Elizabeth Turk, Passage 2, 2015–22. Marble and gold leaf, 7.5 x 14.25 x 2 in. Photo: Eric Stoner, Courtesy the artist and Hirschl & Adler Modern

Elizabeth Turk

New York

Hirschl & Adler

The 23 hand-carved works featured in Elizabeth Turk’s “Written in Stone” (on view through December 15, 2023) present a series of tortuous, osseous-ivory channels chiseled from marble. These works are “Passages,” and Turk has numbered each adit of the series. Some of the marble lineaments are expansive and ovular, cresting tributaries that swoop through each other’s empty pockets; others are sharp and acute, right angles that zag and zip along oblique planes. In toto, the works, collected in a dimly lit room and each one following its own singular line braced by one or two connecting points, glow like calligraphic pages plucked from an illuminated manuscript. Placed in translucent Plexiglas boxes, the three-dimensional furrows are galvanized with the whispers of an otherworldly, impenetrable language, to be navigated without literacy or understanding. The linguistic analogy is strengthened by a paleographic archival assembly and works on paper featuring experiments in script. Turk’s series proves her to be heir not only to the veritable tradition of marble sculpture, but also to the “verbal visual,” a lineage pioneered by Kurt Schwitters and ushered to Modernist heights during the mid-20th century by Chryssa, Robert Indiana, Jenny Holzer, Barbara Kruger, and Richard Prince, among others. Yet where this tradition has often remained tied to extant languages, Turk has foregone decipherability.

From a technical perspective, the works deserve approbation. The daughter of a geologist extolled for her ingenuity and bravery with marble, Turk has, with this exhibition, moved her canon impressively forward, demonstrating prowess with the reductive process. In removing 95 percent of the original material—heaving marble blocks, each weighing approximately 45 pounds—and mending it into slight, structurally contained forms, Turk has chiseled weight into argent silver whispers. Notably, these pieces of marble are appropriated scraps, placing Turk within a second tradition—that of gleaners-cum-archivists like Louise Nevelson, Arman, and Dan Basen. In Turk’s series, marble remnants are met with water and air pressure, filed and ground with diamond bits. The arduous process is intuitive and often unpredictable since hidden weak spots and minute cavities abound within the natural material. Honing her narrow canals, which come to flow and swoop like burrowed networks, requires avoiding trauma to the stone while simultaneously removing air pockets, fissures, or flaws. As matters grow tenuous, Turk takes to strengthening the weak points, fixing and affixing them vis-à-vis connection points. Shimmering, 24-karat gold leaf segments attest to the mending and patching, a practice of ornate and resplendent casing. By emphasizing these frail spots, Turk illuminates imperfection, adhering to the Japanese concept of kintsugi.

In the catalogue, Turk notes that the exhibition “marks the change caused by technological communication—the ubiquitous keyboard and AI—and seeks to question the transformation of everyday handwriting. What happens when the curved lines of a scripted passage no longer hold meaning, or even exist? Or when the generations of tomorrow merely glance at a handwritten letter, fail to understand it, cannot decipher it, and simply move on, losing its nuances to history? To me, this change is a fundamental shift and one with no return.”

Turk’s interest in written language, and cursive script in particular, was sparked by the discovery that her nephew could not read their family letters, which were penned in cursive. When such words are stripped of their practical purposiveness, they are transmogrified into aesthetic objects, enjoying what Kant terms “disinterestedness”; that is, the beauty of the object is judged with no practical aim or prudential teleology. Such a transformation, although frequently seen as a lapsarian fall, also allows us aesthetic access in a mode unique to artworks, permitting us to see a state of affairs in a novel light. In Critique of the Power of Judgment, Kant opposes “[t]he satisfaction that we combine with the representation of the existence of an object,” or that which “is called interest,” with the “disinterested” stance of pure aesthetic pleasure, which is “independent of concepts and sensations that are related to the determination of the faculty of desire and could thereby be immediately practical.” Thus, there is something meaningful to be discovered in Turk’s presentation of our moment of generational forgetting, a kind of knowledge which ordinary descriptions proscribe.

Elizabeth Turk, installation view of “Written in Stone,” 2023. Photo: Eric Baumgartner, Courtesy the artist and Hirschl & Adler Modern

Turk’s idea—of forgetting and the cognate material exteriorization of that forgetting via a three-dimensional alien language of pure aesthetic script—is closely related to what the philosophical anthropologist Ernst Kapp called “organ-projection,” the anthropologist Paul Alsberg termed “body-liberation,” the mathematician Alfred J. Lotka labeled “exosomatic evolution,” and anthropologist André Leroi-Gourhan deemed “exteriorization.” Plato, too, dealt with a rudimentary version of this problem in his Socratic dialogue, Meno. The central principle for these thinkers was that, throughout the anthropological process of technological discovery, our procedural memory becomes delaminated and oriented toward adaptive specializations elicited by “tool use,” which can be understood broadly enough to include digital technologies like cell phones and digital tablets. It has been theorized that, as a corollary to such technological discovery and its implementation, humans come to externalize bodily functions associated with operative abilities (e.g., writing script) so that the technological mode automates what was a once reflective capacity; this is accompanied by a kind of loss made material by the technological apparatus. Some accounts of this evolution are pessimistic, seeing it as more of a devolution, while for others, the newly won social and reflexive cognitive capacities outweigh any deficit.

David Chalmers and Andy Clark’s account of the “Extended Mind” is the best known articulation of this latter stance. For them, exteriorizing technologies have already proven to be of great use, long before digitalization. They point to the case of a man named Otto who suffers from Alzheimer’s and relies on a notebook, which he uses to jot down new information. “When he needs some old information, he looks it up. For Otto, his notebook plays the role usually played by a biological memory.” The notebook becomes a cognitive collaborator as Otto’s episodic and procedural memory deteriorates, and he relies on it more and more. This reliance amounts to automatic endorsements of that which had once been consciously endorsed by Otto. If the analogue notebook comes to be overtaken by a digital successor, it is a matter of increased precision and recursive endorsement, not a loss to be bemoaned.

Not all accounts of extended memory are as optimistic, however. In the epoch of digital monopolies and big data driven by black-box algorithms, the average user unwittingly gives up their metadata and user information, unaware of the invisible operative loss—a situation that the Romantic neo-Luddites of our day (those who still remember how to write personalized letters in cursive) lament. Nevertheless, the neo-Luddites recognize that the tide has turned for good, and their rues fall on deaf ears.

Turk does not make any value judgments with this series, neither celebrating nor bewailing the shift. She bears witness to it and is attendant in her artistic chronicling. Her aestheticization of the process, with glimmering gold wrapping sensuous marble cords, might even be taken to suggest a kind of buoyancy in the face of such shifts. But this is too far of an interpretive leap. Instead, what Turk’s work does is instrumentalize the machinations of networks, sensitively drawing attention to both the vehicle of this shift (especially in its digital network incarnation) and the ancestor operative capacity that finds itself replaced (cursive script). The strength of “Written in Stone,” beyond its demonstration of technical virtuosity with marble, lies in allowing for timely and competing conceptual considerations without relying on new media or forced metaphors.