January 27-February 25, 2012
On the way to see "Critical Dictionary" at London's WORK Gallery, I picked up a discarded child's picture dictionary for my nephew who, on the brink of talking, is obsessed with endless games of pointing and naming in which the semantic differences that distinguish a truck from a lorry from a van are all important.
But it was only on my way home that I browsed its arbitrary selection of entries to find the word "real" illustrated with a picture of a cartoonish blue elephant, underscored with the explanation: "This is a real elephant. It is not a pretend one." Deploying an (il)logic that only a toddler could appreciate, in a moment of convergence this children's book's overturning of Rene Magritte's infamous pictorial conundrum resonated with the surrealist underpinning of the exhibition's own questioning of representation. Inspired by the mock dictionary of the same name assembled by dissident surrealist Georges Bataille for the journal Documents in the late 1920s, "Critical Dictionary" showed new commissions alongside an edited selection of images from curator David Evans's ongoing photographic website (www.criticaldictionary.com), some of which formed a book of the same name published in 2011 by Black Dog Publishing.
It was immediately clear that the project diverted from any sense of alphabetical order: rather than starting with A and running through to Z, this visual encyclopedia diverted from a linear trajectory and instead forged connections that worked through proximity and distance. At times playful in their staging of visual puns and linguistic jokes, at others more serious in the suggestive interpretations they conjured, the entries mapped a series of recurring themes and nonsequiturs through which the symbolic assumptions of language were questioned and meaning began to unravel. Fact and fiction merged in ambiguous forms, in the blurred shadow of Tim Edgar's Fly (2012) as it transmogrified across the three parts of the series, rendering its initial outline unreadable as its detail was enlarged to resemble a lunar landscape. Meaning was destabilized through jokey visual juxtaposition and plays on words, as in Poor Photographer's illustration of the letter "C" with the paired photographs Civilization (1998), in which the poise of a classical javelin-thrower echoed the violent pose of a modern day bottle-throwing football hooligan. Nearby, photography's more critical capacity to puncture assumptions was suggested by the inclusion of Jo Spence's self-portrait Cultural Sniper from 1990, with the photographer's masked and snarling face peering out as she prepares to catapult hack the camera's fetishistic gaze.
In this defamiliarized lexicon, P was still for Photography, but also Pencil 'rest and Panegyric; A was not for Apple but Appropriation and Amateur, Q for Quotation, M for Mycelium, and U for Umfunktionierung. Unpredictable and incongruous, with each concept illustrated by found image, constructed photograph, text, or drawing, the eclectic: array of formats reflected the questioning of accepted meaning. Nothing was stable in this dictionary, no single meaning was pinned down, and rather than the conventional tethering of a word's multiple meanings to a static etymological root, it was instead through each term's cultural associations and subversion within quotidian usage that it was described.
One corner was devoted to the letter R, for "Rotten Sun": on one wall, an enlarged sphere from David Hazel's "Untitled" (2005) series of overexposed photograms resembling solar orbs faced the smaller scale Black Sun (2008) by Dominic Shepherd. In the latter, a found photographic illustration of a naked woman in a sun-dappled backwater was transformed by the addition of a black sticker above her head, winch punctured its pictorialist aesthetic and echoed in miniature the larger sun across the gallery. …