On Saturday night Lower East Side gallery CANADA, which until February 19 is showing an exhibition of paintings by the late (and, appropriately, Canadian) artist Gerald Ferguson, hosted a 26-person reading of his 1972 work, “The Standard Corpus of Present Day English Language Usage Arranged By Word Length and alphabetized within word length.” For the piece each participant picks a letter, receives a script and, beginning in unison, recites every word (and some non-words) beginning with that letter that is two, three, four, five, six and seven letters long. The woman who picked S finished last almost every time.
The reading, with all participants seated in a circle in CANADA’s back room and surrounded by the audience, was expected to last about 20 minutes, as it had at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design when it was first performed following the publication of “The Standard Corpus.” Ferguson’s daughter gave the participants their instructions, spoke all the Z words, and coordinated the beginning of every new section. Every new set of words took exponentially longer, with all the two-letter words streaming by in a percussive cacophony that took less than a minute, while the three-letter words already took much longer and the final two rounds lasted many minutes.
What proved more engaging than the rush to get through all the words was the incredible variety in reading styles, the words that rose discernibly above the din and the often-fitting alphabetical successions of words. The man reading all the words beginning in R had an especially commanding voice, and seemed to enjoy telling the assembled audience and readers to “Resist!” He and the man reading all the E words had a nice series of exchanges during the six-letter word round. The man reading all the C words, by contrast, spoke very softly, so that whenever he was one of the last to finish everyone got much quieter. The man who’d selected P was very deliberate with his words, often pausing to give each one renewed emphasis, making him one of the most entertaining and slowest of the group.
But the woman reading the S words was the star of the show, keeping up an impressive cadence without ever seeming strained. During the longer, later stages a strange atmosphere of camaraderie emerged, with waiting turning into something like encouragement and support, as if we were all working our way through the alphabet together. As the performance passed the 20-minute mark and distinct characters emerged from the group of readers, I started to wish that the script could be extended to eight-letter words. The final S word with seven letters was met with applause and cheers.
The reading resonated with the works on the surrounding walls, which have a similarly indexical quality, often titled after the object that, dipped in paint, was used to make impressions directly onto the canvas—so “1 Mile Clothesline” (2000) features a series of looping lines amounting to one mile made by pressing a clothesline covered in enamel against a canvas. Like the reading, these works privilege process by emphasizing the incredible labor required to create such formally engaging works.
Gerald Ferguson: Work continues at Canada Gallery through February 19.
Follow Benjamin Sutton on Twitter @LMagArt