Imagine a tongue moving inside a mouth. Now let it be your own, and feel the different forms the muscle makes as you sound out letters – rolling an ‘r’, bowing down to make way for a ‘y’. As it moves, the tongue succumbs to different shapes: it expands, contracts, flattens or curls – so many different configurations to spell out what we mean. In his most recent exhibition, ‘Look at them fucking laughing’, Michael Dean’s ostensibly abstract, tongue-like sculptures interacted with the gallery in various ways – tense and white like a shrunken slug, wrapped around a wall; large, green and flaccid, slouching from a bar; small, black and coiled, piled in a corner like droppings.
Corporeality recurred throughout the installation. Upon entering the gallery, numerous slim, human-scale sculptures made from concrete and pigments were seemingly huddled in conversation. Many of these bore the marks of frantic fingers that had been pushed into wet, unfixed matter before solidifying. An elegant, bone-like form rested upon a rough base, skeleton exposed (now [Working Title], 2015); crossed fingers were cast in blue and then placed upon a limb-like armature (analogue x, 2015); buttocks or feet were hinted at, curves upon a textured black body (analogue series, 2015).
Dean is interested in the way language might be embodied without sound. As such, his sculptures explore the potential of words to be expressed as material form. (Imagine again your tongue, its shape: can you physically feel what you mean, without the sound of the words exiting your mouth?) The exhibition’s title hinted already at the difficulty of feeling understood, making the grouped anthropomorphic sculptures seem like confrontational and treacherous figures, ostracizing three solitary forms at the other end of the gallery. The rift recalled the challenge of direct communication: can we ever express what we really mean, and will it be understood?
On the far wall, a (deliberately) haphazardly installed drawing depicts a grid comprised of the letter ‘x’, tapering to a point at the bottom (xxxx…x, 2015). Dean reproduced this Fuji paper as a glossy print, also mass-producing it for the public as an A4 press release. The piece recalled the concrete poetry of Carl Andre, particularly his series ‘One Hundred Sonnets’ (1963), in which single letters or words are used to make shapes on the page. The meticulous geometry of Andre’s legacy was made messy by Dean, as you could almost feel the frenzied residue of his handled penmanship. Here was the body in an imperfect state, struggling to express itself. Indeed, this dishevelled effect was compounded by debris scattered through the gallery, including ripped and scrunched pages and bits of broken concrete.
Another, older c-type Fuji print featured white words seemingly Xeroxed onto shiny plastic, titled see through trees don’t move in this wind (2007). By association, the gathered sculptures could be interpreted as trees in a forest or geological monoliths. Two sculptures comprised of a concrete and earth compound – dense black, textured masses (now [Working Title]) and analogue series – were contrasted with slicker surfaces that felt like shiny plastic skins. Elsewhere, a cast cabbage lay upon a black tongue, further evoking references to natural forms (Untitled, 2013), as did the pages and books that were strewn around, reading: ‘VOICE […] stone and meat […] and meat and metal […] and metal and stone.’
The exhibition contrasted verbal language as a manmade construct, with natural or even primal modes of communication. Dean interwove references to the voice with stone, earth and flesh, perhaps indicating the shortcomings of spoken language in comparison to the instinctive communication of bodies and the natural world. Which one hits us more directly and is able to say what is really meant? What is certain is that ‘Look at them fucking laughing’ necessitated a visceral response from the viewer, as severed tongues sought to bypass language and lick us to attention.
Louisa Elderton is a writer and editor based in Berlin, Germany. She was the Project Editor of Phaidon’s survey books Vitamin T: Threads & Textiles in Contemporary Art and Vitamin C: Clay + Ceramic in Contemporary Art, and is Content Editor of their upcoming publication The Art Book: Women Artists, due for publication Autumn 2019
First published in Issue 175