Please ensure Javascript is enabled for purposes of website accessibility

The Book of Jests | Essay by Lorna Brown


The Book of Jests began in an antiquarian bookstore in Vienna where Hyung-Min Yoon found and purchased a 1922 edition of Albrecht Dürer’s illustrations. The book, Marginal Drawings for the Prayer of Emperor Maximilian I, was bound in grey cloth with beveled edges, and contained illustrations created for the margins of a prayer book. Originally created in 1515, Dürer’s illustrations were used in the mass publication and distribution of a single Christian prayer to multiple language groups, leaving blank the centre of the page, onto which the texts of different languages could be printed. For an artist whose work has explored the ‘imperfect path’ of translation, the interpretation of images across cultural contexts, and the history of printed text, this central unmarked ground must have seemed an almost overwhelming space of possibility.

The illustrations, inked in green and orange and sepia, are familiar biblical themes – mass produced extensions of the sacred manuscripts illuminated by hand in Medieval times. Horned devils perched on filigree, winged dragons and architectural flourishes, charging mounted knights and mythological beasts: what might these have meant to the readers of some forty-three languages of the polyglot prayer book?  What universalities were assumed to reside in the scrollwork embellishments, allegorical arrangements and fantastical landscapes? What process of translation transformed the meaning of these renderings placed next to such diverse scripts?

Vilém Flusser’s The Gesture of Writing is a typed work from 1991. It describes in fine, methodical detail the act of writing through its phenomenology. Written in English, it is an example of his practice of translating and retranslating his writing as a way of mining his own thought: seven versions were produced in four languages.  He begins by analyzing handwriting:

“It is a gesture of making holes, of digging, of perforating. A penetrating gesture. To write is to in-scribe, to penetrate a surface, and a written text is an inscription, although as a matter of fact it is in the vast majority of cases an onscription. Therefore to write is not to form, but to in-form, and a text is not a formation, but an in-formation. I believe that we have to start from this fact if we want to understand the gesture of writing: it is a penetrating gesture that informs a surface.”

Flusser traces the movement from writing by hand as a sculptural form, forward to typing, a process that removes irregularities and unwanted incidental marks, in which “we no longer engrave with a stick, but with a series of hammers”. Placing the gesture of writing into an historical context, he notes that the practice of typing ultimately transformed how we define writing, that is, as a conceptual gesture processed through a rigidly formed technology, a template.

The Gesture of Writing contains strikeovers and typos, and moments when the hammers glanced unevenly. Reading it (so odd in PDF form!) thus also requires care and a certain level of translation, of filling in, or working to discern the author’s intent. The text lightly abrades our reading of it, a distant echo of Flusser’s process of translating and re-translating. But his process, while arduous, was not endless:

“Theoretically I could go on translating the re-translating ‘ad nauseam’ or to my exhaustion. But practically I find that the chain of thoughts is exhausted in the process long before I myself am exhausted. Thus the process of translation and re-translation provides a criterion for the wealth of the thought to be written: the sooner the process exhausts the thought (the sooner it falls into repetition), the less worthy the thought is of being written.”

Dürer’s lithographs, inscribed and re-inscribed over centuries, are now subject to a new interpretive maneuver, moving from their 14th century European Christian context to the present day. What sort of profane texts might occupy the space intended for the sacred?

The artist looks to the role of the Jester, an ancient figure found the world over, and found in close proximity to power. Able to speak the unspeakable, the Jester claims an uneasy space of intimacy and exclusion, whether in a monarch’s court or, these days, on late night television. The Jester draws and re-draws the line between insult and adulation, using flourishes, oblique angles and sidelong curves in his speech. Jokes – like prayers – are most often spoken.


Transposing the method of the polyglot prayer book, Yoon sought out political jokes in English, Italian, Hebrew, Hindi, Spanish, Korean, Mandarin, Russian, Japanese, Arabic, German, Greek and Czech from friends and associates. They address classic themes such as hypocrisy, corruption and oppressive bureaucracy yet riff on the culturally specific paradoxes and absurdities of power. Certain formats – light bulb jokes, doctor jokes, and the like – repeat across nations, historical moments and regimes. Using a font developed in Dürer’s times, Yoon letter-pressed these jokes into the Terra nullius at the centre of the illuminated pages. By indexing the landscapes, forms and figures of the illustrations to the content of the jokes, new meanings are constructed. Emil Hácha, the President of Czechoslovakia during Nazi occupation, becomes a hooded monk waiting for dinner; German Chancellor Angela Merkel is seen as the Virgin Mary, no less, and Berlisconi becomes King David.   Bound in deep magenta, the photo-lithographs with their letterpress texts form a new volume of flagrant iconoclasms – and in the case of the Arabic scripts, near-blasphemies. Yoon’s method proposes the artist as editor, as publisher of a trans-historical, multilingual anthology, in a finely crafted limited edition.

In the gallery, in addition to the book, framed prints reproduce several two-page spreads. These particular excerpts are often in a left-page question, right-page answer format, or one printed page weights the blankness of its neighbour. In the archive area behind the exhibition space, a video records the artists’ hands turning the pages of the book. She takes care to time the page-turning correctly: in comedy timing is everything. This video of the silent reading, along with Yoon’s process of photographing and photographing the pages, as well as the framing and reframing of the letterpress jokes remind us of Flusser, translating and translating again.  From one medium to another and back again, Yoon re-works her thinking along Flusser’s chain, to the point when all possible meanings have been extracted, seeking exhaustion.

Lorna Brown
August, 2014

 DOWNLOAD| The Book of Jests, an essay by Lorna Brown.


Leave a comment

Abandoned Machines [artist interview]

We put computers out on the curb like junk. It’s one of those concepts that teeters on the edge of futurism; what would have been unthinkable twenty years ago, today verges on the mundane.

Technology begins to expire as soon as it is produced. When you buy a computer, speaker system, video player, or hard drive, the depreciation is immediate – the forward march of innovation means that their worth immediately begins to decay. These cast-off pieces of technology, once the very symbols of invention and ingenuity, become strange ghosts, forlorn testaments to the exponentially increasing rate of progress.

Sculptor Laura Moore’s current installation at grunt artist-run centre, one man’s junk, takes these forgotten castaways and turns them into something permanent, immemorial, timeless. Moore says that her choice of limestone for this series, as well as her interest in stone as a medium in general, has to do with its status as history-keeper for the human race. “Before cameras and electronics,” the artist says, “people told their stories in stone and sculpture…It’s a material that I think is really important historically.” As a member of an artists’ studio in Italy, Moore was inspired by the ancient sculptures and monuments there, in that country that has such a familiar relationship with the preserving of stories in stone. Although at first, she says, she was interested in carving electronics for chiefly aesthetic and geometrical reasons, she quickly became interested in the juxtaposition of a material old as the Earth itself and a subject matter that is from its start meant to break down.

As soon as Moore started experimenting with carving stone, she knew she had found her medium. She describes it as “the first thing that came really naturally.” The idea for this specific exhibit began when Moore was wandering on foot around her native Toronto. As she crossed a pedestrian overpass, she noticed an old computer monitor that had been flung to the ground below. “For me, that moment kind of marked something,” she says. Struck by inspiration, she spent the next few months biking around the city, looking for other examples of abandoned machines. When she found a suitable piece, she would photograph it, then transport the object back to her studio, where, she says, she still has dozens stockpiled. In this way, the sculptures that make up this exhibit could be described as portraits: likenesses of actual discarded objects, rather than generic outdated models.

Laura Moore_DSC1639 Laura Moore_DSC1643

one man’s junk represents a logical progression in Moore’s own body of work. In her initial phase of carving electronics, she was interested in the intricate, city-like shapes of circuit boards; her earlier works have included a huge limestone computer mouse and similarly scaled-up computer keys. Both were installed in outdoor settings, to catch casual passers-by off guard. Moore’s fascination with technology took a slightly different bent in Kernel Memory, an installation currently on the lawn of the Saint Catherine’s, Ontario City Hall. After becoming “very obsessed with USB memory sticks,” Moore became fascinated with the idea of where they would naturally occur in nature. “They connect to everything,” she says. “They would be…your fingernails, the stems of fruit.” She combined them with another aesthetic fascination, acorns and pinecones, to create a series of 9 nature/tech hybrids proportionally upscaled from inches to feet.

“We put computers out on the curb like junk. It’s one of those concepts that teeters on the edge of futurism; what would have been unthinkable twenty years ago, today verges on the mundane.”

Where the Sidewalk Ends, a 2007 installation that shares with one man’s junk a slightly humorous title, provides a prime example of the deceptive relationship in the artist’s work between labour and simplicity. Upon first seeing the exhibition, one could hardly imagine anything more minimal – a series of curbs, just like the ones that hold cars in place on the street, line the edges of a “white cube” gallery space. A similar simplicity informs the first impression of one man’s junk – the pieces are stacked, grouped all together on a wooden pallet. What Moore accomplishes with these installations is that artist’s trick of “making it look easy” – that is, the smooth, almost computerized looking surfaces belie the many hours of physical labour that went into revealing them from unrelenting chunks of stone. In the case of the curbs, not only did Moore carve them by hand, rather than casting them as one might guess, but she specifically re-sized them to four feet from eight, in order to hold two people, instead of two cars.

Throughout Moore’s work can be seen a carefulness, a quietness; a sense of concern and appreciation for the minutiae of everyday life. By coming upon a scaled-up computer mouse or escape key in the street, one hopes that the viewer could as well come to appreciate the beauty of these tiny forms. By giving a pallet of discarded electronics your appreciation in a gallery setting, we are redirecting our attention to these forgotten objects – elevating and exonerating that which has done the brute work of transmitting our data and preserving our stories. That which, for all its technique and innovation, inevitably becomes nothing but one man’s junk.

07. one man's junk_ detail

About Genevieve Michaels:

Genevieve is studying art history and creative writing at the University of British Columbia. She has been volunteering at grunt since last October, writing and assisting with maintenance and digitization of the archives. She also writes about music and city life for local magazine Beatroute BC. Follow her on twitter: @LavenderIndigo0

Leave a comment

one man’s junk: Digital Monument [essay]

Written by Luke Siemens

In Laura Moore’s work, one man’s junk, the lifespan of consumer electronics is extended beyond the cycle of planned obsolescence into a geologic time frame. A pallet of old computers, meticulously carved out of stone, stands firm against the flow of technological advancement. A 1991 Apple PowerBook sits next to a computer monitor from the late 80s, next to the printer you threw out last week. These objects should be on the scrapheap, forgotten, but Moore has pulled their forms out of the trash and placed them back in our contemporary consciousness. This change in material and form shifts the objects beyond the confines of their original chassis into the realm of the icon. They become avatars of our technological infrastructure, that aid in the contemplation of what such an infrastructure asks of us. one man’s junk forms a point of contrast to the rapid production and consumption of the digital experience.

To have owned one of the computers depicted by Moore, hundreds of thousands of units had to be produced; economies of scale making production possible. Our memory and experience of the object is therefore contingent on reproduction. Changing the way an object is (re)produced, effects our relationship to the object. By moving production from the assembly line to the studio, Moore removes demands of time, multiplicity and functionality, isolating the computer’s existence to an individual object and an individual’s labour. The viewer cannot look at the objects as “junk” even though it calls to mind the existence of electronic waste. They are computers in name and shape only. Instead we see the work. We marvel at Moore’s careful replication. The time we spend idle in front of a screen, is matched by the amount of time Moore has spent on the screen.

Replication also serves as a function; to engage with the histories attached to the objects. Through Moore’s work, we are able to glimpse the labour of the original designers. Once we thought little of the cathode ray construction of the monitor, beyond the desk space it would take up. Carved in stone, the boxy form and ventilation slats can be appreciated as an aesthetic choice.

“Replication also serves as a function; to engage with the histories attached to the objects. Through Moore’s work, we are able to glimpse the labour of the original designers. Once we thought little of the cathode ray construction of the monitor, beyond the desk space it would take up. Carved in stone, the boxy form and ventilation slats can be appreciated as an aesthetic choice.”

Replication of the mass produced object pulls the viewer’s own history into the work. Through familiarity, we connect with the form and project our own experiences onto the artwork. Memories of the novelty of the computer’s purchase, the programs run on it, the speed at which it ran are called to mind. Through this projection we start to contemplate how we thought of technology then and how that differs now. Through this process the technology, is allowed to leave the pile of obsolescence and re-enter our memory as an abstraction, an aesthetic object.

As an aesthetic object one man’s junk functions in a space similar to the surreal reproduction found in the grass and stick airplanes made by cargo cults of the Pacific. When a cargo cult copies mechanical objects in organic form, they are engaging in a ritualistic act of cultural jujitsu. Images are taken from outside the tradition of the cargo cult members and used to form a competing ideology to the dominate cultural narrative.

In Moore’s veneration of the object, there is an assertion of power over the image of the computer. For the last thirty years, the computer has represented wealth and intelligence to the collective consciousness. It is an image worth controlling. After the Snowden leaks of last year, it is apparent how much effort goes into controlling the digital experience. However by recreating the technology with her hand, in her medium, it is Moore’s vision of the digital experience that we are ultimately engaging with. In it there is a healthy scepticism of the digital experience. These are old computer, they cannot be connected to the network, they cannot be spied upon, but they are meant to be observed.

Comments Off on one man’s junk: Digital Monument [essay]

Skip to toolbar