Le Langage est une peau
FRAC Lorraine, Metz
03.09.2021 – 06.02.2022
À fleur de peau
What better description of skin than as a reflection of our physical states, our origins and vulnerabilities? The profundity of this envelope, as touched upon by Paul Valéry a century ago now, is a reminder of physiological functions and ties that this, one of the body’s largest organs—and one which is ever more smothered in cosmetics—has with all our other tissues. Skin is our primary and most intimate interface with the public sphere. Skin breathes, sweats, communicates and shares a porosity in this way, with language. The expression Hanne Lippard borrows from Roland Barthes for her exhibition at the FRAC Lorraine, “Language Is a Skin,” poetically illustrates this relationship. For her first survey at a French institution, Lippard uses voice—her chosen medium and object of inquiry over the past decade—as she continues her exploration of the makeup and implications of language. “Voices are the link between interior and exterior, and that is why they are fragile: they are private, domestic and public at the same time. This knot is sometimes difficult to untangle,” observes Clara Schulmann in her recent Zizanies, where we could very well have encountered Lippard amongst the pages. In “Language Is a Skin,” the artist creates transitory and embodied spaces for contemplating the complex intermingling of these spheres. The exhibition unfolds over the course of different sequences, in a search for emancipation: words in staccato, broken apart, repeated, drawn out in the sound installations, printed matter and murals which open up a zone for fertile encounters. The standardisation, automation and transparency of our means of communication resonate delicately with intimacy, emotions and depth of language at the FRAC.
Developed during lockdown and with no transport or shipping needed, the exhibition takes ahold of notions of contact minimisation and the absurdity of social distancing as a means to unpack incessant interactions, invisibilisation, and the need to stay connected at a time when physical encounters are reined in. Anonymisation, the corollary to the digital economy of our communications systems is not the only impact on our personal interactions. It also changes the relationship we have with ourselves. “It is a strange thing, at a strange moment, to be a stranger to oneself,” can be read on one of the walls in the last exhibition space—a free speech platform (La Bouche est un tour, la voix est autour, loosely The Mouth is a Trick, Voice is Around) which awakens this still tender split. At the foot of a staircase in the entrance, slogan t-shirts with black lettering displayed on hangers as if in a trendy skate shop serve as a preamble to the video they are featured in on the upper level (Oh You Again Eheh). The bittersweet and persistent symphony of The Verve whistles in the background as the images reveal the naive distraction of the individuals whose heads have been cut off by the frame, oblivious to the message they transmit via their clothing. Macron and his “conspiracy” t-shirt seen during a TikTok speech given this summer is a recent reminder of the non-intentional passivity of the messenger. The anecdote suggests that there is a certain responsibility involved in the transmission of sign-based information as well as the risk their contents could be hijacked, transformed (politically, capitalistically). Through the use of vocabularies provided to us by the monetisation of exchanges, Lippard’s text and sound works highlight the questions of slippage and metamorphoses of language in light of consumption.
Trained as a graphic designer, Lippard continues to enjoy experimenting with the printed word. In the series “Je t’aime n’est pas une phrase,” (“I Love You Is Not a Sentence”) she covers a selection of passages from Barthes’ Fragments Amoureux with red Japanese emoticons. Emerging between the kaomoji’s expressions of tears or joy is the collective simplification of language and behavioural stereotypes related to the digital and machine-like translation of feelings. According to the theory of “secondary orality” developed by linguist Walter J. Ong, this new era of quasi-hieroglyphic writing holds a collaborative and creative potential which lies in the instantaneity of its appearance and its diffusion. Through the détournement of the primary content of Fragments, Lippard observes the evolution of our language without judgement. She presents a living situation rather than one which must be spared from its inevitable mutations.
As should be the case with any exhibition, the starting point of “Language Is a Skin” is the environment in which the viewer finds themselves. What sort of dialogues occur in an art centre? Who is the speaker and how do they speak? How does a space which is discursive a priori create the possibility for listening as well as enable the meeting of a plurality of voices? A bit further in the exhibition, “speakers,” which can designate either an orator or a piece of audio equipment, are mounted on stands and arranged on a round carpet in Anonimities (Anonymities). The sound piece is made up of the sole, monotone voice of the artist which orchestrates a chorus of abstract figures with which Lippard reminds us of the relative loss of self of the individual in a group setting. The voice resonates and ping-pongs from one speaker to another, in contrast with the echo and the supposed homogeneity of the audience. The physicality of sound is illustrated here through the image of the choir, which in theatre was usually designated by a group of singers but historically was related to dance. The impossibility of clearly expressing a feeling also references the nymph Echo, condemned by Hera to repeat only the voice that she hears, unable to declare her love to Narcissus. In a stream of joyous cacophony, Lippard evokes the constant need for acknowledgement and validation of the individual voice in the public sphere. The art center here acts as echo chamber and must reckon with the complexity of the challenge of providing a platform for each one of these voices.
In the shadows of a space transformed into a uterine-like theatre, a lilac-coloured curtain is attached to a circular structure which floats as if it were a fragile membrane. A mechanical sound emanates from an impressive speaker on a stand. Passive/active is the culminating encounter with the machine, imposing and oracle-like. The speaker with its cord attaching it to the world is a metaphor for our passage and “planned obsolescence,” as a wall text explains. “Sometimes I try to imitate a machine, in order to escape from the body, but still, the body always finds its way through its own holes.” Once more, Lippard presents the body as an act of resistance. Faced with a suddenly silent and “passive” speaker, its presence and our own are all that is left as we attempt to decipher a message that is coming through. This short, parenthetical silence engages the body toward a new attentiveness and a possibility for listening in a “ear-splitting space.” Concerning this passive/active, on/off intermittence, Clara Schulmann makes abundantly clear the fact that women’s voices know how to “hold, capture, interrupt.” However, the author does question the anxiousness inherent to women’s speech, often a sign of solitude and self-censorship. By introducing brokenness and disconnection to the generic robotic feminine voices (like SIRI), Lippard creates a non-judgemental space where breathlessness can provide a moment to catch one’s breath, where error and hesitation lead to a resolute self-determination.
Since entering the courtyard, a broken-up voice has been with us and continues to resonate throughout the different levels of the building. The motion-triggered work annoys and interrupts our concentration. The repetitive and persistent phrase remains unfinished and forever fragmented. “Dis/connected” is the disruptive refrain of the larger score of “Language Is a Skin.” Based on the telephone notification which alerts us to a lost Internet connection, the syllables and fragments repeated by the artist who butts up agains the sounds seem to condemn her to this disconnection. In a text entitled Vocation and Voice, Giorgio Agamben compares the phonetic similarity of the German nouns “Stimmung” (humour, atmosphere) and “Stimme” (voice). The philosopher highlights the meaning of the first noun, an openness to the world, and enquires as to its permanent dissonance. According to the author’s argument, the mood resulting from disconnectedness as well as its emotional byproducts are in fact what allow for a space for genuine expression because Stimmung is a condition that allows the individual to find their own voice, without there having been an outside voice to precede it. Independent of the individual, the language of emotions that precedes and escapes in the end produces, as in this case, the opportunity for a free and “disconnected” speech.
Lippard has been invited this year to SuperHost, an ongoing program at the M HKA in Anvers. “Contact Mood Share” has been developed to take place over three imaginary seasons and focuses on the vocabulary and semiology that result from specific social changes. In addition to the display of the artist’s works, there is also an audio production available online called Radio Show — A Constant of Feelings. The performative pieces sketch out an eclectic aural landscape that give an overarching view of her work. Despite the fact that the program validates the potential that the program has for online diffusion of the work, the physical and sensual experience—sans device—is what galvanises Lippard’s oeuvre. Displayed in an isolated and non-continuous space, a full encounter with the work displayed at the M HKA proves to be hindered. For the artist’s first exhibition at an institution at KW in Berlin in 2017, space constraints—Flesh was installed in a low-ceilinged space accessible with a spiral staircase—gave prominence to the corporeality of the visitor as well as to the movements necessary to test the language codes that the artist questions.
Once outside the FRAC, the medley of sounds encountered there lingers in the ear. This resistance to virtual time is the result of having the full in-person experience of the apparent immateriality of Lippard’s voice/voices. An immense pleasure when faced with a multitude of digital stratagems put in place to continue being able to share art in pandemic times.
 Literally “a flowering of skin,” loosely meaning “to be highly sensitive or excitable”
 Clara Schulmann, Zizanies, Paraguay Press, 2020
 A Guardian article drew this summertime incident to its conclusion by pointing out that Macron’s t-shirt had been remade and reprinted then sold on the Internet for 19 dollars.
 The expression Le Langage est une peau is taken from this book, from the chapter “Entretien,” or “Interview,” after it was used as a title for a lost book.
 See Hanne Lippard, STATE OF MIND/STATO D’ANIMO, Istituto Svizzero, Milan.
 Giorgio Agamben, « Vocation et voix », La Puissance de la pensée, Editions Payot & Rivages, 2021.
 Op. cit., p.95.
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