David Merritt’s installation was accessible via either of two routes through the gallery and each yielded a significantly different introduction to the work. The first path required that a viewer zigzag up a wide flight of stairs and through a gallery of recent acquisitions, and then pass by a guard seated a few feet from the entrance to the exhibition. A sign displaying the artist’s name and didactic material was a punctuation to the ambulatory cacaphony that preceded the work.
The other means to the installation began in the gallery located at the opposite end of the museum; following this route a viewer was compelled to pass the AGO’s chronological staging of nationally and internationally renowned contemporary works: Judd, Andre, Baselitz, Beuys, Spero. . . . Gazing at first through a formidable string of galleries, a viewer had to squint to see Merritt’s work — and then received but a faint reward. Almost nothing was visible at a distance. Drawing closer, a bottle-shaped figure spraying from the mouth began to materialize on the wall ahead. At a middle distance, it seemed to be rendered with a multitude of nervously fragmented lines, and showed a string of unidentified red points at its neck. A few more paces clarified that the lines were in fact objects — twigs — fixed to the wall with dressmaker’s pins. Fixed, but not adhered, for each twig was clipped between several pins that mitigated against the fine branches having to be pierced in order to be held in place. The red “dots,” it turned out, were delicate petal shapes cut from plastic flowers, stuck-through to form a floating ovoid that cast a faint shadow amidst the dispersed spray of twig-lines that made up this work entitled glot’l (1996).
Once inside the gallery room a viewer was motivated — some might say “quite naturally” — to turn to survey the rest of the space. In doing so, one met with the shock of the other wall. This expanse appeared as if it were almost completely overgrown with twigs and pins. At first glance order and chaos seemed to be caught in a delicate balance (as they sometimes deceptively appear in nature). The piece, entitled Moritat (1995-6), fanned out according to an authoritative but not immediately recognizable system. Thus it initially appeared as a whimsical counterpoint to what one had likely seen as they approached the entrance to the museum: leafless vines clung to the outside face of the building, delicately juxtaposed with the bold graphic flags that advertised exhibitions by Patterson Ewen and Ozias Leduc. Only after one confronted Merritt’s subtle installation could they have wondered whether “nature” itself had taken care to signal the exhibition, to ensure that the quietly arcane works would not go unnnoticed.
An act of deciphering followed from the initial experience of being overwhelmed by the audacious product of Merritt’s labour with twigs and pins. The hundreds of branches slowly manifested that they had been arranged to form calligraphic traces; a patient viewer could gradually assemble a version of the libretto of Mack the Knife. That famous cold-war era pop ballad — originally written for Brecht’s Three-Penny Opera in 1928 — wove itself over the expanse of the gallery wall, beginning at the left with a semblance of rigidity that gave way to the impression on the right side that the text had been scattered by wind. Irony attended the fact that the “natural” lines of the piece — twigs — which hesitantly accomodated themselves to speaking the text of a song, eventually gave themselves over to the more suitable task of appearing disrupted by natural forces.
The curator supplied a text that informed viewers as to the reasoning and history behind the choice of the particular libretto drawn in Moritat: apparently a junk-shop had provided Merritt with a gold-framed typewritten memorial that attributed the singing of the piece to “the Late Bobby Darrin” (sic). That perverse historical artifact became the source for Merritt’s own historical and material disruptions. But internal knowledge about the construction of an artwork may only partly direct a viewer toward a deepened encounter with a work. To further an analysis of Merritt’s exhibition it is useful here to quote from a recent essay by cultural theorist C. Nadia Seremetakis, entitled “Memory of the Senses Part II,” in which the writer engages the notion of cultural “dust”:
Dust is the historical waste material formed by the historical-cultural repression of sensory experience and memory. It is also the form that residual culture takes once it is compartmentalized as the archaic and sundered from any contemporary pertinence and presence. (The Senses Still, 1994).
With glot’l and Moritat Merritt proposes that spoken language is a producer of histories that are ephemeral and fleeting. Instead of producing something contained and concrete, speech makes dust that fans out over everything. In glot’l, it sprays visibly from an inflamed neck, directed everywhere and nowhere. Significant in this piece is the fact that spoken language appears as a scratchy, dry and fragmented material that invariably catches in the throat as it is formed.
The words of a song whose history is composed of layers of intellectualized and popularized mythology are displayed in Moritat to emphasize the voice as a producer of transitory cultural artifacts. Reading the work from left to right makes this plainly obvious. But if the work is taken as an “inversion” (where it manifests that speech is an act of fumbling toward certitude), a viewer may see the piece as mimicking an animated sequence shown in reverse. Branches — “speech-dust” — flutter in the upper-right of the frame, gradually tumbling into letter forms toward the centre of the space. The eye then travels toward the lower reaches of the field and sentences materialize. The “vocal stylings” of Bobby Darin ultimately become visualized in the baroque lines made by curving branches.
Merritt’s works were both insistent and potentially short-lived — like the ubiquitous order to “Wash Me,” that one may find written in the dirt of a car windshield. They effectively remind us of how commanding and physically present, yet always in danger of obliteration, are the words that pass from the mouth.