At Least You Can Read It

“Awkward grammar appalls a craftsman.” — Christian Bök, Eunoia

Above: “More than Two,” installation view from Micah Lexier: One, and Two, and More than Two at The Power Plant (Toronto).

In Micah Lexier’s threefold exhibition at The Power Plant, One, and Two, and More than Two, the first floor displays Lexier’s solo works as an artist (One) and his singular vision as a curator with a group show of more than 100 fellow artists (More than Two). In both his own work and his curatorial interests, Lexier is drawn to language as a material, to text arising out of specific formal, physical, or factual conditions — an age, an amount, a ratio, a weight, a duration — that may be provided, found or somehow prefigured. This is particularly true in his solo works, which commonly provide text (and, with it, information) similar to a standard museum or gallery label: name, title, and descriptive notes alongside dimensions, quantities, media, locations, provenance, and other details. Upstairs in the second-floor gallery, however, is “Two,” a selection of works made collaboratively, not singularly — in each case, between Lexier and a professional writer. These texts result less from the given conditions mentioned earlier than from the position of authorship — provided, as it were, by a invited professional writer located solidly within the literary sphere. This, too, is a specific condition, albeit a categorical one. Some writing does come from writers, after all. These collaborative pieces may include aspects of description, like many of Lexier’s solo efforts, but they are seldom so self-consciously dry in tone. Instead, they are far more specific with their language – more voiced, more playful, more staged — and installed, to borrow from artist Robert Smithson, as “LANGUAGE to be LOOKED at and/or THINGS to be READ.”1 In each case, they find pleasure in language’s annunciation, contextuality and performative potential alongside the facts of its material and spatial presentation.

An overview of the three pieces may be useful. The first, Two Equal Texts (2007), is shown in this installation as side-by-side columns of vinyl wall lettering. Lexier wrote an original text, on display to the left. Canadian poet Christian Bök then rearranged Lexier’s letters, anagramming them into a text of his own, exhibited to the right. The work is variable in form. It has been installed in various gallery settings, most frequently in a side-by-side arrangement (THIS TEXT AND THE ONE BESIDE IT…) and once on the front and back covers of a book (THIS TEXT AND ONE ON THE OTHER SIDE…). In each instance, Bök’s output rearranges exactly the text provided, introducing no new letters or punctuation from Lexier’s input.

1334 Words for 1334 Students (2008) is a multiple in the form of a newspaper, stacked in an alcove and available for takeaway. The text, provided at Lexier’s invitation, is a 1,334-word story fragment prepared by Irish writer Colm Tóbín describing the life of a boy named Malik, a Pakistani immigrant living in Barcelona.2 Lexier initiated the piece as part of a project with Cawthra Park Secondary School in Mississauga, Ontario. Each of the 1,334 students at Cawthra Park then inscribed a word from Tóbín’s story, producing a collectively visualized setting of the text.

I AM THE COIN (2010) is a large-scale installation involving thousands of custom-minted coins. Originally commissioned by the Bank of Montreal, the work was first installed in the bank’s custom-designed project room (re-installed at The Power Plant on the back wall of the gallery). Its 10,000-character text, by Toronto-based writer Derek McCormack, is doubled to show a block of 20,000 coins. Each row of the bottom half of the installation exists as a collection of phrases, presented without spaces or punctuation, in the first-person voice of the coin in the title’s phrase. In all three works, Lexier’s collaborations with writers find him specifying the formal aspects of a commissioned text — in these cases, its letter set, word count, character count, and structure. The texts themselves are situationally self-referential. Two Equal Texts, that is to say, describes the process of its own making, as does I AM THE COIN, while 1334 Words organizes a group of teenagers to inscribe the story of an individual teenager. In turn, each of these works incorporates transformational ideas, gestural actions and physical materials developed for Lexier’s own earlier efforts.

In 2005, Bök, who had known Lexier for some time already, wrote an article about his practice titled “Still Counting,” published in Canadian Art. In the article, Bök notes a piece of Lexier’s called True Three Ways, which Bök saw rendered in neon but which Lexier had released in 2001 as a printed invitation to his show Work About Numbers and Other Things at Gitte Weise Gallery, Australia. The invitation consists of two cards, reproducing Lexier’s handwritten text in black with red numeric annotations. The three- line text reads, “THE THING / HALF / TWO TIMES THE THING.” The numbers on one card follow the text’s word count (2, 1, 4) while the others follow its letter count (8, 4, 16). Eyeballing the postcard, a third true way is revealed: the spatial dimensions of the text lines are proportional as well. The postcards are self-referential in all cases, but the referent — “the thing” — changes from word, to letter, to spatial dimension. In this way they are both true and false, recalling two classic philosophical paradoxes of self- reference at once: the liar’s paradox, which concerns self-negating language (THIS STATEMENT IS NOT TRUE), and the Sorites paradox, which concerns self-negating quantity (A HEAP OF SAND MINUS ONE GRAIN IS STILL A HEAP). “The thing” becomes abstracted and represented in order to be manipulated by the text itself. Two Equal Texts sets up the same situation, as each author invokes or points to the other in “his” text. Though one text preceded the other, neither is primary. Lexier emphasizes their equivalence so that resolution to the binary tensions of the work may not be found in the piece itself. It is instead left to the reader, who is positioned within a series of mediating states: between the right- and left-hand columns of the work’s design, between its visual and the verbal tactics and amidst its inquiry into the original and the derivative.

In addition to destabilizing any notion of a primary or source text, Lexier has also placed Two Equal Texts on a series of thresholds: on a window between the gallery and the street, on the front and back covers of an artist book and directly on the wall, using a method typically employed for descriptions and didactics that frame a work of art. In this two-part conversation between artist and writer, it is the radical availability of the written word compared with the general scarcity of a typical art object that produces tension as well. As AA Bronson writes to Lexier in a letter bearing an aptly anagram-based title, “LE MAXI CHERI”: “One aspect of your work that I love is how difficult it is to determine what is a work and what is not. Every poster or invitation card, even the envelope in which a card is mailed may be — and probably is — a work of art.”3 This is partly what is so compelling about Lexier’s artistic use of language in the public sphere, putting him in the company of artists like Dieter Rot, Dan Graham, Lawrence Weiner, and Yoko Ono. Instead of an advertising-based language that dominates and controls the public sphere, this language is ambiguous, minimal and yet radically available — even for those with no abiding interest in art. You might not get it, but at least you can read it.

A handwritten signature has a similar charge. Everyone’s got one, everyone can make one, and yet its simple application by an artist is still the mechanism for legitimating and verifying a work. Duchamp famously destabilized the artist’s signature by signing an alias, “R. Mutt,” on his readymade Fountain (1917). Lexier, whose subject so frequently involves his factual self, pulls this switcheroo in a different way, reproducing his own name as written by others. That gesture, used in his projects since 1981, introduces a new dynamic, a new actor or actors in the work, making Lexier’s signature and handwriting works inherently social and collaborative. His piece Ten Relationships (1991) explicitly signals as much, titling the envelope that encloses ten cards inscribed “Micah Lexier.” Each one was created by reproducing fragments of Lexier’s own collected mail and ephemera. The artist is the recipient in these cases, not the issuer, and the form of his written name is variant, not constant. A year later these “relationships” become more structured in Works With Eats With (1992) when Lexier asked a group of lunchtime coworkers he discovered at an Italian trattoria to inscribe their names on a poster, making a private, localized set of relationships publicly available. This method continued institutionally in 1996, with a bookplate inscribed by the directing librarians and key donor to a new fund for the library at the Art Gallery of Ontario. Importantly, these participants did not sign their names; Lexier had them write the necessary information for the bookplate. Scanning its lines, each bearing their initials below, the work combines the legalities of documentation, the multivocal nature of institutional collaboration and the “hidden in plain sight” complexities of an artists’ multiple, placed in a subset of books by other authors, which then circulate within a research library embedded in a public art museum.

1334 Words for 1334 Students adapts these techniques to a markedly different context and scale. The participants now number past the hundreds, accounting for every student in an entire school. In a sense, the body of collaborators is audience-sized, though here that magnitude is amplified further by the work’s free distribution as a newspaper, both in this exhibition and in its original installation. Fittingly, Lexier’s previous work with students involved a similar (and, for Lexier, characteristic) awareness of numbers. Also from 2008, A number of things: About art, measurement, and counting came in the form of a colouring book, which was released in an “unnumbered edition” of 3,000. This simple gesture says a lot about Lexier’s intentions for the project — 3,000 is too large to be precious and leaving the edition unnumbered locates this art object clearly beyond the gallery and into everyday life. Inside the coloring book, Lexier shows work by other installation artists including Walter De Maria and François Morellet, a favourite coin piece by Gerald Ferguson and some more math-related anagrams (ELEVEN PLUS TWO, TWELVE PLUS ONE), each of which is thirteen letters in length. In this last example, as in Two Equal Texts, Lexier invokes the idea of equivalence, which is, once again, relative. In this case, the letter sets, character counts and mathematical operations are all in peculiar, even “eerie” (to borrow a coinage from Bök’s portion of Two Equal Texts) alignment. In spite of these heightened conditions, you get the sense that not all equivalences are created equal, so to speak, that there may be some equivocation at work. 1334 Words for 1334 Students builds on this complex idea. The title puts a tacit equal sign between word count and student population, yet the words, which describe the isolation of a disenfranchised and impoverished teenager, are written by the collective secondary-schoolers of a suburban township. Beneath this system of equivalence, Lexier seems to suggest, one of these things is not like the other. From the invention of the Greek chorus through the heartbreaking Lydia Davis story “We Miss You: A study of get-well letters from a class of fourth graders,” tragedy and collective narration frequently walk hand-in-hand.

I AM THE COIN continues to explore this dynamic between plural and singular, with slightly more comic results. The piece also posits an equivalence; its top and bottom halves contain exactly the same components, though these components are both far more numerous and more glittering. Like True Three Ways, it halves a whole to induce a duality, since a thing’s just not the same once it’s been split. That said, coins are somewhat exceptional in this regard — two-sidedness, in fact, part of their essence. In an interview with The Globe and Mail, when the piece was first installed, Lexier describes a “weight-and-measure token,” an early entry into his personal collection: “On one side it says: ‘This is two centimeters.’ And on the other side it says: ‘This is two grams.’”4 Like so many things that find their way into Lexier’s hands, his coin is two things at once. Here, the coins are cast in multiple roles: they function as moveable type (Gutenberg was a goldsmith after all), decoys (first installed in a vault-like space but not monetarily sound), good-luck charms (originally part of a find-the-coin sweepstakes game Lexier initiated as part of the project’s website), and an alternative currency or carrier of value. Even the “we” of the piece is multiple: Lexier and writer McCormack are one part, but the collected individual coins are another. Both instances of first-person plural choose to speak in first-person singular: I, the one coin, alone. But meaning, here, is also a dupe. McCormack’s text is rife with puns, more anagrams and general wordplay. Here’s a representative selection: “I will tell you I am a coin with consciousness by which I mean coinsciousness but beware I have no conscience by which I mean no coinscience.” This gaming instinct continues not only through the sweepstakes mentioned earlier but also to a more critical position. While the first-person singular is certainly the tense of the confession, where a speaker reveals what’s hidden, it’s also the tense of the riddle, where an object speaks for (but attempts to conceal) itself.

Lexier has used coins before — in bags, boxes and envelopes in order to mark dates, times and lifespans — but it’s precisely this gaming aspect of I AM THE COIN that provides the most resonance, harkening back to Mallarmé’s foundational concrete poem, “Un coup de dés jamais n’abolira le hasard (A roll of the dice will never abolish chance),” and foreword to Lexier’s 2012 project with artist Michael Dumontier, Call Ampersand Response. The scheme for this project was simplicity itself — Lexier would send Dumontier an image, and Dumontier would send an image in return — but the results are magical. Who sent what to whom is not specified, as the two collaborators weave their image dialogue into a synthetic whole. The piece operates almost at the level of symbol-writing, using the mechanics of the codex to install images in an ever-shifting slight-of-hand. A ball and cube on the cover begin the exchange and the image reappears on the inside front cover, paired with a found image of a plastic cup; the cup reappears on the following page, ands across from it is an image of two cups, one upside down, one right side up, impaled with various implements. As the correspondence unfolds, we watch the two develop the project’s key motifs — containers, constellations, reflections, components, schemes, errors, steps — transforming, modulating, reinterpreting, and shifting these elements as they go. Finally, the sequence circles back to the motif of the circle itself and the ball on the cover. Is the image originally Lexier’s or Dumontier’s? It hardly matters. The work merges each individual artist’s sensibility into a unified whole, a closed loop that occupies the rare position of Smithson’s earlier formulation — language to be looked at AND things to be read. This one-in-twoness — within media, across formats, as collaborators — this finally defines the works in Two. To send and receive transmissions across a channel — information theory at its most basic — and, in the process, to correspond, to correlate, to very closely align.

  1. Robert Smithson, “LANGUAGE to be LOOKED at and/or THINGS to be READ,” ROBERT SMITHSON: THE COLLECTED WRITINGS, ed. Jack Flam (Berkeley: The University of California Press, 1996), 61. 

  2. Tóbín incorporated elements of this fragment into his longer story “The Street” from his collection The Empty Family (2010). 

  3. AA Bronson, et al., Micah Lexier: I’m Thinking of a Number (Halifax: The Press of the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, 2010). 

  4. Milroy, Sarah. “Micah Lexier: To coin a phrase.” The Globe and Mail, February 16, 2010.