This page contains a Flash digital edition of a book.
reviews BReaking the Rules
Percy Wyndham lewis, cover of
July 1915 issue of
Blast, woodcut. courtesy the
British library, london
BreAking
the rules
BRitish liBR aRy, london
9 novemBeR – 30 m aRch
Like a literary cliché itself, the British Library is an
overwhelmingly fantastical and frustrating labyrinth
of information. If you can secure a desk before the
hoards of flirting students nab them all, you have
access to millions of books, manuscripts, maps,
newspapers, magazines, patents, music scores,
sound recordings, photographs and stamps. But
for those with leanings towards arcana, the difficulty lies in navigating the searchable, but often rather unyielding database, as
only a minute proportion of the collection is available for browsing on open-access shelves. The library’s exhibition galleries,
then, provide a vital service in making visible the forgotten corners of cultural production that might otherwise disappear
among homogenous columns of data. Previous exhibitions have brought together historical maps of London or celebrated
a hundred years of British newspapers, catering to an audience with more general historical leanings. The current show,
Breaking the Rules, however, is temporally much tighter, concentrating on avant-garde typographic practices from the early
decades of the twentieth century.
The exhibits and archival information extend beyond such standards as the Futurist Manifesto (1909) and slim volumes
of concrete poetry, with sections featuring geographic hubs that the canon generally passes over, like Tallinn and Budapest,
as well as movement-led displays and sound archives on and by individuals such as Hugo Ball, Bertolt Brecht and Gertrude
Stein. It may be either entirely fortuitous or tremendously canny of the curators, but the show is incredibly apposite to the
visual arts at a time when so many artists are considering the ‘ruin’ of Modernism and reviving many aspects of its aesthetics.
While presenting a comprehensive overview, it also reveals lesser-known areas of practice, demonstrating polyvalence and
discrepancy as well as commonality, which somehow makes contemporary quotation seem more viable.
The installation is necessarily wall-text heavy, and as many of the exhibits themselves take the form of pages of poetry,
musical scores and illustrated page layouts, it feels like a hefty tome has exploded in the room. But it is the audio that,
despite being patchy in its range, almost to the point of arbitrariness, best reflects the nature of mining history. Although the
hiatuses and jumps of logic in a programme of interviews and spoken word recitals may be frustrating, what is missing must
be recognised as making what is here so special. It is rather appalling to think of the potential size of historical exhibitions in
the future, when all the material they bring together will be digital, clean and instantaneous. What Breaking the Rules reminds
us is that the allegorical properties of a ruin, and what makes contemplating history so sonorously painful, is precisely its
irretrievability. Sally O’Reilly
155 Artreview
march_REVIEWS.indd 155 5/2/08 13:49:20
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