Language Games, or, Making Fun of Books

The supposedly earnest form of the book also served as occasion for artists to ridicule austere forms of traditional artistic practice and high culture. These artists’ books radically reject any expectation of being respectable, sensible, intelligent, or “bookish,” in favor of exploring those aspects of experience that books, and the cultural forms they represent, have typically forgotten or disparaged. Presented as games and exercises, these books seem to take to heart Karl Gerstner’s system for writing, which instructs its “literate” students: “By ‘play’ is meant: using writing as material for fun.”

Marcel Duchamp set an important precedent for this kind of playful ridicule of traditional institutions. His use of ready-made materials questioned how expertise and individuality inform the definition of the artist, and his works often irritate boundaries between vision, language, and cognition, inviting hyper-reflexive and conceptual reception. Richard Hamilton’s faithful typo-transcription of Duchamp’s Green Box shows the games Duchamp played drawing on “abstract” words, those that lack “concrete reference,” from the Larousse dictionary. Dieter Roth’s Mundunculum is another “transcription” of the Green Box, although it is as if he has executed Duchamp’s instructions in order to design a new system of signs, printed in the book in arresting arrays with his hand-made stamps.

The same suspicion of abstraction is at stake in Robert Fillou’s Ample Food for Stupid Thought, which in fact poses a series of “stupid” questions that in their simplicity seem impossible to answer: “What should you do about love?” “What century should you have lived in?” “What do you laugh at?”

A book that incites its reader to have some fun with reading in an especially undogmatic way is André Thomkins’ Dogmat Mot, which includes words in French, German, English, and “nonsense” on pinwheels. These can be spun to generate texts that simulate the production of significance and meaning along multiple axes—without actually arriving at any.

Gallery Installation Photograph

Staff photograph

An overview of the items selected for Language Games, or, Making Fun of Books.

Dieter Roth (1930-1998), Swiss-German
Köln: M. DuMont Schauberg, 1967
Rare Book Collection

Stupidogramme: gedruckte Beispiele der handgezeichneten Originalserien von 1961 bis 1966 [Stupidograms: printed examples of the hand-drawn original series from 1961-1966]
Dieter Roth (1930-1998), Swiss-German
Stuttgart: Edition Hansjörg Mayer, 1975.
Gesammelte Werke, Band 9
Rare Book Collection

André Thomkins (1930-1985), Swiss
Cologne: Galerie der Spiegel, 1965

Rare Book Collection