– Autumn/Winter 2014

Janice Kerbel: Diagramming Desire

Anna Lovatt

Janice Kerbel, Kill the Workers!, 2011, 24-minute play for stage lights, 7 lantern tripods with scaff bars, 38 lanterns, 4 colour scrollers, 6 colour gels, 1 gobo, dimensions variable. Installation view, ‘Kill the Workers!’, Chisenhale Gallery, London, 2011. Photograph: Andy Keate. Courtesy the artist and greengrassi, London

The protagonist of Janice Kerbel’s radio play Nick Silver Can’t Sleep (2006/07) is a nocturnal subtropical perennial in bloom, longing for another who blossoms just once a year.1 Nick Silver (Nicotiana sylvestris) is also an insomniac, who craves sleep with the same sultry, melancholy yearning directed at his would-be lover, Cereus Grand (Selenicereus grandiflorus). Throughout the fifteen-minute play, the polymorphous eroticism of plants becomes entangled with their narcotising properties, as Nick’s desire for Cereus competes with, and is ultimately overwhelmed by, an opposing drive towards unconsciousness. Time expands and contracts as weeks, months, seasons and years appear to pass in a single night — a dreamlike temporality, redolent also of the cyclical rhythms of the vegetable world. Breathily, drowsily, Nick awaits his languid Cereus, only to succumb to the vertiginous pull of sleep at the precise moment of her blossoming.

The exuberant eroticism of Nick Silver Can’t Sleep might initially seem surprising, given the cerebral work for which Kerbel has become known. Yet the elegant script, which the artist developed in conversation with botanists, insomniacs and sleep scientists, is

  1. Nick Silver Can’t Sleep was commissioned by Artangel and performed by Rufus Sewell, Josette Simon and Fiona Shaw on BBC Radio 3’s The Verb, 28 October 2006. The full script and further details of the project can be found at http://www.artangel.org.uk/projects/2006/nick_silver_can_t_sleep (last accessed on 18 June 2014).

  2. David Lomas, Narcissus Reflected: The Myth of Narcissus in Surrealist and Contemporary Art (exh. cat.), Edinburgh: The Fruitmarket Gallery, 2011, p.115.

  3. Ibid., p.114.

  4. Erasmus Darwin, The Botanic Garden, Part 2: The Loves of the Plants, with Philosophical Notes, Lichfield: J. Jackson, 1789.

  5. Michel Sanouillet and Elmer Peterson (ed.), Salt Seller: The Writings of Marcel Duchamp (Marchand du Sel), New York: Oxford University Press, 1973, p.42.

  6. Janice Kerbel, artist’s statement, The Impossible Necessity [blog], available at http://impossiblenecessity.wordpress.com/janice-kerbel/ (last accessed on 18 June 2014).

  7. David Joselit, ‘Dada’s Diagrams’, in Leah Dickerman and Matthew Witkovsky (ed.), The Dada Seminars, Washington DC: National Gallery of Art, 2005, p.223.

  8. Ibid., p.236.

  9. Joselit notes that ‘what has been called the post-War “dematerialisation” of art ... is founded in a diagrammatic visuality that ... is purely semiotic’. Ibid., p.238. Further, Benjamin H.D. Buchloh has associated the diagram with art made after the Holocaust, specifically the drawings of Eva Hesse. See B.H.D. Buchloh, ‘Hesse’s Endgame: Facing the Diagram’, in Catherine de Zegher (ed.), Eva Hesse: Drawing, New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006, pp.117—50.

  10. Quoted in ‘Tyndall Centre and Norwich School of Art launch science and fine-art exhibition’ (press release), Norwich: Norwich Gallery, Norwich School of Art and Design and Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, University of East Anglia, 2004, available at http://www.uea.ac.uk/mac/comm/media/press/2003/oct/Tyndall+Centre+and+Norwich+School+of+Art+launch+science+and+ fine-art+exhibition (last accessed on 16 July 2014).

  11. Anthony Vidler, ‘Diagrams of Utopia’, in C. de Zegher (ed.), The Activist Drawing: Retracing Situationist Architectures from Constant’s New Babylon to Beyond, Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2001, p.83. Emphasis original.

  12. Here Vidler quotes Gilles Deleuze on the diagram: ‘Every diagram is intersocial and in a state of becoming. It never functions to represent a pre-existing world; it produces a new type of reality, a new model of truth.’ G. Deleuze, Foucault, Paris: Éditions de Minuit, 1984, p.43. Translation Vidler’s.

  13. A. Vidler, ‘Diagrams of Utopia’, op. cit., p.83.

  14. Terence Dick, ‘The Map-Maker’, Canadian Art, Winter 2006, p.50.

  15. Jakub Zdebik, ‘A Short Atlas of Janice Kerbel’s Home Climate Gardens Drawn According to Temperate Coordinates’, The Brock Review, vol.10, 2008, p.56.

  16. The website can be found at http://www.bird-island.com (last accessed on 18 June 2014).

  17. See Thomas More, Utopia (1516, ed. George M. Logan and Robert M. Adams), Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002, p.41.

  18. D. Joselit, ‘Dada’s Diagrams’, op. cit., p.237.

  19. Mark Godfrey, ‘Deadstar’, in Janice Kerbel, Deadstar: A Ghosttown (artist’s book), Newcastle: Locus +, 2004, p.7.

  20. A. Vidler, ‘Diagrams of Utopia’, op. cit., p.85.

  21. For an in-depth analysis of the Remarkable series within the broader history of text-based art, see Kim Sukhie Dhillon, ‘See It Now or Miss It Forever: Materiality, Visuality and the Written Word in Janice Kerbel’s Recent Artwork’, RACAR: Canadian Art Review, vol.36, no.1, June 2011, pp.16—28.

  22. Regarding her own contemporaneous work Venn Diagram (Under the Spotlight) (2011), artist Amalia Pica has noted that in 1970s Argentina Venn diagrams were banned from primary school curricula for encouraging subversive thought. Cited in Margaret Iversen, ‘Index, Diagram, Graphic Trace’, Tate Papers, issue 18, October 2012, available at http://www.tate.org.uk/research/publications/tate-papers/ index-diagram-graphic-trace (last accessed on 18 June 2014).

  23. Godfrey suggests that ‘there has always been a charming and quirky disconnection between the academic rigour of Kerbel’s research ... and the fantastical ends to which this research is put.’ M. Godfrey, ‘Deadstar’, op. cit., p.8.

  24. D. Joselit, ‘Dada’s Diagrams’, op. cit., p.238.