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Stolen Sentences & Mental Images
Reflections on Gilles Furtwängler's Visual Poetry


Cahier d'artistes, Pro Helvetia, 2017

Gilles Furtwängler
Texte : Laura Herman
Collection Cahiers d'Artistes
ProHelvetia & Editions Periferia, Lucerne/Poschiavo 2017
ISBN 978-3-906016-70-2

Gilles Furtwängler is an artist whose body of work relies on a world full of words, more or less interesting. For more than ten years now, Fürtwangler has collected phrases and utterances, mostly generic types of speech, from varying sources as his primary material, reorganising them and exploring them through poetry, performative lectures, installations, wall paintings, objects, graphic design, and paintings. He listens. He writes. Always going for accurate wording, yet not bounded to one particular subject, his work captures pervading sentiments across society. Drawing from standardized forms of expression and reshuffling them in carefully put together poems, the texts exasperate our current conditions of living to make them more palpable.

Gilles Furtwängler’s preoccupation with language and its many possible representations, is partly informed by conceptual art, literature, and poetry with references spanning the work of canonical artists like Barbara Krüger, Daan van Golden, Ana Mendieta, Mona Hatoum, William N. Copley, Glen Ligon, Douglas Huebler, Robert Breer, Moké or Duane Hanson, as well as less obvious references such as the American writer and poet Paul Beatty and the Nigerian activist poet Saro-Wiwa. But even before artistic and literary references came into view, and prior to his education at Ecole Cantonale d’art de Lausanne, Furtwängler’s interest already gravitated toward registering language from overheard conversations, newspaper headlines and advertising. Around the age of fifteen, Furtwängler systematically started noting down fragments from conversations. Drawing from a mixture of personal writings and found phrases, he took up a particular routine of periodically writing one sentence that summarize the day. Perhaps one could say that, from the beginning on, Furtwängler has been more of an observant witness of common speech and the aptitude of language to capture a given mood or zeitgeist, rather than an artist who feels the necessity to speak for himself and bring something new.

Gilles Furtwängler likes to describe his practice as “stealing sentences”. Yet, in this very act of thievery he detaches words from their context and sets them free. This brings to mind Jean-Luc Godard’s famous statement, “it’s not about where you take things from, it’s where you take them to”, and for Furtwängler this definitely coincides with elevating the banal and neglected to the realm of art. Funnelling unremarked forms of expressions into lines of poetical measurement, he somehow makes them precious again. Though the banality of everyday life is a salient aspect in Furtwängler’s work, the question as to how one can make us be more susceptible to its political implications seems to be the most decisive. When feelings of frustration, pain, anxiety or happiness go lost between the lines, how to make them manifest again? Furtwängler is interested in “retelling” the sentences he appropriates, speaking through the words of others but always with a slight twist. In poeticizing mundane concerns into a powerful meta-prose, he succeeds to make even the most prosaic topics look interesting again.

While politics produce explanatory frameworks for societal processes, Furtwängler is less interested in knowing things than he is in perceiving and feeling them, using poetry to relate his personal experience of the world. Furtwängler says that he is not so much interested in being a political artist or a social commentator. But even in refusing to take these positions, his art is hardly separated from reality. In his own words, “banality brings people together, makes them look the same, and levels hierarchies.” The realm of the banal is an entry point to bring art closer to subjects ranging as wide as “dental surgery, Swedish massage, world debt, plumbing, well-being, Formula 1, extremists, white cultural fragility, limited thoughts, laziness, privilege, auto-destruction”, and all of its interconnections. Relying on the power of poetry and cyclic association, Furtwängler articulates a worldview that emerges from daily experience; from what’s within sight.

Of course, the way one understands words reflects how an individual’s sense of self is constructed. In a linguistically enunciated world, language is much more than a set of relatively arbitrary symbols: it is the very apparatus through which societal processes are mediated. It creates our sense of belonging. Based in between Lausanne and Johannesburg, Furtwängler moves in between contexts where words mean things differently. This further challenges the artist to make his texts appear less universal and more particular, breaking with institutionalised and standardised forms of interpretation.

Even if Gilles Furtwängler’s entire body of work supports word, both spoken and written, it is interesting to note the evolution in his work. Since 2005, his practice has gone through phases of creating objects and installations to performative readings, alone and with musicians, to finally arrive at a more pictorial, graphic and spatial approach to language. Inspired by the dense rhythmic texture and tonal arrangements of hip-hop, rhythm has always been an important aspect in the work of Gilles Furtwängler. His writings are not only imbued with a dense rhetoric, but also supported by sound, which is more apparent in the readings: raising and lowering the volume of his voice, he inflects his lines with additional layers of meaning. He interrupts his delivery at times, slowing down and speeding up the pace of his words, mimicking conversational scenarios.

Yet, when searching for ways to render his texts more pictorial, Furtwängler wants to make sure not to illustrate his way of reading, and instead develops a rhythm and visual quality that differs from auditory experiences or classical readings. From this desire, the posters and wall paintings emerge; a new body of work in which he combines poetry with his graphic interest, and wherein he discovers the possibility to reroute words into a multiplication of mental images. Take the typographic poem houhouhou(2012), for example: it is a nice point of entry to dive into Furtwängler’s idiosyncratic and associative working process where syntax becomes poetics, abstract and figurative all at once. The poem is lost inside the poster, floating in between large typographic letters in the foreground and green letters in the background. But the text contains many layers, each enclosing emotions and different forms of appreciation. Furtwängler took his inspiration from a concierge who worked at a secondary school; a man in his late forties, impassioned by Native American culture, adopting Native American aesthetics in his lifestyle. Yet rather than relegate the viewer to an anecdotal background, the poem gives us insight into the significance the mental image has for the artist, unfolding the many doors that the encounter opened in Furtwängler’s mind, from joyful childhood memory of the artist playing Cowboy and Indians games, to the western exportation and representation of indigenous culture, to the genocide of Native American, to folklore in the Far West, etc. As an amalgam of (sometimes critical) associations around the devocalised onomatopoeia houhouhou, the poem talks about nostalgia, war, violence, perception, depression, and the eventual desire to drink and intoxicate oneself: “boire boire boire boire”.

Equally important in the graphic work is the use of inexpensive, easily redistributable forms and elemental typographic fonts in order to create dynamic and accessible work. Just like with words, Furtwängler likes to adopt a banal, standardised format for something new to happen inside. In his solo exhibition, Do you feel this feeling of Eternity ? Tic-tac. Tic-tac. I am feeling so happy. If I had an Uzi, I would empty a magazine in the sky (2015) at SALTS in Basel, the artist painted the four external walls with quotes and sentences. Inside, he presented a series of paintings on wooden panels based on a standard A0 and all of its successive paper sizes. The paintings are made with glued text that he then covered with paints made from organic materials such as black tea, cinnamon, alimentary dye, and left-over paint from SALT’s stock--materials lying around, stored in the kitchen, or found by chance. It is precisely in using common, familiar materials, sizes, colours and smells that Furtwängler finds an appropriate formal approach to make his text reverberate rather than illustrate its meaning.

Objects have also come to embody language in Furtwängler’s oeuvre. In his solo exhibition at Quark in Geneva (Chérie je m’adresse à toi / La notion de compassion est fondamentale / L’interprétation c’est le bien / Ouvrez la fosse aux chips,  2014), he installed a sequence of inflated pillows hoisted like flags, that bore words in capital letters: esprit, bomb,... Less authoritarian and more innocent looking than flags, the Coussins-drapeaux series plead for peace, a break, or agreement (Accalmie, 2015). Not only does the pillow shape adopt the role of an innocent double, language too recomposes the flag as a sign of civic identity, ownership and nationalism to a poetic symbol of humility, candour and harmony. It is no mere coincidence that the exhibition opens with an address toward the public in a moralistic but simultaneously caring and affective tone: “Chérie je m’adresse à toi...”

If the writer’s principal task is to evoke the visual through textual equivalents, then the growing potential of Furtwängler’s work resides in the exact opposite: bringing text into the visual realm. Perhaps this is why the artist identifies himself much more with the domain of visual arts rather than with the world of literature. This becomes especially palpable in the series of watercolours he most recently made and which are published in this cahier d’artistes. These works can be seen as a continuation of the poster series and the wall paintings, even though they are more exquisite. And, unlike the posters, the watercolours have an artistic autonomy, each unique within a larger structure of four chapters; a sort of painterly taxonomy defined by the degree of blurriness (in some places water seeped under the stencils) or the choice of ingredient. Here, again, Furtwängler adopts tea and spices from Asian and South-African cuisine, adding what he calls a “mental flavor” to the text; something from the commonplace that is the kitchen. No doubt, there is a shared affinity between writing and cooking: ingredients influence each other, just like tender words can soften down tempers, but there’s also a parallel in the way the artist presses together narratives and concepts together to extract their meaning’s juice--back to the essence, a return to what is really being said, from the affective disorders of capitalism to declarations of love: “C’est inacceptable de détruire les magasins / Je grossis et te redis / Pleure / Format Paroisse / Moi aussi je veux / rester avec toi pour / toujours.” The original syntax collapses, composing a new one. Like stone skipping, shooting a word that bounces off the surface many times.