Decoding MoMA's Category-Defying "Ecstatic Alphabets" Exhibition

Shannon Ebner's "Agitate" (2010) at MoMA’s “Ecstatic Alphabets/Heaps of Language” exhibition
(Photo © Kyle Chayka)

Poet and performance artist John Giorno is pictured, orating at the end of the hallway leading to the Museum of Modern Art’s special projects galleries on the third floor. He’s gesturing wildly, a microphone suspended above his head, words wavering in something between speech and song. He talks about his relationship with Andy Warhol, the experience of starring in the Pop artist’s film “Sleep,” and living in New York in the riot of the ‘60s and ‘70s. The video, “untitled 2008 (john giorno reads),” is actually a work by Rikrit Tiravanija, and forms the beating heart of MoMA’s “Ecstatic Alphabets/Heaps of Language” an exhibition that contains a lot of language but not always a lot of meaning.

Curated by Laura Hoptman with Eleanor Hugendubel, “Ecstatic Alphabets” examines artists (and poets, and publishers, and musicians) who treat language not as a logical system for communication, but as a medium to be played with, distorted, and broken. Ferdinand Kriwet’s “Walk Talk” presents a red carpet for the exhibition, a black-and-white stripe running along the floor alternating the two titular words, egging viewers on down the hallway. The space is packed with images and artifacts like Carl Andre’s “now now” (1967), a spare composition of the word "now" typed onto a square of paper, and Giorgio de Chirico’s illuminated book of Guillaume Apollinaire’s "Calligrammes," poems that take the shape of their subjects, mingling the visual and the textual.

The hallway is an intensely curated, multimedia and multi-format wunderkammer of linguistic experimentation; perusing it is like picking your way through the apartment bookshelf of the world’s coolest cultural hoarder. How else would it be possible to encounter Kitasono Katue, the Japanese avant-garde poet and founder of the journal VOU next to Dutch collective Experimental Jetset’s nonsense remix of John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s “War is Over” poster? The hallway display knocks down barriers between distinct formats and strategies, embracing the joyful possibilities and impossibilities of interpersonal communication.

Given the diversity of the initial hallway, it’s strange that the subsequent gallery spaces hew much more strictly to the world of contemporary visual art, highlighting language-driven work by artists like Tauba Auerbach, Trisha Donnelly, and Paul Elliman. Auerbach dominates the last gallery with a collection of paintings playing with the iconography of linguistic systems and vitrines displaying her non-verbal color-gradient books. Her overwhelming presence distracts from the show’s mission and draws attention away from more subtle works. Sharon Hayes’s "May 1st" confessional series of letterpress prints are distributed through the separate galleries, together telling the story of a failed relationship, its poignancy heightened by the works’ demure installation.

What begins as a chaotic, intimate snapshot of artists’ relationship with language ends as something grander and more abstract, but not necessarily more powerful. The final galleries are spare and clean, anchored by large-scale works that look good in large blank spaces. But creative language works best at close range, in whispers instead of shouts. What the later part of “Ecstatic Alphabets” lacks is that intimacy, the human connection and voice that Giorno and others provide wholeheartedly. In the end there is a kind of poetry to the show's two juxtaposed parts. Where the Modernists and the Beats put great store in the ability of language to connect people, our contemporaries seem more content to let it fail. 

"Ecstatic Alphabets/Heaps of Language" runs at the Museum of Modern Art through August 27, 2012. Click on the slide show for a photo tour of the exhibition.