Excerpts of 26 people reciting Gerald Ferguson's A Choral Reading (1972) at Canada, New York, February 11, 2011. Video: 16 Miles
"Someone said Gerry’s life is like trying to get through February in Nova Scotia, it’s really what Gerry’s work is," artist and curator Luke Murphy told Paddy Johnson early this month, referring to the pioneering Canadian conceptual artist Gerald Ferguson (a lifelong resident of the province), who died in 2009, and whose work was recently on view at the Lower East Side's Canada gallery. Ferguson's 1972 work, A Choral Reading, certainly seems to fit that description, requiring intensive labor to create—plenty of hard work to forget about life.
To make A Choral Reading, Fergus set his 50,000-word Standard Corpus of Present Day English Language Usage Arranged By Word Length and Alphabetized Within Word Length piece—its title pretty much sums up its contents—for 26 voices, one voice for each letter. (Amazon has a listing for the work with some nice background information.) Murphy again: "I mean, what else are you going to do in your French village in Nova Scotia–which is really way bleak?"
But it's also February-beating material when it's read aloud. When it was recited on Saturday, February 11, by a group of readers at Canada, the room was warm, the crowd convivial. It was easily one of the most pleasant, unpretentious performances or readings I have ever attended.
Performance stills. Photos: 16 Miles [more]
The published version of Ferguson's Standard Corpus includes 20 sections, for words with one letter up to those with 20. At the reading at Canada, the 26 performers read through the first seven sections. Every person speaks at the same time, so each movement begins with a cacophony that gradually gives way to a few people reciting words for quite a while.
The readers completed the first three sections—one-letter, two-letter, and three-letter words—in less than 90 seconds. The remaining four sections took about 30 minutes, with P, R, and especially S putting in lengthy performances. Readers varied their tempos, and words spilled into, through, and over each other. Some tripped over words and charged on. Though most kept a low profile, dutifully reciting their lists, a few embraced the moment with a bit of theatricality. R, a gentleman in a dark red shirt and lime-green glasses, spoke boldly at times.
It's a hard piece not to love. Built on a ridiculously simple premise, it spirals out in weird ways, random words rubbing up against one another. One man in the audience closed his eyes and listened, while some others whispered to each other, one ear on the action. As the piece fell down to four, then three, then two voices reading seven-letter words (the last few moments are recorded on the video above), most everyone became quiet and watched. S brought it home with "systems." And then there was applause.
There are artist names sprinkled throughout the thousands of words—I heard Ryman, Suvero, and Tuttle, who are part of the same generation as Ferguson, men born in the 1930s. Unlike those artists, though, Ferguson never achieved widespread acclaim, despite being among the first generation of North American conceptual artists and appearing in Kynaston McShine's famed "Information" show in 1970 at the Museum of Modern Art. (The press release and checklist for that show, with notes about Furguson's [sic] work is available on MoMA's site.)
It's not just an art-historical problem. The market has also not been kind to Ferguson, Canada co-owner Phil Grauer made clear to Johnson. "That painting," he said, referring to an early work, "that’s from 1968 and it’s like $18,000. I sell paintings by 33 year olds for that much. The show is very painful like that." It takes a lot of work to bring under-known artists into a canon (and to boost their prices). But one way to start in the case of Ferguson would be to stage a few more of these readings. All you need are 26 art students—or just 26 people who can read. Once the work is over, one is left with a nice-size group for a party, and plenty of camaraderie to go along with it, enough to trounce February in even the least hospitable places.