contradiction that parallels the issues raised in the text. Best of all, it may bring Havel’s important message to readers who, intrigued by the design, will want to find out how the story of political persecution comes out when the text suddenly plunges into Czech—and then French, Russian, German, etc.

The problem with text, of course, and the book form, which Sadek and Kolár’s presentation assumes, is that it must be experienced in time. Like film, video, and theater, literature too is a “time art.” The emergence of the book as art over the past 30 years has tried to bridge the gap between the instantaneous summation accomplished in traditional visual arts and the intimacy and narrative potential of books. A combination of both themes is the focus of “Milliseconds to Millennia: The Art of Time,” the current exhibition at Arlington County’s Ellipse Arts Center. Organized for Richmond’s Hand Workshop by Carol Barton, the show contains artists’ books, a few sculptures that investigate the theme of time in a fairly literal way, contemporary rethinkings of calendars, diaries, journals, datebooks, and other book-forms for “marking” time, and time-measuring devices such as clocks, candles, and astronomical calendars. There’s even a whimsical postmodern time-counter by Kumi Korf in which a hematite ring slides down a wire in “about a second.”

Many of the works in the exhibition can be handled (cotton gloves are provided), which allows for intimacy and considerably extends the “time” a visitor can “take” to study the works presented. Creating more of that abstraction, time, is one of the most intriguing challenges met by this challenging show.

The works in the exhibit are difficult to characterize. Many derive from conceptual art’s passion for documentation, a process that usually, but sometimes inadvertently, includes time. Good examples at the Ellipse are Rhoda Rosenberg’s Rejection Book Journal: “Stand Up Straight…Don’t Slouch Over,” Erica Van Horn’s Drinking Calendar 2: 21 February-18 March 1989, and Caryl Burtner’s Friday the 13th.

Others examine what might be called the shapes of time, and the systems that societies have evolved for marking it. Susan Share’s Strata explodes both conventional ideas of the book and of stratification. Anne Siberell’s (The Work of) A Diligent Scribe resembles a time capsule, and many works rely on memories as an invocation of time. The most impressive of these is Tatana Kellner’s 71125: Fifty Years of Silence, a book whose pages are cut out to frame a molded arm and hand that bears a tattooed number applied at Auschwitz. The pages reproduce, in Czech and in English, the story the artist’s mother wrote 50 years later about her experiences during WWII.

Several of the sculptural and installation pieces are witty and oddly menacing. Existence Research Project’s Parallel presents a video monitor of a clock whose revolving second hand is the only visible movement. It seems to pose a remorseless contradiction to the impression art often creates—that time, for the moment, has stopped. Katherine Kuehn and David Abel’s Selected Durations includes a recording listing varieties of time-measured actions such as “1 minute—toilet refills, cut finger stops bleeding,” and “2 minutes—skilled seamstress sews fifty stitches, giraffe runs a mile, blue shark swims a mile” and “eight-tenths of a second—you read a one-syllable word.” There is something maniacally terrifying about the fragmenting of experience and the obsessive measuring conjured by the recording and its accompanying text. Michael Dwyer’s Timepiece, my favorite work in the show, deconstructs a digital clock so that the numbers keep flipping into nonsense patterns that are both funny and unnerving. It is as if we have suddenly wandered into a profoundly different universe where time (and possibly, gravity, magnetism, and everything else) follows strange and unfamiliar laws. Time, Dwyer suggests, might be entirely different from what we are accustomed to thinking.