by Frances Loeffler
The story of Echo, the talkative nymph, who is punished into repeating only the last words of others, and Narcissus, lover of his own reflection, has been a popular subject for artists, from John William Waterhouse to Salvador Dalí. Sophie Jung offered a new take on the classical myth in her performance Eh, co? Nah, cis. Us! (2015), which took place as part of the exhibition Jungs, hier kommt der Masterplan at Kunsthalle Basel. For the performance, audience members, clothed in bathing suits and bathrobes, were ushered into Basel’s Hallenbad Rialto swimming pool to the sound of Céline Dion’s The Power of Love. Arriving, they found the artist supine on the mammary-like mounds of its fountain area. Her chequered swimsuit perfectly camouflaged against the tiles, she read the poet Ovid’s version of the story aloud from a waterproof e-reader, interrupted at intervals by a computer voice echoing her own. Opposite, Narcissus in blue speedos gazed at his own reflection in the depths of the pool.
The punning title of this work – not to mention the watery setting – brings to mind an apt, if rather odd, antecedent in the writings of Jean-Pierre Brisset (1837-1919). A French swimming guard, pastry chef, soldier, and stationmaster, Brisset wrote a treatise on the evolution of humans from frogs. He was a passionate amateur linguist, and based his claim on elaborate theories of language, which he developed in the off-hours from his job as stationmaster. He claimed that French, for example, was not derived from Latin, but had instead developed from humans imitating the sounds of frogs. Coâ, coâ (a frog’s cry in French – ‘ribbit’ to English speakers) became quoi?, quoi? (what?), according to Brisset, while the froggy Greek onomatopoeic sound brekekekex developed into qu’est-ce que c’est? (what is that?).1 His linguistic system was based on seemingly nonsensical word concatenations, such as the following:
The teeth in the mouth.
The teeth, inner mouth…
The tea – thin a mouth.
The tea, thinner mouth.2
Such paronyms, homophones, and word associations are also central to the work of Sophie Jung, and can be found in her performances, sculptural installations, video, and writing. They are there in the titles of works: Touch that Angel, Touch my Angle (2013); in performances like The Servant Problem (2015): “get back in your container, we can tame her;” “the deadline’s up, the dead leash, oh wait, look, it’s the dead horse;” “we’re leaving for the winter, you didn’t win, aw;” “veil a statue and fail a statute;” and in lines like “Tiny puss: tinnitus” in Kneady Me. Frogs aside, there is, of course, an artistic genealogy at play here, as Brisset was loved, if also ridiculed, by the Dadaists, and his linguistic experiments were revelatory to artists, such as Marcel Duchamp, who named him as a primary influence. Ever since, such dislocations of language have been central to contemporary art from Dada to the work of Marcel Broodthaers and Haim Steinbach.
The reference to Dada, which is relevant here also in its vaudevillian performance style, is made perhaps most explicitly apparent in Jung’s Operation Earnest Voice (2015), performed as part of the exhibition Äppärät at Ballroom Marfa, Texas. Dressed in two rugs tied in such a way that they recall the costume Hugo Ball wore when he performed his sound poem Karawane almost a hundred years earlier, the artist begins: “I’m Hugo, I’m… You go and check out my piece afterwards, but I’m Hugo Ball room in the ballroom. I’m Hugo ballroom.” The narrative that follows, delivered in stops, starts, and non-sequiturs, is an irresistible linguistic roller coaster of puns, innuendo, sound repetitions, and word play that would surely have had Brisset all aflutter (perhaps especially the line “as a cat meows, words emerge”). The artist veers and zigzags from the mercury line in palm reading (signifying communication) to the mercury that lights up the screens of smartphones; from hypocrisy to Hypocrites; from occupational medicine to occupied territory to the Occupy movement; and from salt to salary. The connections she draws are rarely arbitrary. Rather, she points to the interrelations and trails between things and words: the shared history between the words ‘salt’ and ‘salary,’ for example, stems from a time when Roman soldiers were remunerated with salt.
It is possible that Jung may be delivering “false gold nuggets of information” (as she suggests in one piece). But while they may be whimsical, her performances still manage to carry an underlying message about our digital age that is of considerable importance. Eh, co? Nah, cis. Us!, for example, beautifully encapsulates the quasi-erotic voyeurism and narcissism of the Internet, in which attempts at communication are reduced to mere echoes and self-reflections. An “earnest” message also comes to the fore in Operation Earnest Voice, which takes its title from software developed by the US military, in which fake online identities are used to sway public opinion. The impact of destructive mining techniques and toxic substances leaching into soil is just one of many side effects of the contemporary tech industry. While it’s seldom addressed, it leaves us all guilty as Lady Macbeth, who Jung references with an excerpt from the “Out damned spot!” speech. Jung isn’t just using digital technology in her work, but considering its impact on our bodies and lives in a way that manages to be trenchant, as well as light-footed and funny.
In other works, Jung sets new linguistic tools alongside old. At the opening of her exhibition New Waiting (2015) at Temnikova & Kasela Gallery in Estonia, the artist delivered a yodelling performance (learned from online tutorials) while walking around the gallery looking at her smartphone. The images and objects that comprise Jung’s installation often include bits and pieces of digital technologies, such as iPods, earbuds, or the packaging for Apple products, as well as elements that are supposedly hand-made (such as woven rugs from IKEA, described as “handmade and therefore unique”). Such juxtapositions of digital and analogue in her work are never didactic or nostalgic for a pre-tech era, however (“come come” you can image her saying, chidingly, or “com com”, as one text is titled). The effect is poignant, rather than preachy. Yodelling is, of course, one of the oldest forms of long-distance communication, an ancient acoustical signal used by herders to propel sound over mountains and valleys. It’s a reminder of humankind’s deep-seated need to communicate with one another, despite great distances and odds.
The installation elements of Jung’s work, the objects and images encountered in the gallery, are often residues and remainders of language, and sometimes the starting point for a text. Perhaps they could be described as the physical armatures or architectures of the text, or an actor’s ‘prop,’ that lends context and character to the play. Apron-proscenium is the title of the artist’s collected blog writings. A theatre term, it is used to refer to the front edge of the stage used by actors to directly address the audience. It also represents the edge of fiction, where fragments of dramatic monologue disrupt the illusion on stage. As such, it’s an apt term not just for Jung’s writing, but for her work overall, which probes at the edges of language, using word games, verbal somersaults and murmured asides.
1 Verbal Constraints and Verbal Play in the Work of Jean-Pierre Brisset, in Marc Décimo, Jean-Pierre Brisset, Prince des Penseurs, inventeur, grammairien et prophète (Dijon : Les presses du réel, 2001), pp. 449-455.
2 Jean-Pierre Brisset, La science de Dieu ou la Création de l’Homme (Paris: Chamuel, 1900). Translation by Martin Sorrel, in Alastair Brotchie and Malcom Green (eds.), Atlas Anthology III (London: Atlas Press, 1985), pp. 60-61.