Charlie Godet Thomas: WHAT IS IT, THIS TIME?
Lily Brooke Gallery
4 - 16 September, 2018
Review by Matthew Turner
One of the most alluring — and perhaps horrific — things about writing is that you can create so much, from so little. A text doesn’t require much, you can do it almost anywhere, with anything, even without the basic paraphernalia of a pen and paper, you can draw lines in the sand with a stick, and many great works of literature have been written on toilet paper with homemade pens in the confines of a prison cell. Despite these insubstantial beginnings the aftershocks of writing can be massive; it can conjure complex emotional and imaginary spaces, of architecture, landscapes and the labyrinthine volumes between people. Still, however, it remains a simple filigree of unimposing black lines on a white page. In his current show WHAT IS IT, THIS TIME? at Lily Brooke gallery, Charlie Godet Thomas transforms the immateriality of flat text into three-dimensional sculptural objects, capturing the moment words carve an emotional space in the mind of a reader and the outside world.
Thomas’ work is often described as visual poetry, yet spatial poetry seems to be a more fitting description here. In this instance, the space of the poetry is a living room — a sense of ordinary domesticity accentuated by the gallery being a terrace house — containing a clock with rhythmical, rotating clicks and a few bookshelves. All quite normal, until you realise these commonplace objects have been surreally manipulated.
To create spaces, literature relies on the details whereas with images it’s possible to see everything at once. As in literature, the environment unfurls slowly, detail upon detail, fragment upon fragment, slowly with the ticking of the clock, we see that the room itself has not been manipulated, just the objects within it.
These fragments and details are distributed in vitrines throughout the exhibition. In ‘Song of Experience’ (2018), Thomas has used a bookshelf-like structure to position vitrines at different heights, and the remaining free shelves have been littered with remnants of hand-written text. Thomas has draped pieces of paper featuring lines of poetry, from the top to the bottom of the vitrines so they become part of the spatial division of the room — a positive volume filling the space. The bookcase, apart from its obvious connections to literature and as a tool for holding books, is probably the closest thing in the home to the page of text; a fine plane ordered into lines, holding objects that take the form of hieroglyphs more abstract than letters that can be ‘read’ by visitors and tell the story of who we are.
A riposte to this positive volume is contained within ‘Song of Innocence’ (2018), another vitrine that is mostly negative space. Offcuts of texts are placed at the bottom of a tall elegant glass vessel, leaving a void above. It is a space, but empty, it’s inarticulate, unlike ‘Song of Experience’ (2018), in which fragments of poetry can be clearly read. The positive and negative dialogue between these two pieces shows Thomas’ dual interests; in language‘s emergence from symbols into form, images and meaning, as well as its absence, futility and fragmentation; not only is he interested in the spatial birth of language in our minds, but also linguistic entropy — its death.
The intonations of positive and negative spaces between these two works are reminiscent of the Black Page in The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman. In many editions of the book this is a solid black rectangle, though in one of the original prints, held at the Bodleian Library in Oxford, the page is grainy and the texture of the paper behind can be seen bleeding through. A dark room made of the very thing that text on a page is — a play of positive and negative, black and white, fine volumes of ink on a page. The Black Page is often considered the death page, however, in a book that travels forward in time as easily as backwards it could also be the birth page, capturing at once, the prenatal abyss before we are born and that of the afterlife, with the fissures of light creeping through in the middle. Language too can be seen as an endless looping of interaction between light and dark forms, between articulation and the inarticulate, between life and death. Just like ‘The Clock at the Sailors Arms’ (2018), that pervades over the exhibition, on which the time reads ‘RUN ON’, then from six o’clock through to twelve inverts to a guttural, nonsensical ‘NO NUR’.
Tristram Shandy, a story told as much through the white space of the page as the black letters we usually read, is a book which describes the world while also being a reminder that language‘s power to designate objects, to represent the world, is always in some way eroding. There are pages at the base of ‘Song of Experience’ (2018), that are testament to this and Thomas has cut out whole lines of text, disfigured, leaving behind only a strata of voids.
Such breaking and cutting is the birth of language, we have to break the world in order to remake it through words. We deconstruct the natural occurrences and shapes of our environment into forms that then inseminate that world with another meaning. The fragments of text that are littered throughout the exhibition, are the death of language while also being the birth of another spatialised conversation, not only in the objects themselves, but a dialogue of silent spatial cadences in the gaps between the works. Their details of whispers, murmurs and sighs coagulate into whole architectures of words, clauses, sentences, paragraphs and pages.