In the elegiac Six Memos for the Next Millennium, Italo Calvino elucidates “lightness“ and “quickness“ as tropes for our time– poetic figures to express an aesthetic of economic expression and conceptual clarity. Lightness can refer to the scope of a work whose aim might be to explore one element of one aspect of an idea: executed simply, within clearly perceived limits.
For artists these ideas offer appealing possibilities for thinking through form and content, both perceptually and in terms of concept. I’m particularly intrigued by work in which the communicative dimension is relayed with a degree of discretion: by which word I’m gesturing towards a quality of containedness, a sense of self-conscious restraint and subtlety, perhaps even humour. When ‘meaning’ is positioned at this kind of oblique angle to “subject“, there is space left for the un-prescribed.
The open-ended ruminations of the Six Memos compose a text of meandering deviations, tangents and digressions. Calvino’s agenda, if one exists beyond an attractively idiosyncratic theory of literature, is to fuse aspects of perception with a particular sense of the representational powers of language. Thus his emphasis, a posteriori, on a vocabulary of precise ephemerality: “quickness“, “lightness“, “exactitude“, “visibility“. In this discussion the visual image takes on reverberant potential for “emblematic value“, as the apotheosis of laconic expression. The Chinese fable with which Calvino closes his discussion of “quickness“, for example, uses lucid prose to collapse time and space into a breathtaking image of painterly gestalt:
Among Chuang-tzu’s many skills, he was an expert draftsman. The king asked him to draw a crab. Chuang-tzu replied that he needed five years, a country house, and twelve servants. Five years later the drawing was still not begun. “I need another five years,” said Chuang-tzu. The king granted them. At the end of these ten years, Chuang-tzu took up his brush and, in an instant, with a single stroke, he drew a crab, the most perfect crab ever seen.
If this notion of quickness denotes speed, the idea of time involved is much more complex than might first appear. Quick can mean ‘fast’, but suggests also virtuosity: a sense of dexterity, skill, grace, and a familiarity acquired over time. Folded, then, into a word which exemplifies swiftness is a sense of its temporal opposite: our concept of rapidity turning on an appreciation of slowness and weight, and so implicating both long periods of time and an instant.
The works in this exhibition are sited at various angles to my ideas around Quick: my curatorial project in some sense approximating an act of reading. I’m interested most in the oblique connections which arise from context, and the subtle points of friction unearthed by positioning one work against another. Notes the American poet Lyn Hejinian:
One of the results of this compositional technique, building a work out of discrete units, is the creation of sizeable gaps between the units. The reader (and I can also say the writer) has to overleap the period, and cover the distance to the next sentence. But, meanwhile, what remains in the gaps, so to speak, remains crucial and informative. Part of the reading occurs as the recovery of that information (focus backward) and the discovery of newly structured ideas (focus forward). 
1. Quoted in ‘Quickness’: Italo Calvino, Six Memos for the Next Millennium. (London: Vintage, 1996), p. 54.
2. Lyn Hejinian, ‘The Rejection of Closure’ in Writing/Talks, (ed.) Bob Perelman (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press), p. 274.
Catalogue text for QUICK, curated by Michelle Menzies for Window and the George Fraser Gallery, July 27 – August 28, 2004.
QUICK involved twelve artists:
George Fraser Gallery
Nick Austin, Joanna Chow, Stephen Cleland, Catherine Garet, HanNae Kim, Jason Lindsay, Michelle Menzies, Victoria O’Sullivan, Adam Willetts.
Canary Gallery (performance)
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