Robin Waart’s ongoing billboard series Evol/Love is a text collage constructed of movie subtitles that all situate and contain the word love.
In her Essay, Sophie Sanders looks closely at Waart’s work and positions it both as an open letter and a public secret.
With a few simple words on a first, otherwise blank page, authors declare their gratitude or love to someone other unknown to the reader.
A dedication is as public as it is private and something we find most routinely in books. Robin Waart, however, set out to decode the gesture.
His Dedication(s) (2018) introduces the dedication as a public secret.
Naming someone in particular breathes romance – whether the relationship implied is romantic, friendly, familial, imaginary or otherwise. The reader does not know what the name on the page has to do with the book in question. Unless a well-known person is being addressed, or when an author uses ‘to you’ and tries to stake a claim on, presumably, every reader.
The appealing spell that dedications cast has not escaped Robin Waart’s attention. His works are often made in the sign of language and love, and he explores the book (and film) for their potential and does not conceive of them as a carrier of mere fact or fiction. Waart collects pages, sentences, film fragments and contemplations, isolating them from their previous context and arranging them as repetitions of word and image. He draws attention to the meanings of expressions and utterances that we thought we knew already, and in doing so makes the connections between them clear.
Part One (2010-2011), for example, is an earlier investigation into pages that herald a beginning: an artist’s book of a hundred-and-one first pages that responds to difference and repetition. Love (2012-) is a video series containing one hundred and sixty film fragments in which the characters contemplate love.1 In Would you... (2012), a set of sixteen postcards, another group of film characters ask each other out. Love books (2006-2012) is a series of books with monograms on the spines, that spell out
‘I love you’ in multiple languages, while Some Day My Prince Will Come (2011) summarizes Waart’s motives well: it is an eponymous page, torn from its source and reproduced as a magazine feature. 2
Dedication(s) is his most recent artist’s book, collecting twenty-seven book dedications, each made up of three initials. Waart found the pages in Dutch, English, German and French literature, tore them out and rendered them, yellowing or not, in black and white to reduce their inherent nostalgia. We see the nearly empty pages, the frayed edges and both their front and back sides, where the twenty-seven dedications are visible in reverse. When you hold them against the light, images of the original title pages will appear as watermarks under the printed dedications. Some of these look as if they were tattoos, others are more (or less) delicate. But in each individual case the letters refer to a full name, conjoined into a group of enigmatic characters: ‘To S.F.R.’ 3
For Prospects & Concepts at Art Rotterdam 2018, Waart’s findings were displayed in three frames on the wall. In her review of this exhibition on Mister Motley, Ellis Kat described the work’s appearance as ‘poetry of an eye-catching homage to nobody’. 4
Nevertheless, someone is actually addressed here. And while the bibliography added to the book confirms this truth, having information to share that is so private and specific points to a relationship that should at least be familiar. In the most ideal case, this ‘someone’ will recognize his or her initials in the book by a loved one. The other scenario is when an addressee does not know how to identify with letters that, in all their discretion, almost become decorative; while the same subtleness does make this last scenario a particularly respectful one. As in such cases when a celebrity tries to keep their child out of the limelight but will still talk about them in hidden terms, so too ‘S.F.R.’ is thanked, but not burdened with being named in public.
'It isn't at all easy to say "I love you",' French philosopher Alain Badiou said in a public discussion about love with writer and journalist Nicolas Truong that took place at the 2008 Avignon Festival. This dialogue was translated and published as In Praise of Love in 2012. The declaration of love, of which the dedication is, so to speak, one exemplification, is often described here as a fixation of a chance encounter between two people.
Although the statement's effect is different in real from in print, Badiou continues his argument in terms that can apply to both cases: 'That small sentence is usually thought to be completely meaningless and banal. Moreover, people sometimes prefer to use other more poetic, less commonplace words to say “I love you”. But what they are always saying is: I shall extract something else from what was mere chance. I’m going to extract something that will endure, something that will persist, a commitment, a fidelity.' The degree of minimalism in those three letters, however, which is poetic and certainly less commonplace than 'I love you', could also potentially leave an aftertaste: because if you really want to thank me or acknowledge me (or both), then why not take a deep breath and dedicate it to me? With more than just a vague set of letters.
How isolating and repeating declarations of love uncovers specific information is something the artist Luis Camnitzer proved prior with his Last Words (2008). It is a work that presents the last words of people executed on Death Row. Camnitzer took them from the website of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice and selected variations containing the word ‘love’. Unlike the government agency, he did observe a certain degree of discretion and had the statements printed anonymously, in red letters, on six large consecutive panels. We encounter words of guilt, resignation, panic – words that reveal to which God they prayed in that last moment. They display words that show love, but as their excessiveness betrays them, do not seem to be capable of fully covering their charge. They are words that are no longer concerned with poetry, but with the message that needs to be conveyed: ‘I love you. I love all you all. Give everybody my love. Give everybody my love, O.K.?‘
The first exhibition of Last Words at Alexander Gray Associates in New York took place just after the State of New Jersey had taken the historic decision to abolish the death penalty. Now, at the time of writing and ten years later, there are thirty-one states that still execute, Texas being the second largest of these. While Waart focuses on words that are easily overlooked, on a complicated game of giving, surrendering and receiving, Camnitzer focuses on the political implications of language. The similarity between these artists is that both cut short with the assumption that conceptual art can only be intellectual, and therefore not emotional or romantic.
'We shouldn’t be afraid of words,' Badiou remarks. It sounds somewhat frivolous for someone who stated earlier that those ‘simplest words’ that formulate every declaration of love, are charged with ‘huge risks’ and ‘an intensity that is almost intolerable’. Words, moreover, 'the effects of which, in existence, can be almost infinite'. Alain Badiou advocates ‘surrender’ and he does not do so without a reason: according to him, a conception of love prevails today that is commercialized and risk-free. Necessarily, dating sites get his brunt. In the afterword to the Dutch edition of In Praise of Love (2016), literary critic Joost de Bloois summarizes: 'Love is not an affirmation of existing identities, the other is not my mirror image, she/he does not confirm me in my good taste, but the chance encounter with the other is the prelude to a completely new experience of the world.' He emphasizes that Badiou does not envision a 'romantic fusion of two to one', but rather the reverse. 'I go along with the miracle of the encounter, but I think it remains confined within Surrealist poetics if it is isolated,' is what Badiou himself writes. 'You must be in the breech, on guard: you must be at one with yourself and the other. You most think, act and change.' Or as de Bloois summarizes: 'Love must be declared, again and again.' In turn, the dedication must be viewed as a fixation of affection at a specific point in time. And not –in spite of the commitment having become part of the world as soon as the book is published– as symbolic of a lasting relationship. The reader still remains an outsider, but also a witness, without whom the dedication could hardly have had any meaning at all.
The book version of Dedication(s) ends in small caps on ‘to you’ – at Prospects & Concepts this page was placed to the bottom right of the wall presentation. Addressing someone unknown, from my point of view, increases the distance between reader and author, between viewer and artist, instead of generating a closer bond between them. In any case, the relationship from which the dedication obtains its meaning collapses.
I wonder how to interpret this you. As set aside from the dedication as such, or not?
Art has often given expression to love. While the classical romantic artist portrays her sentiments –sentiments of longing, rapture or desire, loneliness or melancholy– Waart tests love against linguistic, often familiar frameworks. His work could be seen as romantic-conceptual. In her essay Fairy tales that go against the grain (2010), writer and artist Nicoline Timmer puts forward the question where to draw the line between what we find romantic or pathetic in romantic-conceptual art, emphasizing that it is complicated to 'make work that moves us but at the same time expresses a critical attitude towards that emotion.' Although emotion is something other than romance, what Waart’s contemplative method does offer is a counterbalance. Studying love, romance or an emotionally charged expression is something different than attempting to stir emotions within the viewer. The attention in this ‘study’ is directed towards desire but also touches on a certain awkwardness. Can you still speak of a dedication, for example, when the language in which it is packaged forms a secret that is illegible, possibly even for the addressee? Are dedications always endearing, loving, kind? And what is love? ‘The answer to everything’? ‘A discourse’? 'The most used word in the world that actually means nothing?' 5 'Love is love' one of the characters says (the subtitle does not reveal who).
Although Waart may somewhat repeat himself, he registers different leads to think about the way we unite ourselves with language. Dedication(s) raises questions that touch on what it means to be an artist: who is the spectator? For whom and because of whom does the artist make? On the one hand, the work is an exaggeration of the mysterious character inherent to every dedication. On the other, the project subtly points to the fact that a dedication, a work of art, a novel or even a person can only obtain a right of existence through the eyes of someone else. This makes keeping the viewer in mind far from insignificant. At the same time, writers and artists can only anticipate who their spectator is, or will be, to a limited extent. Ultimately it is a question of handing over the work, and that is what Waart—literally—does. So maybe we too should take his you literally, as an expression of surrender to the unknown other.
To the public.
The following billboards are currently on view:
Evol/Love at Fluc Vienna, 12.02.2020-
and Bloc Projects, Sheffield, 28.02.2020-
Dedication(s) is still on display at the De Appel, Amsterdam.
Sophie Sanders is an artist and writer based in Utrecht.
A Dutch version of 'Love in public' first appeared on Metropolis M,
February 14, 2020.
1 The Evol material is reappraised in Evol/Love (2020-), a forthcoming publication, sound installation, billboard series and handout piece.
2 Some Day My Prince Will Come appeared in Tubelight No. 76, September/October 2011
3 Both the book's loose cover and colophon provide Waart’s own initials: R.R.W.
5 The questions in quotation marks are statements made by characters in the video series Love, Robin Waart, 2012-