241 Things

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Studium Generale 1000things lectures, The Hague

241 Things

I’m on the road, heading for Georges Perec. The exhibition Regarde de tous tes yeux, regarde – l’art contemporain de Georges Perec brings together work by 68 artists that somehow correspond to the characteristics of Perec’s writing. After a ten-hour drive I arrive in Dole, France, where the exhibition is taking place. I enter a Chinese restaurant and order a 1664 Kronenbourg. Asian girls in summer dresses surround me. They laugh and stare at me. I take a snapshot. They don’t mind. Seem unmoved even. The fish in the three aquariums bounce back every time the camera flashes.

It’s Saturday night and the place is packed. They’ve put me in the corner for lonely strangers with the fish tanks and the Asian pin-up posters. I cannot see any of the other customers. I can only hear the different French conversations. I try to make out what it is they are saying, but my French is bad, and four or five conversations are taking place at the same time. I decide to stop understanding and I start relaxing. Now it’s just a comfortable sophisticated French blur.

I drink my beer and wait for my duck and asparagus.

At certain points during my meal all conversations die out at the exact same moment. The sudden unplanned quietude shoots me back to a high school party in an indoor swimming pool: I’m shouting in a girl’s ear, hoping to impress her with a well made-up story. When suddenly the music stops, the silence alters the atmosphere entirely, turning my words into ridiculous sounds, making me feel like a fool.

But tonight I enjoy these ‘in between moments’ since I’m not planning to say anything to anyone, except ‘Avez-vous chopsticks?’

This text is a fragment of Het is begonnen. Onderweg met Georges Perec (It Has Started, On the Road with Georges Perec). It consists of 11 texts, all of them prefaces to a possible research into the connections between the writing experiments of French novelist Georges Perec and practices in visual art, concentrated on Sander Uitdehaag’s own work and life. The prefaces are very diverse in style and content and can read in random order, and together make up a meta-story: a search for the right tone and the best beginning.

Het is begonnen is for sale via sanderuitdehaag@gmail.com.

I’m on my way to a house of retreat to sit through four days of silence. I’ve been anxious for weeks. My friend tells me I’ll be constantly preoccupied with sex because her friend staying at a similar retreat was overcome with all-encompassing feelings of lust that wouldn’t leave her alone. Similarly, there are two other silence seekers that I know of who fell prey to erotic fantasizing about fellow lodgers. One of these examples resulted in a wild a love making frenzy, the other triggered a stream of tears when the silence was broken with words that proved dishearteningly disappointing.

At this point, I’m expecting to find myself in a hermit-like state, without others, and without raging hormones to worry about. I’m mostly anxious about meeting the hostess. What if my stay is silent from the start, or we only every exchange an absolute minimum of words? I feel like an addict to words who’s being subjected to cold turkey withdrawal, after all, I’m an absolute novice when it comes to staying silent in the company of others. There’s no doubt that this experience won’t be the same as simply not speaking. I’m trying to put myself at ease. I’m normal, and normal people talk every day. For thirty years now, I’ve been speaking, although I naturally do my best to listen every now and then as well. It’s very reasonable that the prospect of complete silence instills fear in me.

Everything seems strangely normal upon arrival. The doorbell rings, the hostess extends her hand, speaks her name. After a tour, the day’s rituals are described: besides the permanent solo-silence, there are three communal silent meals and two communal silent moments lasting a half hour each day. In the evening, one can converse if desired. I’m the only guest and am seated next to hostess A at a gigantic table suited for a dozen or so lodgers. The silence begins when we start our lunch. That is to say: verbal silence. With the lack of conversation, our bodies take the opportunity to make become loudly manifest. I can hear my jaws grinding and the muscles in my throat swallowing, alternated by the muted thundering of my intestines.

I thought I was an experienced eater, but it turns out that anything you focus your full attention on stops being straightforward. When has a mouthful of food been chewed sufficiently to swallow? How big should a bite be? A mouthful of fruit dwindles to nothing when chewed, while a bite of compact, home made bread expands to disturbing proportions. Could it be that one of the prime functions of conversation is to distract us from the noises our bodies make? I’m extremely aware of A to my left, and am constantly attuned to her rhythm. We finish our sandwiches at almost the exact same moment. My chewing is slower, but it takes her longer to pick what she wants on her sandwich. I watch her movements from the corner of my eye. This crooked gaze is difficult to sustain, and so my pupils escape every now and then to take a flight of exploration.

My eyes might, for example, travel over her plate and see how far she is in eating her meal. If I glide my gaze, making sure it doesn’t hang over any one thing for too long, I brave looking halfway between her elbows and her armpits. Beyond the plate lies a border: that’s where the forbidden terrain of her upper body begins, and above that the face where the food enters and disappears.

It’s only when I offer A tea in three words that I dare to make eye contact with her. Could it be that you’re only meant to make eye contact with one another during an exchange of words? Could it be that the reason we speak to each other is mainly to be allowed to look at one another?

Column on a stay at a house of retreat, published online in art magazine LUCY from CBK Utrecht on 30th of Augustus 2011.

  • To ingest part of Dieffenbachia Picta or Dumbcane as it is commonly known, will lead to paralysis of the mouth, lips, and tongue, causing temporary muteness.
  • The panic at being struck dumb is constricted to a mere mechanical clatter in your head.
  • Try not to ask yourself ‘When will this end?’
  • The placement of the houseplant designates a zone of potential silence, a selected frame of domestic insistence.
  • It is an icon of both latent material, chemical effect and the dissolution of language.
  • Its effect is a physiological, existential swelling.
  • Dumb paralysis becomes immobility becomes time passing, boredom or durational obstinacy.
  • Mid-afternoon, ‘downtime’, French windows.
  • Now turn away.

Juliette Blightman, Richard Birkett

a work of Blightman
a work of Richard Birkett