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Terrence Heath

Phonic Slices: Nobuo Kubota, Inventing Deep Language
Lonsdale Gallery, June 7 - July 7, 2001


BorderCrossings, vol. 20 #5, issue 79.
[ 1,563 words ]


the language of poetry has something to do
with the open mouth the tongue that jumps
up and down like a child on a shed roof calling
ha ha and who's the dirty rascal now?


— Anne Szumigalski

Who will rescue our poor beleaguered language? I, said the musician; I, said the visual artist. gadji beri bimba/glandridi lauli lonni cadori, said Hugo Ball one evening sometime before 1927 at the Cabaret Voltaire. We are in tatters, assailed by linguists, psycholinguists, transformational grammarians, and deconstructors; tutored in signifiers and phonemes; reduced to transmogrifying words with back slashes and parentheses; and in the end, if still unbowed, struggling with a 500 word vocabulary in case we might sound elitist. Our allies are still there though; the sound singers, the voice artists, the concrete poets; and backing them up, scat singers, chanters and cantors, nonsense versifiers, calligraphers, text artists, and perhaps, the wordless shouting of celebrants and the inarticulate wailing of the bereaved around the world. Language is first of all sound, then form, and finally, meaning.

One of the most remarkable sound artists in Canada is the Toronto sculptor / installation artist / sound singer, Nobuo Kubota. The fact that he is better known in Europe than in his native land goes perhaps with being a Canadian. Of his remarkable oeuvre, spanning forty years, the exhibition at the Lonsdale Gallery has to take its place as among the most insightful and fully realized. Language has become pure form here, pure sound.

The exhibition consists of three pieces and many sub-sections that really explore the original impulse for each piece. The simplest and most elegant is entitled Deep Text. I saw this piece in its inception a little over a year ago when it was 'constructed' on sheets of paper. The first page had a square divided into sixty-four sub-squares, each with a single letter. This chart of seemingly unrelated letters is called the 'sixty-four word essay'. Added to the first page are 13 more pages (the number of letters in the longest word: possibilities!). It is only as you thumb through the pages that you realize the letters on the cover page are the first letters of words, and that the second letter is in the corresponding square on the second page, etc. Since the words are all different lengths, the number of letters on each page becomes fewer as you move toward the final page. It struck me initially as simply an intriguing idea, but on further thought I could see that he had literally created a deep language space and given an optical twist to the visual idea of 'deep'. As it turned out, Kubota saw the piece as offering more than one linguistic experience. Each page, referred to as a phonic poem, could be 'sung', as he flipped through to a page half way through and proceeded to sing the letters, with appropriate silences for the empty squares. The ultimate work takes this basic exploration of how we set out letters to a stunning installation in which each page is now a square of plexiglass with the letters etched on it. The sheets of plexiglass are hung at eye level, as if you were looking through the book from the first page through to the last. By properly positioning yourself you can 'read' the words of the essay by looking evermore deeply 'into' the text. Meaning can be found; but if you shift your gaze off the direct line you can read other 'words' which could be pronounced or sung. Some of the words are actually also meaningful words, suggesting that the text hides other texts within it.

Deep Text is an elegant and intriguing piece, but in the context of the other works in the exhibition it has a certain constructed deliberateness about it, an element of controlled viewing that is not usual in Kubota's works. Phonic Slices, from which the exhibition takes its title, is equally elegant and intriguing but more open to multiple viewing experiences and presentations. Phonic Slices comes from Phonic Loaf; and that requires some explanation. Kubota cut out approximately 3000 cedar and pine letters, spread glue on them and placed them randomly in a box approximately three feet by two. When the 'loaf' had set he hand-sawed eighteen slices at approximately one-and-a-half-inch intervals. The resulting 'marbled' slices are hung, slightly overlapping, from the ceiling; they move freely as people walk by or brush against them. The slices show saw marks and the cedar and pine letters are sometimes whole, but often they are cut through and in pieces. The resulting slices are mysterious clusters of letters and letter parts that suggest alphabet blocks, archaeological troves, abandoned typesetters' boxes, scrambled Scrabble tiles, the remains of the tower of Babel; they pull up a seemingly endless stream of references and personal and cultural memories.

On the wall across from the Phonic Slices hangs a row of large rice paper drawings, actually rubbings of the slices: Phonic Rubbings. Using graphite, charcoal, black crayon and, in one instance, pen, Kubota has rubbed the surfaces of both sides of each slice as one would the brass insets in the floors of medieval churches. The result is a series of striking drawings in which letters, potential words, and even statements, seem to rise up out of some depth to the surface of the paper. The final forms have something vaguely cubist about them, as if they had more than just a shape, but a shape captured at various times and from various angles. Coach House Books has printed a Bookwork to accompany the Phonic Slices in the form of a sixteen-page newspaper. Using a scanner, Coach House produced on these pages the technological parallel of the rubbings. Each of these manifestations of the Phonic Slices refocuses on the mystery and mutability of written language.

Throughout his career Kubota has 'performed' at the margins of visual art, music, architecture, and language, practicing what Coleridge called 'intermedia' art and the most extraordinary of the works in Phonic Slices is Phonic Traces. Kubota has an international reputation as a 'sound singer', and Phonic Traces might be described as the visual representation of sound singing. He has built a large box, divided as typesetters' boxes are divided to hold moveable type. He has cut out 104 letters of the alphabet — two sets of lowercase and two sets of uppercase — and then cut each letter at a juncture which produces new 'letters', unrecognizable from the original. Each of these new letters has been given a sound — j'jih, ahan and so on — derived from the original letter, and placed in a cubicle of the box. He has then chosen randomly from these cubicles and has assembled rows of letters and attached them to the wall; they resemble lines in a poem or music sheet. Some of the new letters are clustered, some spaced out, some repeated. By attributing the new sounds to the new letters, Kubota can write out the text and sing it. In front of the sound poem on the wall, he has placed a set of headphones. Through them you can hear Kubota sing the poem. The result is a dadaesque sound poem, but with the visual presence of the lines, the boxes of letters from which the poem has been constructed and the sung rendition, the experience has been removed from the realm of the random. We experience the invention of sound and writing, and the work in its visual and oral presence stirs some deep cultural memory of the excitement of the invention of language.

Throughout his career Kubota has 'performed' at the margins of visual art, music, architecture, and language, practicing what Coleridge called 'intermedia' art and the most extraordinary of the works in Phonic Slices is Phonic Traces. Kubota has an international reputation as a 'sound singer', and Phonic Traces might be described as the visual representation of sound singing. He has built a large box, divided as typesetters' boxes are divided to hold moveable type. He has cut out 104 letters of the alphabet — two sets of lowercase and two sets of uppercase — and then cut each letter at a juncture which produces new 'letters', unrecognizable from the original. Each of these new letters has been given a sound — j'jih, ahan and so on — derived from the original letter, and placed in a cubicle of the box. He has then chosen randomly from these cubicles and has assembled rows of letters and attached them to the wall; they resemble lines in a poem or music sheet. Some of the new letters are clustered, some spaced out, some repeated. By attributing the new sounds to the new letters, Kubota can write out the text and sing it. In front of the sound poem on the wall, he has placed a set of headphones. Through them you can hear Kubota sing the poem. The result is a dadaesque sound poem, but with the visual presence of the lines, the boxes of letters from which the poem has been constructed and the sung rendition, the experience has been removed from the realm of the random. We experience the invention of sound and writing, and the work in its visual and oral presence stirs some deep cultural memory of the excitement of the invention of language.

Kubota seldom exhibits his visual work, and in the case of his sound singing the work is ephemeral and, unfortunately, usually unrecorded. This extraordinary exhibition, should be seen widely and, as one of Canada's most innovative and accomplished artists, Kubota should be much better known by artists in all disciplines.


BorderCrossings, vol. 20 #5, issue 79.

Text: © Terrence Heath. All rights reserved.

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