Words Imagined: Cerith Wyn Evans

“I have bags full of bits of paper. I have boxes of telegraph keys. To be too organized would not be a participating artist.” Such is Cerith Wyn Evans’s explanation of where his ideas come from, and in its way it is a complete and accurate explanation. Enjoying a rare dual exhibition at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts and the List Visual Arts Center at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Evans paused during installation to talk about his work. Difficult to categorize, it deals with real and improbable communication, with skewed and accurate perception (and the possibility that no one can say what perceptions are accurate), with light and anti-light, with memories true and false.

Thoughts unsaid, now forgotten, 2004. Neon and plexiglass, 108 x 10 in. Photo courtesy White Cube, London, U.K.

“Thoughts unsaid, now forgotten…” at MIT and “Cerith Wyn Evans” at the MFA turn poetry into code, the illuminated into the arcane, what is meant into something other than what is perceived. He won’t allow explanatory labels: “I hate the idea of being accessible.”

Wyn Evans possesses a nimble and skittish brain, a sensibility that darts out in all directions, wanting to explore everything, to know everything, to discover the hermetic and imagine the possible in everything. In particular, he likes to conjure what-might-haves: what voices these wires might have carried, what records might have spun on this antique turntable, what thoughts might preoccupy these passersby.

Given his love of evocative objects, Wyn Evans’s work is not wholly conceptual.

“He engages over a period of time,” said William Stover, curator of contemporary collections at the MFA. “The work is absolutely beautiful at first; then if you delve into his sources, you realize it is also intellectually brilliant.” Wyn Evans takes things with multiple trajectories, histories, associations, and meanings and assembles them into collages that generate various micro-discourses. His work has generated a rich trove of analysis, none of it quite able to come to grips with the nature of his art. He marries the conceptual with the concrete, history with science, the imaginary with the verbal. His purpose, as best we can define it, is to stimulate in the viewer’s imagination something that has not been there before, although not necessarily what he himself has imagined.

It seems out of character for such an unfettered mind to be interested in science, yet he harnesses it to his purposes. A prime example is a Wyn Evans mirror, a concave eyeball that teases our visual perceptions. Inverse, Reverse, Perverse is engineered to mimic the spherical arc of the human eye, made large and set on the floor. Looking into it is like looking into a spoon—up becomes down, and left becomes right. The gallery behind us is oddly distorted, and walking people look floppy and loose-jointed. It is impossible to locate the surface of the mirror. “Kids run into them and break them all the time, they are so disorienting,” the artist said. All the time? Yes, in various exhibitions in Europe, he has had to replace eight of them: “It turns the museum on its head; it drives you crazy. It deals with people’s perception of the world. People get lost in it.”

Perverse, Inverse, Reverse, 1996. Edition 3/3 68.125 in. diameter x 8.4 in. deep. Photo courtesy White Cube, London, U.K

On the wall of a passthrough gallery, Wyn Evans displays a frayed segment of coaxial transmission cable, the kind of object that evokes wonderment for him. He explains that it is a piece of the cable that lay between New York and Philadelphia in 1936, a year when Marcel Duchamp was in New York and his major collectors, Walter and Louise Arensberg, were in Philadelphia. “This carried 240 conversations at one time,” the artist mused. “It’s interesting to think that it might have carried a conversation between them. We can’t know that it did, but it’s a conduit for possible imaginary conversations—it can stir in the viewer’s mind what this thing might have contained.”

The pièce de résistance at the MFA is a gallery filled with blinking chandeliers. As with all of Wyn Evans’s work, their genesis is complicated and their function arcane. His inspiration came one night as he was looking down from a hotel window at the lights of Tokyo. “This spectacle of lights,” he recalls, “was like an enormous matrix of signs and circuits that was somehow alive, a body in a sense…communicating with itself.” He envisioned the city’s signals, electrical energies, and paths of transmission and reception as a vast, coded, polyphonic text. “Our bodies have these electromagnetic surges, particles, radiation, traveling through them all the time. Think of the speed of communication, a vast thought revolution. The space of technology is very strange. Space is a microchip.” Among his accumulated newspaper clippings was one saying that military forces would no longer use Morse code. Wyn Evans was struck by the fact that this means of communication, in use for a century, was obsolete, a decommissioned language. Although few people can use or read it now, everyone still knows what Morse code is, or was. He saw it as an uncanny presence, a ghost of a language.

Thus Wyn Evans programmed a chandelier to transmit a fragment of literature in Morse code. The first, in London, used a text from the mystic poet William Blake. For subsequent installations he has added more chandeliers and programmed other writing. The seven hanging lights at the MFA are encrypted with quotations from Judith Butler, Ian Sommerville, Marta Werner, Michel de Certeau, the marquis de Sade, Mitsou Ronant, and James Merrill. There is another mirror at the List Gallery at MIT, and one more chandelier—this one of black crystal, an anti-chandelier in the artist’s mind.

Installation of 7 Chandeliers, 2004–2005. Photo courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

“Cerith is the most erudite man I’ve ever met,” stated Bill Arning, curator of the List. Wyn Evans shrugs off the compliment but admits he samples widely: fiction, biography, critical theory, philosophy, poetry. “I probably shouldn’t tell you this, but every night I read for an hour in the bath. I’m very lazy, just interested in pleasure.” Poetry is increasingly important to him, he says, not the European romantics but the experimental poets who break down language—David Antin, John Cage, e. e. cummings. He is fascinated by James Merrill, who takes words from an Ouija board.

The chandeliers chosen by Wyn Evans are a diverse assortment: a few outrageously frou-frou designs, a contemporary dark-glass globe containing a single candle, a severely tailored example that resembles a wedding cake hung upside down, and an overblown carriage lantern. The most logical and accessible piece of text is paired with the most extravagant array of rotten-ice crystal. Called A281, it is an archival researcher’s account of discovering an unknown Emily Dickinson poem about flight, written on a folded envelope flap that resembles a pair of wings or a paper airplane.

A short essay called “Flickers,” a text about the effects on the brain of flickering light, also plays off this room’s context . There is a frankly pornographic quotation from de Sade and an Ouija-board-generated Merrill poem—“certain characters,” the artist imagines, “channeling in from another world. It’s meant to be a babble, a riot—the celebration of meaning with conflicting stories, to chime a bit.” The code involves intervals of time; the science of it relates to MIT. “Just another elapse of time,” the artist said by way of elucidation. Wyn Evans had the gallery’s sealed windows opened, revealing blinking lamps to the outside, “so [the installation] could cross the boundary, so people could see these things in here gently bleating.” He wiggles his fingers to mime the bleating. “These things are on the cusp of visibility, where meaning is constructed.”

It is a characteristic Wyn Evans paradox that he chose light to transmit obscurity. Although computer screens on the walls decode what the chandeliers are transmitting, the texts are so recondite that the translations are of little help. The screens, in contrast to the lights, are rigorously scientific, dispassionately spelling out the message, itemizing the number of characters, length of dot (.6 seconds) and dash (thrice the dot), tracking the status of the program as it sent, dimmed, or went quiet. “The chandeliers have different personalities,” he said. “It’s meant to be a babble of voices.” A silent babble—another Wyn Evans paradox.

Wyn Evans’s intent is that the viewer not be able to encompass the entire experience at once. “You should not worry too much about the text, but just look at these beautiful objects.” He strode to a table covered with hundreds of parts yet to be assembled into a frothy lighting fixture. He picked up and admired an elaborate handmade component from Venice. “These things address the point between the old world—the decorative, the artisanal, expressing wealth, power, and grandeur—and the new one.” Then in a typical thought-shift, as he laid the piece on the table, “I don’t particularly like chandeliers.”

The coaxial cable was discovered by Wyn Evans in the collection at MIT, but he mounted it at the MFA as a link of sorts between the two institutions. Reciprocally, he borrowed three wooden “scholars’ rocks” from the MFA’s Asian collection to display in vitrines at the List. He’s unable to put his finger on why the Chinese objects seemed to fit, except to say that they are not what they seem, they look like rocks but are wood, they are natural but have been manipulated. “They are impure objects, highly manipulated to evoke the meditative. They stand in an ambiguous position. Computers are coming to the MFA, wooden rocks to MIT.”

Installation of 7 Chandeliers, 2004–2005. Photo courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Wyn Evans also unearthed MIT’s 1950s radio broadcasting studio from the college’s museum. He saw it as “a lovely thing, a clunky old time machine, a very beautiful sculpture, like old relic. Think of the greasy fingers that manipulated the switches and keys. You can only imagine what voices, music, social life went out through here—from people extremely intelligent, privileged. It’s a repository of ghosts, kind of a séance, not in an occult way, an imaginary conversation. Identities, personalities, times, histories.” Wyn Evans’s eyebrows dance as he considers the possibilities inherent in all this.

Born in Wales in 1958, the artist says that he was obsessed with art as a child. On his 11th birthday he persuaded his father to take him to London to see a Rothko exhibition at the Tate Gallery. At the Royal College of Art and afterward, Wyn Evans made experimental films and videos, a segment of his career he now puts behind him. MFA curator William Stover said that the museum asked to screen some of them, but the artist refused.

His work, he believes, still speaks the language of cinema, crossing media. He incorporates film and photography into his installations, and has also used neon, orchids, fireworks, and found objects. The chandeliers are stock catalogue items, “found objects in a Duchampian sense,” but because of the invisible text they blink out, they are only “on the cusp of being objective sculpture.”

Teaching art and architecture in London, Frankfurt, Hamburg, and Vienna, Wyn Evans delved with his students into thinking about the various ways that space is organized. He strove for innovative thinking—they studied choreography to understand how we move in space or made handmade gloves, to fit their hands, to learn about the body. “It was more about having conversations, stirring ideas. It was really hard work.”

Sulwyn Evans, the artist’s father, was a tailor by trade but a passionate amateur photographer. “His photographs were the first images I was aware of as a child,” Wyn Evans said. So in the first gallery at the MFA are 20 photos taken by his late father in the 1960s: “genre pictures, very ‘of that time.’ A certain theatrical sense, a little bit playful, some formal, some slightly abstract.” Calling it the “most personal and subjective” part of the installation, Wyn Evans admits, “I’m sneaking him in, in a way. It’s an important thing for me to do—I’m privileged to be recognized by an institution like this in a way he never was.” An absorbing and abstruse wall text slants across one corner, an anecdote about early photographs of the sky in the Southern hemisphere, in which distant astronomical objects, galaxies, and nebulae were catalogued and named, only to be revealed as merely dust or dandruff on the film. It warps our perceptions: it is about photography, but falsity in photography. Wyn Evans sees it as “from this vast scale down to the miniscule.” It is only remotely related to the photos exhibited, and even after asking the artist we can’t be sure whether it is true or something he made up.

installation of 7 Chandeliers, 2004–2005. Photo courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Photography of another antiquated sort is incorporated at the List Museum with a slide-projection piece called The sky is thin as paper here… Wyn Evans set up a pair of slide projectors (now outmoded by Power Point, he notes) to segue and layer astrophysical images with very figurative black-and-white photos of an esoteric Japanese ritual. “It’s about materiality,” he said; “there are four images at any one time, a lot of ambiguity.” The artist shot the pictures himself, from books.

A cryptic neon at the MFA reads, “Meanwhile, across town…” “The two installations bounce off each other,” Wyn Evans thinks; “One calls to the other. There are narratives of displacement.” Looking out the window of the List museum, we see the “Thoughts unsaid…” text scroll by. Wyn Evans explains that you are to wonder what lives are passing by, what each person who strides past is thinking. It amuses him to think that for the people outside it’s written backwards, slightly illegible.

The black anti-chandelier here blinks out musings on the word “image” by Raymond Williams. A very apt text for Wyn Evans, the etymology is traced from “imago,” a representation of something, to an idea imagined, to the contemporary meaning of the public perception of a person, not necessarily true.

What fascinates Wyn Evans is “the exoticism of the experimental,” ambiguity and disorientation, perceiving and meaning, language, and time. He explores the creative imagination, the gray area between fact and fiction, reality and unreality, until we are not sure what is true or whether there is such a thing as truth.

On the one hand, Wyn Evans claims a melancholy, romantic streak derived from the strong lyric traditions of Wales. On the other, he notes, “The great achievement of American Modernists was freeing artists to play around. I try and remember that it should be fun, cheeky. Just trying to keep myself amused.”

At MIT, his neon text scrolls, “Thoughts unsaid now forgotten.” Yet the MFA members’ magazine printed the title of the show as, “Thoughts unsaid not forgotten.” One begins to lose track of the original quotation—“then forgotten? soon forgotten?” Wyn Evans has messed successfully with our memory, our perception, with language and conflicts in meaning. He’d be pleased.