Dan Gilsdorf, Sentences
by Rebecca Steele
“The aesthetic experience is not a gratuitous epiphany. Viewers must bring their knowledge and training to the encounter with the work of art.” -Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
Text based work can be challenging.
It challenges in its stripped revelation of successful form/content paradoxes. Much text based work states what it is trying to do, its function laid bare. Where the function is also the form and the vehicle, all the associated parts must be screwed together pretty tight or the end result becomes little more than a rusty fiat. Text based work at its best either becomes agitated political arbiter, absurdist/minimalist joke, or a mythical incantation (Ligon, Nauman, Beuys).
That being said, Dan Gilsdorf’s exhibit, Sentences, at 12128, is both provocative and dry, and by dry I mean to imply sandy, shifty, unstable. The pieces are constructed of type geometrically situated on white expanses of digital photographic paper, with one video monitor. They hover between tightly executed minimalist forms and typographical gymnastics. There are eleven pieces, one of them being the video. The ten prints appear to be analogue type written exercises. The font is something similar to “American Typewriter,” and viewing them becomes slippery: they assume hand execution, rather than computer generation, to perform minimalist poetic Borgesian tricks.
The texts are mostly directives for the executor of the type. “Type very carefully and thoughtfully one hundred times really quite long sentences each being longer by no more than a single word relative to the sentence that precedes…” is repeated for the duration of the page in such a way that the statements construct particular patterns and forms that seem irrelevant of their implied content, unless you begin to consider the text as rooms with various mirrored corridors. The meaning of the sentences acts as a kind of hex dump for the implied image.
Hallway Mirror (after Borges) has type that forms a trapezoid and repeats the sentence “in the hallway there is a mirror that faithfully depicts all appearances,” a quote from Borges’ Library of Babel. In this text Borges’ narrator describes the universe as a series of interlocking hexagonal rooms equipped with all necessities for human survival. On four walls of each room are bookshelves containing books each of exactly 410 pages. Though the order and content of the books is random and apparently completely meaningless, the inhabitants believe that the books contain every possible ordering of just a few basic characters (letters, spaces and punctuation marks). This thesis could also describe the working process for Gilsdorf’s Sentences, where design and formal structure are an illusion and the repetition and instructions gibberish — the human conundrum of necessitated meaning as an allegory for the labyrinth as a form of existence abstracted.
The video, A Short Sentence, contains one statement that flashes on the screen on a timed loop: “On a video monitor, display a single sentence for a length of time that is slightly shorter than the duration required to read the sentence.” It is neither frustrating, as implied by the text, nor particularly revolutionary in its fraught symbioses. The work’s thinness might come from the simple claim being overwrought in relation to its provocation, or possibly being dis-serviced by the shift in medium.
Gilsdorf’s Sentences formalizes the aesthetics of exercise — the act of an exercise as a chant wherein meaning lies not in words said but is located in repetition, as action over content and tone becomes the vehicle for transcendence. This is not unlike the artist’s previous works, Black Mass and Diabolus in Musica, in which the artist utilized repetitive actions to outline the reach of the human gesture, as well as the possibility of transcendence through simple gesture. The piece Sixty-Six is composed of the phrase “sixty-six times by sixty-six spaces followed by sixty-six characters,” descending in diagonally striped banners down the page.
A Hopeful Manifesto attains transcendence in its arrowed square, stating, “a hopeful manifesto of a visionary genius,” and simultaneously “the polemical rants of a dogmatic ideologue.” These sentences both pull at each other as well as suggest meaning as authored set and the form as its own dogma. Where the sentences begin to switch places and trade words, an arrow is formed on the page by the diagonal of space. The arrow points down, suggesting the viewer, this place in time, or the failure of meaning to supersede the form of its transmission. One pole really does not differ from its oppositional statement, and given enough interaction all words create a similar kind of gibberish, or a sentence that might as well be rhythm created by mirrored form.
In The Novelist’s Lexicon, Jonathan Lethem answers the query of what key word opens the door to his work with “furniture,” and says, “it is widely believed that after Borges, mirrors are forbidden as symbols in novels. However it is cruel to deny the characters in a novel sight of their own faces; hence mirrors must be provided.”
I would not reason that Gilsdorf’s Sentences do their best work as mirrors, but they do relate to some activity that is mirror-like. In some pieces, like 200 Sentences and A Hopeful Manifesto, the activity that is implied by the fictionalized exercise of typing, what is typed, and its eventual form, collapse in such a way that stimulates sentiments not unlike those implied in The Library of Babel. More so than mirrors, this experience simulates our intuition of space as exercised in type.
While Borgesian libraries are “minor horrors,” Sentences maintains a cerebral visual geometry: quiet angles inviting contemplation, despite the contention between form and content.