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These Rotten Words, Chapter Gallery, 2017. Pictured from left: Rebecca Ackroyd, Everyone's Gone Now Nothing Works 2, Chicken wire, plaster and air vents, 2017, Johann Arens, Singles (↑), (from the 2015 series 'On Haptics') Acrylic sheet and metal alongside desk from the Chapter Gallery technician’s office, 2017. Photo: Jamie Woodley

The multi-artists exhibition, These Rotten Words, opened at Chapter Arts Centre, in Cardiff, in time to complement this year’s Experimentica and its theme of Secret Language. Alice Salter reviews a show that explores our relationship to language.

For These Rotten Words curator George Vasey brings together the work of eight artists, building on the Experimentica theme of Secret Language. The exhibition itself has developed as a continuation of other shows curated by Vasey, which tackle ideas around verbal and gestural communication. These include: A Small Hiccup, at Grand Union, Birmingham (2013); Emotional Resources, at Northern Gallery for Contemporary Art, Sunderland (2014) and the events programme Blend the Acclaim of your Chant with the Timbrels, at Jerwood, London (2016).

As the name suggests, this exhibition builds on the concept that words have lost their meaning in recent years, and looks to the body to provide a new form of communication. Initially inspired by an image on his Instagram feed, which displayed graffiti reading, “Words do not mean anything today”, on a London wall, around 1976, Vasey has curated this collection with the view that language has become increasingly malleable and meaningless as it is increasingly misused by those in power.

He explains this, saying, “I was thinking a lot about speech and words at a moment when, on both sides of the Atlantic, Nigel Farage, Michael Gove, Boris Johnson and Donald Trump increasingly divorced speech from responsibility”. Words do not mean everything today and when verbal communication fails to have impact, the body can step in.

These Rotten Words, Chapter Gallery, 2017. Pictured, from left: 
Anneke Kampman, Songs for Another Voice, vinyl record, 2017; Rebecca Ackroyd, Everyone's Gone Now Nothing Works 1, Chicken wire, plaster and air vents, 2017; Joanna Piotrowska, Untitled, digital print, 2015. Photo: Jamie Woodley

In spite of this, the first piece you encounter in this exhibition is a record, which serves as an alternative audio guide. In this piece Anneke Kapman gives voice to the words of a character she has named Linguia, as she struggles to find her voice. Echoing throughout the gallery space, this record becomes the backdrop against which every other work is seen, drawing together a very clear relationship between vocal, textual and gestural forms of communication.

Rebecca Ackroyd’s huge white forms, resembling stretched hands and feet, punctuate the space, and in effect present the gallery as part of one enormous body. A series of tiny watercolour figures painted in fine detail by David Austen are presented in stark contrast, both as forms on a more modest scale and as bodies with much more individual character.

Marie-Michelle Deschamps’ posters represent disjointed dialogue, mirrored by Devlin Shea’s paintings depicting the body as a series of fragments, which are tasked with communicating non-verbally. Johann Arens’ screens take on a sculptural quality, as viewers move around the space and come to notice that the rippled glass is formed in the shape of hands attempting to pierce the surface. Interrupting a distinctly virtual space with natural forms, these pieces highlight the power of the body to shape our environment and make statements heard louder than words.

These Rotten Words, Chapter Gallery, 2017. Pictured:
Joanna Piotrowska, I,Frowst, 2013 (one of 88 slides of selected works between 2011-2014). In background, Joanna Piotrowska, Untitled, 2015, digital print. Photo: Jamie

Interplay between pieces in the main gallery is subtle but open, and the entire show is essentially bookended by two pieces of film. At the far end of the gallery Anna Barham’s new video, Sick Ardour, focusses on rough outlines of a cicada, an insect which has become a symbol of transformation and immortality in many cultures. Accompanied by piercing sound, the quickly moving and uncertain images push viewers to imagine the beast they cannot see. However, at the other end of the gallery, Joanna Piotrowska communicates her message with the absence of noise and a complete emphasis on demonstrable, physical statements that are presented almost as a form of code.

At the centre of it all, Foundation Press, a group of students and tutors from the University of Sunderland’s Foundation Art and Design course, who are in residence in the gallery for Experimentica, bring life to the space. Exploring colour as a secret language and producing works within the gallery space itself, they use risographic printing to produce pieces for the gallery and Chapter, over the course of Experimentica.

As a whole, the exhibition shrewdly reveals the fertile potential of words and the body to host new, and perhaps more honest, forms of communication. Words are not everything today and this exhibition suggests that their meaning cannot be static. Words do things as much as they represent things and These Rotten Words is certainly a show designed to inspire action.

These Rotten Words is at Chapter Arts Centre, Cardiff until 11 June 2017.