On Wednesday 30 May Hanne Lippard performed Reading at Somerset House as part of the Block Universe performance art festival. Standing expressionless and doused in blue light, the artist read aloud a series of interlinked texts, punctuated by the ringing of a small bell to signal each end and beginning. Pulled from a mixture of online sources and her own writing, the texts explored subjects from time to the body, as well as the evolution of language itself.
The reading commenced with an updated take on the first words of Genesis: ‘At first there was nothing. Not even something. Not even something hidden in the sand. There was no sand. There was no sun. Then there was the word. To be heard. Who spoke the first word is uncertain. What the word was is also unclear. Spoken words do not fossilise. Ducks do. But only their bones.’ Over time, the storytelling thread began to disintegrate; stream-of-consciousness, sudden jumps between words and phrases, and extensive wordplay took over. Born in Britain, raised in Norway and now living in Berlin, with English, German, Norwegian, Swedish and Dutch all at her command, Lippard is in the perfect position to notice the nuances of different languages: the sound and rhythm of a word, the origins of a vernacular phrase. Phrases tumbled over one another, as reminiscent of the onslaught of information snippets brought to us by the internet and social media as the way a distracted mind flits through semi-related thoughts.
When I spoke to her after the performance, Lippard explained that her work ‘is always about speaking truths and “not-truths”. The idea of giving speech to something is like the idea of giving authority to it.’ By voicing words, she demonstrates how it can be possible to plant a seed of an image or idea in a listener’s mind through language. A certain inflection that leads to a word similarly spelt, but which directs the sentence towards a new path, the thought to a new realm. These clever connections demand of the audience an alertness that is counteracted by Lippard’s soothing, almost robotic tone.
Occasionally, a sense of urgency would intensify Lippard’s speech – usually when she talked about the passing of time. In the context of a live performance, the notion of time’s passage was particularly apt: once each phrase was uttered, it was gone forever. Though not particularly fast, the pace of Lippard’s recital was also not generous to the listener. I wondered what the audience members would take away from this piece: a remembered phrase or two, or perhaps only the impression of being impressed and being interested, but not remembering exactly why. Perhaps it was an intentional act intended to tease her listeners, who are unable to rewind (as you can do with some of her sound works, available online) and decipher the connection between words and phrases.
The setting for this performance consisted only of blue lighting, with a semi-circle of fold-out chairs around the speaker, more like a gathering than a formal performance. As Lippard explained, ‘the voice is so fragile that it’s difficult not to overrun it’. Comparing this set to staircase leading up to a listening room she constructed for her exhibition ‘Flesh’ at the KW Institute for Contemporary Art in Berlin last year, she added, ‘I think quite often my installations are a way of figuring out how to somehow recreate that feeling one would get from a live performance.’ Primary to her work is hearing the texts read aloud.
Block Universe – now in its fourth year – gives Londoners the opportunity to see live work by international artists on the cusp of breaking into the mainstream. This year’s edition incorporated a wide range of events, including performative lectures, breakfast clubs, durational events and installations, highlighting the many possible shapes that performance art can take. Lippard’s cool voice describing the creation of the first human tool from stone, still echoes in my mind: ‘It is very likely that if you can shape a stone, you can shape a sentence.’ I look forward to hearing what shape her future sentences take.
Block Universe was at various venues in London from 26 May to 3 June.
Don’t blame the culture wars for Tate Britain’s disappointing rehang