The Treachery of Words

Language is in itself autonomous and deceptive because of its ambiguity. If, however, it clearly expresses a certain idea or thing, this is only a secondary capability derived from the inner life of language. Just like a weaver, a writer also works from the inside out: he is just wrestling with the language, and then suddenly he finds himself surrounded by meaning.
— Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Indirect Language and the Voices of Silence

In order to understand the work that Jan Šerých placed in 2002 in the basement room of the Václav Špála Gallery in Prague, we need at least two viewpoints. On the front wall, we first see the letters A B B A cut out from wood and leaning freely against the wall. If we go all the way into the room and do an about face, we find that more letters are leaning on the opposite wall. At that moment, the viewer usually has no choice but to read the legend. The work is named Black Sabbath/Abba. Really: using all of the letters in the room, we can spell the name of the original metal group. Of course, Jan Šerých remixed it, suppressing its beginning and end and selecting only a short sample from it. It turns out that hiding in the name Black Sabbath like a parasite is the name of the Swedish disco/pop quartet. Whoever has at least a little knowledge of popular music will undoubtedly know that Black Sabbath is not ABBA. But under certain circumstances, it can be.
Two years later in a group exhibition in Dresden, Jan Šerých installed the same work in a different manner. He arranged the letters of the name of the band that flirted with Satan himself in their approximate order, carelessly against the wall. The overlapping letters only merge into the name for those who know the band and are able to put the stuttering letters into the right order. This causes us to start to perceive the letters merely as a material awaiting further use. Jan Šerých’s iconoclasm leads to a single realization: we can be deceived not only by images, but also by words.
We can understand both variants of the work as a demonstration of the creative principle that Šerých has surveyed in a number of ways in recent years: under certain conditions, words and letters can mean something completely different from what they commonly mean. Language and its elements are a code that we can decipher at different levels. Into the code, we can place various messages that are accessible only to the initiated. Without knowledge of the code, language falls apart into its individual elements. We can grasp these elements as building blocks and use them for new compositions and games, but these are not inspired by the aesthetic qualities of the letters, but rather by their ability to carry meaning in various ways. Jan Šerých encodes language according to different rules from the ones that we are used to, pointing out the consensual nature of language.

With many works by Jan Šerých, it is difficult to decide whether we are looking at them or reading them. With respect to the traditional categorization of artistic disciplines, these are hybrid creations, equally close to the spatial and temporal arts. Šerých works with letters in the form of objects, or he assembles them into large, two-dimensional inscriptions. Their reading, just like the reading of any text, takes place in time. They also, however, have a significant visual or even spatial quality, which hinders and complicates a simple linear reading.
The spatial installation B-U-M (Model of Collapsing Architecture) consists of three geometrical objects and, simultaneously, of spatial letters. The individual elements resemble minimalist works, which we can move here and there about the room. A traditional minimalist object reacts to the space of the gallery, and the key thing for its perception is the physical interaction between the viewer and the arising spatial situation. In B-U-M, however, the viewer also finds him/herself in a semantic space, since the objects are, at the same time, letters. The minimalist object around which we are moving in the gallery is constantly transforming with the changing position of the observer. When perceiving B-U-M, the manner of our perception also changes as we freely jump from the mode of observing over to the mode of reading.
Šerých also uses this strategy in his two-dimensional text works. Pictures such as Goodyear, Uuuuaaaa and 10 Tips look like sober text banners, but at the same time they also resemble odd abstract paintings. Šerých deliberately uses neutral fonts or lettering, choosing them on the basis of the smallest possible number of bits necessary for their formation rather than by any aesthetic criteria. Creating their “graphic design”, he is not guided by the logic of the written text, but rather by the very simplest rules of composition of the visual arts and the economy of expended effort. In the pictures and computer animations, letters and numerals cover and utilize as perfectly as possible the chosen background format, even in cases where this interferes with their messages. The text developing over time is subordinated to the aesthetics of the visual arts, and the perception of the viewer is deliberately kept at the boundaries of various levels of perception. The seeming nonsensicalness of the inscriptions enables us to examine these media of meaning, without being burdened by them. This is an autopsy of the dead body of communication, through which at first glance no information is flowing.
Using artistic means, Šerých expands the semantics of language, but in doing so, he does not entirely disrupt its function. During normal reading, we are not usually aware of the shape of the letters; we do not see the individual letters and words, but rather we perceive their meanings directly. Šerých, however, directs our attention back to the physical properties of these media of meaning. He does not dematerialize language, as was the case with classic conceptual art of the 1960s, but rather, to the contrary, he systematically uses the various properties of its appearance. Letters, their size, material, rhythm — these are all the elements with the help of which he then encodes his parallel messages.

The contemporary world is said to be an age of images, in which the written word is gradually losing its importance. In the visual arts, the opposite is rather the case. Letters had already found their way into pictures to a great extent by the beginning of the twentieth century, and in contemporary art galleries text in various incarnations often predominates over images. Besides the flood of possible reasons for this process in art history, there is also a generally technological cause: the understanding of texts is changing thanks to the inventions that we use for producing and retrieving them.
This all began with Gutenberg and the invention of movable type. Every printing shop was transformed into a whole universe of the potentially infinite combinations into which letters can be placed. Phototypesetting brought more possibilities, and digital technology then brought about a completely new revolution. Today, everyone has access not only to a private typesetting shop in the form of a computer, but also the ability to use the computer to search for letters and words at will — to record, distribute, multiply, adapt and combine them. Like works of sculpture, letters and words can be broken down into their individual elements, and new meanings can be obtained by their various combinations. Letters can even be animated, so we can move from a static text to the world of chronologically variable art with its own rhythm and dramatic composition. Thanks to hypertext, we can join words together and create complicated, changing structures.
Jan Šerých’s video Parallel Diary presents textual information in the form of several series of letters. Rather than following one after another normally in rows, they are instead ordered to follow each other in a time sequence. This results in a moving text matrix in which the words and meanings do not arise by reading from left to right, but rather by the observation of their changes from the past towards the future. Some of Jan Šerých’s games with letters are explained by our experiences with hypertext. In the solved crossword puzzles from the installation Abbey Road, we primarily perceive the amazing interconnectedness of the entire system, but its meaning is suppressed. The letters change themselves into something like hyperletters. Together, they weave themselves into a web of mutual references and contexts, into which Šerých places his own messages, like stowaways.
Most of Jan Šerých’s works can confuse viewers. They usually recognize that they are confronted with some sort of coded message, but they do not always grasp the encoding method. It takes us a while before using the placement and differing character of words that we discover the secret of a solved crossword puzzle. Determining how Parallel Diary is written also takes some effort. Even if these difficulties are overcome, we will almost never be certain of the actual meaning of the message. What remains is awareness of the complexity of human communication or the very demarcation of its limits. At first glance, the words or numerals appear to be elements in an abstract picture, but they always contain a hidden meaning.

René Magritte’s picture The Treachery of Images, which is paraphrased in the title of this essay, combines a realistically painted pipe with the calligraphic declaration “This is not a pipe.” It is obviously characteristic that these words appear in handwriting. Šerých, on the other hand, works with fonts that in no way resemble handwriting or calligraphy, but that bring to mind (and to a great extent actually are) the products of machines or of mechanical logic. He eliminates from his work any carnality or references to subjectivity, as was also the case for his non-text pictures from previous years. It appears as if he would like to suppress by whatever means the subjectivity of expression. In reality, however, he uses letters, language and lingual codes as a highly personal construction. If we get past the difficulty of deciphering, his messages are of a very intimate character. They are addresses, telephone numbers, diary entries, the contents of his memory or even calls for help. In them, we learn about the private life of the author, or we have the opportunity for the direct violation of the privacy of an unknown celebrity.
The awareness of possible meanings thus holds our attention even for works that are entirely beyond our ability to decode. It is as if we were to listen to a song in an unknown language, perceive the rhythm and melody, and imagine what the words probably mean. This situation is intimately familiar to a whole generation of pop music listeners who do not speak English, including the author of this text. As a boy, along with millions of others I was subjected to hearing the songs of the group ABBA. No one will probably ever be able to erase their melodies from my brain. It was not, however, until many years later when I had learned English that I understood their texts. ABBA suddenly sounded completely different. It was as if the intimately familiar songs had suddenly acquired a new, heretofore unknown dimension that was often contradictory to my own memories and imaginings. The songs contained a code, a secret message, and I had to wait many years for their deciphering. An even bigger surprise awaited me, when as an adult I saw a video clip of ABBA for the first time. The good-looking Swedes on the studio set were lip-synching into the microphones with careful diction. Their shining eyes and smiles were in absolute contradiction to the melancholy meaning of the words of the song being sung, and for a moment I doubted whether they had any idea what they were singing about.

— Tomáš Pospiszyl