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The Weight of Words

Henry Moore Institute, Leeds

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A curved piece of polished metal, resting on a round wooden base on top of a cylindrical plinth.

This new group exhibition features an international and intergenerational selection of contemporary artists and writers who explore the overlap between sculpture and poetry.

The works on display range in tone from the humorous to the haunting, expressing everything from direct quotations to the unsayable. They reveal what can happen to languages, and our experiences of them, when sculptural interests in weight, materiality, form and arrangement are charged by a poetic impulse: both art forms take on new dimensions and meanings.

The Weight of Words is co-curated by Dr Clare O’Dowd, Research Curator, Henry Moore Institute and Nick Thurston, Associate Professor of Contemporary Art and Literature, University of Leeds.

Curator’s tour

Dr Clare O’Dowd and Nick Thurston, co-curators of The Weight of Words, introduce us to the themes and ideas that shaped the exhibition.

On the left of the image, the word 'PARSALAI' is projected onto the gallery wall. To the right are the words 'HOW YOU SPEAK WILL BE USED AGAINST YOU'.
Caroline Bergvall with Ciarán Ó Meachair, 'Say Parsley' 2004-23. Photo: Rob Harris.

Caroline Bergvall with Ciarán Ó Meachair

Born 1965, Hamburg, Germany

Say Parsley 2001-23

This audio-visual installation adapts to its site of display by embracing local dialects and political history. The title evokes one of the most horrific recent examples of a shibboleth: a custom or practice used to distinguish one social group from another. On the border of the Dominican Republic in 1937, tens of thousands of Creole Haitians were massacred because they failed to pronounce perejil (parsley) in the accepted Spanish manner.

Bergvall’s mix of recorded voices and one-word video frames speak with and against one another. Together they create a psychoacoustic space for listening and reading in which mis-speaking and mis-hearing become shared problems. The current iterations created with Ó Meachair deploy Irish and English in a still deeply uneasy traffic.

Caroline Bergvall is a French-Norwegian interdisciplinary writer, sound artist and performer. Her work has been presented internationally, and she is the author of five books. Her accolades include the Cholmondeley Award and the Prix Littéraire Bernard Heidsieck-Centre Pompidou.

Pavel Büchler

Born 1952, Prague, Czechia

Still Life with Dust 2017

In 2017, Büchler returned to the Institute of Applied Arts in Prague, where he studied typography in the 1970s. He opened the drawers in the print workshop to find a thick, unbroken layer of dust across the letterpress type blocks, accumulated over decades of inaction. Büchler lightly dampened a sheet of cartridge paper then painstakingly took the one and only possible impression of the dust.

Pressing these letters literally lifts history, as contained in the print room, the dust particles, and the still life picture genre they name. This print is what it says, and as such is fundamentally sculptural: a linguistic expression with a singular and present materiality.

Pavel Büchler is a Czech artist who works conceptually with words, sound, images and objects. His work has been the subject of solo exhibitions around the world, including at the Kunsthalle Bern and the Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven. A retrospective of his work opens at the Moravian Gallery in Brno this autumn.

Photo of a print work by Pavel Büchler, titled 'Still Life with Dust'. Inside a narrow white frame hung on a white gallery wall, the word 'stilllife' is printed on a cream sheet of paper. The colour is uneven, as it has been printed using dust instead of ink, and is darker in some places and lighter in others.
Pavel Büchler, 'Still Life with Dust' 2017. Courtesy the artist & galeriepcp. Photo: Margot Montigny.

Audio description

Anthony (Vahni) Capildeo, 'Word Fishing' 2023, illustrated by Molly Fairhurst. Photo: Min Young Lim.

Anthony (Vahni) Capildeo

Born 1973, Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago

Word Fishing 2023

The green-black façade of the Henry Moore Institute is clad with Ubatuba granite, a natural stone quarried in Brazil that compresses millions of years of mineral history. The flecks of colour and highly polished surface give it a watery appearance that captures dappled reflections.

Brought to life by illustrator Molly Fairhurst (b. 1995), Capildeo’s specially commissioned poem reimagines the façade as though looking down through water and time, with layers of aquatic life evoking layers of language.

Shoals of word-fish swim across the surface, each emphasising a different vowel sound. Five hand-written phrases bend and pull on the surface of the image, like tidal lines or glints of sunlight. The phrase dear heart breathe encourages visitors to re-tune their attention as they enter the building.

Anthony (Vahni) Capildeo is a Trinidadian-Scottish inter-media writer who works with poetry, fiction and visual gestures, including installations, performance and traditional masquerade. They are the author of eight full-length books and numerous pamphlets. Their accolades include the Cholmondeley Award and the Forward Prize, and they are currently Professor and Writer in residence at the University of York.

Tim Etchells

Born 1962, Stevenage, UK

Little Thieves 2023

Etchells’ sculptural practice is characterised by the use of strong and simple means to address big ideas. His new work Little Thieves 2023 mixes serious and humorous energy to explore the function of idioms as a mode of social commentary.

The sculpture’s structure performs the sentiment it expresses, treating the machine-cut letters like building blocks for meaning and form. The strands of knotted rope tying up the characters are an almost comical gesture, but are used to draw attention to the all-too-serious politics of inequality. This idiom, which derives from a medieval French proverb, is sadly still relevant.

Tim Etchells is a British artist and writer who works in sculpture, performance, text and lens-based media. Exhibitions of his work include solo shows at Bloomberg Space in London and Kunstverein Braunshweig. His accolades include the Spalding Gray Award, and with his acclaimed performance group Forced Entertainment, the International Ibsen Award.

Photo of a sculpture hanging from the ceiling, titled 'Little Thieves' by Tim Etchells. It is formed of the words
Tim Etchells, 'Little Thieves' 2023. Photo: Rob Harris.
Hung on a white gallery wall are seven square, grey lava stones, each one bearing part of a poem by Simone Fattal titled 'Five Senses for One Death'.
Simone Fattal with Etel Adnan, 'Five Senses for One Death' 2020, ink on lava stones.

Simone Fattal with Etel Adnan

Born 1942, Damascus, Syria

Five Senses for One Death 2020

The imaginations of sculptor and editor Simone Fattal and her long-term partner, poet and painter Etel Adnan (1925-2021), meet in this work. Its title and content come from a poem first written in ink and watercolours by Adnan in 1969.

Throughout the poem, five-counts recur – trees, candles, fingers, nights, mountain peaks – most poignantly in a tender confession: “they tell me there are four seasons / but I live in a fifth one / which is your space / and your time”. Fattal re-inscribed the poem, this time with oxide on the polished fronts of seven squares of volcanic rock, shortly before Adnan died aged 96.

Etel Adnan was a Lebanese-American poet, essayist and painter. She is the author of many books, including novels and poetry collections. Her visual art has been the subject of solo exhibitions internationally, including at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, The Guggenheim Museum in New York, the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, and the Serpentine Galleries in London.

Simone Fattal is a Syrian-American artist who works across painting and sculpture, often through ceramics. Her work has been the subject of solo exhibitions around the world, including at MoMA PS1 in New York, Bergen Kunsthall, ICA Milano, and Whitechapel Gallery in London. In 1980s California, she founded the influential small publisher, Post-Apollo Press.

Shilpa Gupta

Born 1976, Mumbai, India

Words Come From Ears 2018

Motion flap-boards are a common public sign system in stations or ports, where they offer a one-way flow of information to anonymous people who are there to pause before moving on in different directions.

Gupta uses the split-flap technology to write an unstable form of poetry, programming the 64 characters to constantly make then break lines, words, and meanings. The flapping rhythm of change creates a soundscape for reading and a timbre for the work’s poetic ‘voice’.

Shilpa Gupta is an interdisciplinary Indian artist who works with objects, sound, languages and ephemera. Her many solo exhibitions include shows at the Neuer Berliner Kunstverein and Barbican in London. Her work has been presented at biennials around the world, including those of Venice, Gothenburg, Sharjah and Gwangju.

Photograph of a motion flap-board (a type public sign system once commonly found in stations or ports before digital signs became widely used). The sign hangs from the ceiling on two slender chains. It has two lines of text; the top one is currently in motion, while the bottom one reads 'THE SOUND OF WRODS' (deliberately misspelled).
Shilpa Gupta, 'Words Come From Ears' 2018. Photo: Rob Harris.
Photo of Emma Hart's 'Good Vibrations': 13 handmade ceramic circles, each painted in a bullseye pattern in different colours: bands of yellow, orange, red, or white alternating with black.
Emma Hart, 'Good Vibrations' 2023. Photo: Rob Harris.

Emma Hart

Born 1974, London, UK

Good Vibrations 2023

Hart’s handmade ceramic circles manipulate the traditional design of a target, perhaps used for archery, by pulling the bullseye down to the position of a mouth on a face. The concentric circles become a symbol for a mouth and noise: a speaker and their speech act radiating out in sound-waves.

Hart represents speaking as a performative act, but also suggests that those who speak out may become targets, especially women. The thirteen repetitions form a coven of witches projecting their spell. With a playful silence, they form a colourful chorus dedicated to the magic of oral culture, to recitation and enchantment, and to the power of giving presence to absent voices casting a spell over the viewer.

Emma Hart is a British artist who makes sculpture, photography and installations. Recent exhibitions include solo shows at Barakat Contemporary in Seoul and Fruitmarket Gallery in Edinburgh, as well as group shows at the Hayward Gallery in London and Kunsthaus Hamburg. Her accolades include the Max Mara Art Prize for Women and a Paul Hamlyn Foundation Award.

Leslie Hewitt

Born 1977, New York, USA

Untitled (The Notion of Labor) 2019
Untitled (Cornucopia) 2019

Hewitt’s Untitled series explores the still-life genre, wherein an assembly of recognisable objects are posed together to collectively express a symbolic message that is more than the sum of its parts.

Hewitt’s sculptural arrangements of books, objects, wood, and sometimes photographic prints, are photographed and enlarged to a sculptural scale, then framed to lean against the gallery wall. The work creates a new kind of still-life in the space between photographic representation and objective presence, one in which the symbols of Black culture, life and literature can have a complex presence that refuses to be simply captured.

Leslie Hewitt is an American artist who works with hybrid forms of sculpture and photography. Recent exhibitions include solo shows at Dia Bridgehampton and the Douglas Hyde Gallery in Dublin, as well as group shows at the Triennial of Photography Hamburg and Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Her accolades include a Guggenheim Fellowship and Joyce Alexander Wein Artist Prize.

Photo of a sculptural/photographic work by Leslie Hewitt, consisting of a large format photograph in a deep wooden frame, resting against the gallery wall. The photograph depicts a square of wood propped up on books, similarly resting against a white wall, with smaller landscape photos resting on the floor in front of it.
Leslie Hewitt, 'Untitled (Cornucopia)' 2019. Courtesy the artist and Perrotin. Photo: Rob Harris.
Bhanu Kapil, 'Twelve Questions' 2001/2023. Photo: Rob Harris.

Bhanu Kapil

Born 1968, London, UK

Twelve Questions 2001/2023

Kapil’s acclaimed book The Vertical Interrogation of Strangers was the first full manuscript she completed, written while living in London and feeling out of place. The storylines of this book-length poem weave together sensuous, intense and confusing experiences of self-discovery, evoked by people, objects and smells. They are structured as responses to twelve questions.

For this exhibition, Kapil spreads those same questions into a different kind of space – the gallery – turning them on their head so they ascend a staircase that leads to a locked door. Heading up, only to be sent back down, Kapil’s vertical interrogation responds to the architecture of the gallery and the restriction of movement.

Bhanu Kapil is a British-Indian poet. She is the author of six full-length books of poetry. Her accolades include the Windham Campbell Prize and the T.S. Eliot Prize. She lived in the US for two decades and is now a Fellow of both Churchill College, Cambridge, and the Royal Society of Literature.

Issam Kourbaj

Born 1963, Sweida, Syria

Dark Water, Burning World 152 moons and counting… 2016

The March 2011 uprisings in Syria sparked a civil war that continues to ravage Kourbaj’s homeland. Since the collapse of the Arab Spring, he has dedicated his practice to raising awareness about the plight of Syrians.

In this installation, part of a creative exchange with poet Ruth Padel (b. 1946), Kourbaj’s small boats are made from cut and folded bicycle mudguards, onto which burnt matches are set upright in clear resin.

The number of boats corresponds to the number of months that passed since the crisis began. One new boat will be added to the display every month during this exhibition, and the title will change accordingly. The fleet of tiny, vulnerable boats are an anti-monument to the scale and tragedy of the refugee crisis.

Issam Kourbaj is a Syrian-born interdisciplinary artist who works with drawing, performance and sculpture, often using repurposed material. His work has been exhibited internationally, including at the British Museum and the V&A Museum in London, the Tropenmuseum in Amsterdam, and the Brooklyn Museum in New York. A solo survey of his work opens across Kettle’s Yard and the Heong Gallery in Cambridge, in March 2024.

Photograph of several small handmade boats. Each has been fashioned from the steel mudguard of a bicycle, cut and bent into the shape of a small rowing boat. They are many different colours, with many showing signs of rust. A book of matches, their heads burned, has been affixed to each boat, making them look overcrowded with passengers.
Issam Kourbaj, 'Dark Water, Burning World 152 Moons and Counting…' 2016. Photo: Rob Harris .

Audio description

Neon sign reading 'negro sunshine'. The front of the tubing has been painted black, so the sign is lit from behind with a warm glow.
Glenn Ligon, 'Warm Broad Glow' 2005, neon, paint. © Glenn Ligon. Courtesy the artist; Hauser & Wirth, New York; Regen Projects, Los Angeles; Thomas Dane Gallery, London; and Galerie Chantal Crousel, Paris.

Glenn Ligon

Born 1960, New York, USA

Warm Broad Glow 2005

“Rose laughed when she was happy but she had not the wide, abandoned laughter that makes the warm broad glow of negro sunshine.”

The novella Three Lives, published in 1909 by Gertrude Stein (1874-1946), contains a series of racist descriptions, one of which Ligon used in this, his first ever neon sculpture. Ligon painted the front of the tubing black to eclipse the statement and create a halo of white light, a brightness that is both actual and symbolic, radiating from and around the quoted phrase.

Ligon’s quotation is a poetic act of taking back the very idea of Black joy, an act of reclaiming some resistant presence with a different kind of glow. By casting a beloved writer’s words in a very different light, Ligon’s work is a reminder of how pervasive the racist imaginary still is.

Glenn Ligon is an American artist who works conceptually with text and painting. His work has been the subject of solo exhibitions around the world, including at the Whitney Museum in New York and Power Plant in Toronto. His accolades include a Guggenheim Fellowship and the Skowhegan Medal for Painting.

Shanzhai Lyric

Founded 2015, New York, USA

Incomplete Poem (hedge) 2023

Shanzhai Lyric is a “poetic research and archival unit”. This archive of clothes explores the lyrical potential of a strange late-capitalist phenomenon known as shanzhai garments: bootleg copies of fashionable slogan shirts, often featuring adjustments or mistranslations, which are sold at street markets in China. Shanzhai Lyric celebrate this as a form of experimental English and treat their ever-growing archive as a poem.

The display structure divides the floor like a hedge, of the sort that have divided common land across England for centuries. Hedging also invokes the idea of the hedge fund, a complex investment model designed to protect capital against the risks of market volatilities. The project offers a context for thinking about property and proper-ness, global capital and hierarchies, as well as disobedient Englishes.

Shanzhai Lyric is a roving research body that explores the linguistics and logistics of global capital, inspired by the phenomena of shanzhai t-shirt production in China. They develop an ever-growing archive of garments as the basis for writing, performance and installations. Recent exhibitions include shows at MoMA PS1 and Amant, both New York.

Photo of Shanzhai Lyric's sculpture 'Incomplete Poem (hedge)'. The made from numerous colourful t-shirts arranged on a wooden frame, and are part of a larger collection of bootleg slogan shirts, often featuring mistranslations. Some of the slogans on these t-shirts read: 'SIMPLE TRUTH INSIDE', 'NOM HIRING', 'NUIVERSAL', 'I AM NOT SORRY I AM NOT FOR SALE I AM FOR I AM NOT FOR SALE', 'BEWARE OF PEOPLE LIKE ME', 'Be So Rooted In Yourself That Naomhetu Absence Or Presence Can Disturb Your Inner Peace', 'MISSONE fashion', 'ALONG', 'BRAVE', and 'la vieen rose'.
Shanzhai Lyric, 'Incomplete Poem (hedge)' 2023. Photo: Rob Harris.
Photograph of nine slim newspapers strewn haphazardly together in a pile on the gallery floor. Titled 'Floor with All Existing Words', they were made by artist Mark Manders and contain every word in the English language, each word printed only once.
Mark Manders, 'Floor with All Existing Words' 2005-23, offset print on paper. Photo: Rob Harris.

Mark Manders

Born 1968, Volkel, Netherlands

Window with Notional Newspapers 2023
Floor with All Existing Words 2005-23

Manders thinks of his sculptural process as an ongoing act of writing. In 2005 he invented his own newspaper, initially as a prop for his installations. The Notional Newspapers series has grown from there with a simple premise: to use every word in the English language once, regardless of order. Like any newspaper the layouts feature photos, in this case of his studio, most often featuring dust.

For Window with Notional Newspapers, the newspapers have been used like protective sheets to cover the entrance to the galleries, creating a membrane between the inside and outside of the exhibition. For Floor With All Existing Words, the recently completed series of Notional Newspapers are spread out, compressing all the words in the dominant language as if left behind by the last person who read them.

Mark Manders is a Dutch-Belgian artist who works with sculpture, drawing, and publications. His work has been the subject of solo exhibitions around the world, including at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Tokyo and the Art Institute of Chicago. He represented the Netherlands at the 55th Venice Biennale and his accolades include the Heineken Prize for Art.

Joo Yeon Park

Born 1972, Seoul, South Korea

If Every Word 2023

Taking its cue from The Library of Babel, a short fable by Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986), Park’s new work imagines an interlocking modular form that could be infinitely extended to register everything that could ever be expressed in one universal language – a flawed fantasy that we could someday say everything.

Park’s sparse poetry tries to give voice to the paradox, asking us directly to think about if and how we see the limits of our languages. The phrases, “WHAT IF NOT EVERY WORD IN MY SENTENCE IS VISIBLE” and “WHAT IF NOT EVERY WORD IN YOUR SENTENCE IS VISIBLE” are engraved on two identical polished triangular aluminium plates, which stand like stylised reading tables to reflect but not fully reveal their surrounding environment.

Joo Yeon Park is a Korean artist who works with drawing, moving image, words and sculpture. Recent exhibitions include solo shows at Atelier Hermès in Seoul and the National Poetry Library at Southbank Centre in London, as well as group shows, including at the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Korea. She held a Research Fellowship at the Henry Moore Institute in 2017.

Joo Yeon Park, 'If Every Word' 2023. Photo: Rob Harris.
Photograph of a large sculpture by Doris Salcedo. It is made from interlocking pieces of domestic wooden furniture, with concrete poured into the negative spaces inside and between them. The artist describes this process as
Doris Salcedo, 'Untitled' 2008. Photo: Rob Harris.

Doris Salcedo

Born 1958, Bogotá, Colombia

Untitled 2008

Salcedo made her Untitled works from 1989 to 2008 to commemorate the victims of political violence during two generations of civil war in her native Colombia. In this version of the series, she interlocks pieces of domestic wooden furniture by pouring concrete into their negative spaces, fusing them like scar tissue.

The unease expressed by two materials that do not belong together, or by poets of exile like Paul Celan (1920-70), are central to her work. The precise but stark flood of concrete entombs the space left behind by the everyday people who would have used these everyday pieces of furniture. The unbearable weight of loss is concretised, literally and metaphorically, by the sculpture’s near-500kg mass.

Doris Salcedo is a Colombian artist who makes sculpture and installations. Her work has been the subject of solo exhibitions around the world, including at the Guggenheim Museum in New York and Tate Modern in London. Her accolades include the Nasher Prize for Sculpture and the Velázquez Visual Arts Prize.

Slavs and Tatars

Founded 2006, Berlin, Germany

Szpagat 2017

Slavs and Tatars is an art collective devoted to an area east of the former Berlin Wall and west of the Great Wall of China known as Eurasia. This sculpture both celebrates and upsets the ideal of a ‘mother tongue’ or native language as something singular and homogenising.

Playing on its title (szpagat, from the Polish, via Italian, meaning ‘split’), the upside-down tongue is somehow doing the splits like a gymnast, pointing two ways at once. A ‘forked tongue’ is also used as a metaphor for speaking with deceptive or misleading intent. Like a banana skin, it is ready to cause a slip of the tongue or slippage between languages, to provoke some mistranslation as the proverbial ‘tongue in cheek’.

Slavs and Tatars is a Berlin-based collective of artists and designers who work across publishing, exhibitions and lecture-performances. Their work has been the subject of solo exhibitions around the world, including at Centre Pompidou-Metz and Hayward Gallery in London. They also host a bar-cum-project-space in Berlin called Pickle Bar, and run a merchandise label, MERCZbau.

A curved piece of polished metal, resting on a round wooden base on top of a cylindrical plinth.
Slavs and Tatars, 'Szpagat' 2017, bronze with brushed chrome finish, marble. Courtesy the artist and Kraupa–Tuskany Zeidler, Berlin. Photo: Gunter Lepkowski.

Audio description

Photo of a green fibreglass sculpture of stylised Persian writing. It is slightly anthropomorphic in nature - the Persian letter h is popularly referred to as the ‘double-eyed H’ because of its face-like shape, and this is mounted as the 'head' of the sculpture.
Parviz Tanavoli, 'Standing Heech' 2007, fibreglass. © Parviz Tanavoli; Acquired with support from Charles Pocock and Meem Gallery. Image © National Museums Scotland.

Parviz Tanavoli

Born 1937, Tehran, Iran

Standing Heech 2007

Heech means ‘nothing’ in Farsi, the modern Persian language and the official language in Tanavoli’s home country of Iran. Tanavoli has repeated and adapted his heech motif since 1965.

The word is made up of three Persian letters: he, ye and če, which he pushes together into different shapes. The Persian letter h is popularly referred to as the ‘double-eyed H’ because of its face-like shape. Tanavoli extends this anthropomorphic quality by mounting the h as the head of his single symbolic form, which the sculptor stands upright and likens to a person or even a poet: “a nothing that brimmed with life itself”.

Parviz Tanavoli is an Iranian sculptor, painter, educator and historian who has written widely on Persian crafts and history. Solo exhibitions of his work have been presented around the world, including at the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art and West Vancouver Museum of Art. His life and work are the subject of the documentary, Parviz Tanavoli: Poetry in Bronze, released in 2015.

Audio description


All of our events are recorded, with many publicly available to watch on our website and YouTube channel.

For copyright reasons, some material can only be viewed in-person in our research library.

Sussan Babaie & Jacob Edmond

Wednesday 19 July 2023

Sussan Babaie is a historian and curator of Islamic and Persian art and design culture, who originally trained as a graphic designer in Iran.

Jacob Edmond is a historian and theorist of poetry, media and world literatures with a special interest in the politics of experimental practice.

In this recording they discuss the art-poetry relationship beyond Western culture.

Sussan Babaie

Sussan Babaie

Jacob Edmond

Jacob Edmond

Sam Rose & Mónica de la Torre

Wednesday 4 October 2023

Sam Rose’s most recent book Interpreting Art surveys the history of interpreting art and how that history has shaped art criticism.

Mónica de la Torre is a poet and critic who has worked extensively on the exchanges between artists and poets and between Latin American and North American creative communities.

In this recording they discuss cultures of reception and how those cultures reflect the societies they emerge from.

Sam Rose

Sam Rose

Mónica de la Torre

Mónica de la Torre

Lucy Alford & John Douglas Millar

Wednesday 1 November 2023

Lucy Alford is a poet deeply invested in the histories, theories and forms of poetic practice, as well as their relationship to social and political life.

John Douglas Millar is a writer who studies the overlaps and gaps between literature and the visual or plastic arts, often focusing on the legacy of practices that refused to be one or the other.

In this recording they discuss the modes of attention that different art forms invite and that are expected in different contexts of reception.

Lucy Alford

Lucy Alford

John Douglas Millar

John Douglas Millar

Further research and writing

Learn more about the artists involved in the Weight of Words and the thinking that shaped their work.


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