After studying at Saint Martin’s School of Art and the Royal College of Art, Cerith Wyn Evans worked as an assistant to Derek Jarman in his early experimental film work in the 1980s. In the 1990s he began to work with sculptures and installations by using words in neon light that refer to history, philosophy and literature. The light brings out the poetry of the words, giving them the chance to truly stand out, they become etched on our minds.
In Girum Imus Nocte et Consumimur Igni, installation (2006)
'… in which something happens all over again for the very first time', installation (2006)
'Coloured Chinese lanterns', installation (2007)
“Coloured Chinese lanterns were lit in direct competition with the moonlight. Candles were placed in niches, neon tubes screwed to wooden sticks, so that distinct zones of shadows emerged. Everything had been intentionally, yet carelessly, kept in the dark. Thoughts are swimming in these thousand light-moods, the night lasting longer today. Brutal patterns are appearing and cellars flooding. In a house of god, kilometre-long corridors have been built. When you enter such corridors that consist entirely of hard-reflecting stone, you get drunk from the echoes. Inside another house, everything meets your expectation. You are being shown around to admire. Suddenly you find a letter from your mother. She begs you to sacrifice yourself for your country. With it you will be left completely alone. There is fog everywhere thanks to the fog-machines which had been set up.”
Cerith Wyn Evans visited Japan in August 2010 for the opening of the inaugural Aichi Triennale, for which his neon text piece 299 792 458 m/s (2004/10) beams a cryptic, cosmic message from the rooftop of an office building in downtown Nagoya. ART iT did an interview with the artist about the relationship with language and his work.
ART iT: You are known for frequently citing literary texts in your works, transforming them into Morse code in the case of your ongoing series of programmed Chandeliers or using fragments of text as the basis for neon signs, for example. Thinking about your works in relation to the context of literature, do you consider them to be a form of translation?
CWE: That’s a hugely loaded question for me. Yes, I do – in the sense that I’ve been investigating theories of translation for as long as I can remember. English is not my first language, Welsh is. To that extent, the entire balance of meaning is predicated for me on the process of translation. Not only is it a kind of mediating force between two separate languages, the very prefix “trans,” as “otherness,” is absolutely central considering that I have worked with many codes and forms of languages and sublanguages. If a translation is to be understood as a slave to the master text, then it has to be sensitive in a way that is deeply creative. My favorite theoretician of translation is Martin Prinzhorn, a former pupil of Noam Chomsky’s and now a structural linguistics expert at the University of Vienna, he wrote a short text about my work in relation to theories of translation when I did a solo exhibition at Kunsthaus Graz in 2007. We spent many days together talking about it, arguing about it, trying to articulate what that relation is. The question of the future of translation is very interesting to me because language is a constantly evolving source of communication between people. I’m not a cynic or a pessimist in this respect, but I do think that forms of communication have changed irrevocably in the past 20 years. We are constantly mediated thorough information technologies that have changed the fundamental structure of what it is to communicate and to speak to another person.
ART iT: It seems that before the age of communication technology as it’s understood now, the issue with translation was mostly the idea of the translator as traitor – “traduttore, traditore” – and the impossibility of a true translation. Would you say that the traitor now is the very media of communication?
CWE: I think I know the territory that you’re speaking around. Most people want to be loved, and a very tender form of accurate communication is to ask these very sensitive, very subjective questions. “Do you love me?” is a huge question. Now, as far as I’m concerned, that’s bound up with very primal forms of communication. Because you actually have to vocalize and enter into the space of language in order to be able to speak, how do you translate that? There are many forms of non-spoken language that are also language. I don’t mean just music, dance, architecture. There are many ways to actually communicate without using written or spoken language. There’s intimacy for instance. That’s language too. The mediamatic has existed since language has been written. I think Gutenberg is a mediation that is an absolute ur-betrayal, if you like. The historical development of religious texts is what put a space between communication and the medium that was possible to employ. I don’t want to feel cynical and depressed about the fact that there is less availability. I’m an enormous fan of all sorts of people who are deeply cynical like Guy Debord. I’m a great admirer of the script for his film In girum imus nocte et consumimur igni (1978), and have referenced it many times. I think it’s an extraordinary, brilliant and super passionate text, which borrows Latin paradigm ‘we go round in circles and get consumed by the night’. But I think there are points at which we should remain optimistic about the moment of communication that can, for instance, communicate compassion. I’m not so technical in and around language. I’m actually very emotional in and around it. Can you imagine not being able to speak? There is a great architectural theorist, Mark Cousins, who works at the Architectural Association in London. In the mid-1990s he described an exhibition of mine as being so perplexing that it was like the experience of a deaf man staring at the radio. I took that as a compliment, not because I want to be willfully obscure, but because I want to engage in the territory where radical, new forms of communication are possible. Marcel Duchamp says that you are not looking at the object, the object is looking at you.
'Visibleinvisible', installation (2006)