Posted by Michael Woolley on October 17th, 2017
An array of white notecards covers the floor of the gallery. Hundreds of white rectangles, each seemingly placed with deliberate care, tessellate the room. Something is scrawled on them. Words, I think. I recognize some, but others are mostly unintelligible to me. Three tables, each with a pair of chairs, are arranged near the periphery of the latticework of paper and scribbles. A cohort of viewers observes, standing back along the walls and crowded near the entries.
Josh Clendenin walks on his toes, choosing carefully his footsteps between the notes. There is only barely enough space between each for him to balance precariously on the balls of his feet. He takes a step, pauses, and contorts his body to maintain his centre of gravity. Leaning almost impossibly forward and back and to the side, Clendenin scans his domain, searching. He bends down, plucking from the concrete floor a card with a question mark. Flipping it over, he scans what is scrawled on its reverse, and locks eyes with a viewer leaning against the wall.
“What are you afraid of?”
The man appears caught off guard, but quickly comes to an answer.
Clendenin seems to ponder the profundity of this for a moment, before turning again toward his words. He strides amongst them, never fully finding his footing. The artist pauses momentarily, closes his eyes, and takes a deep breath. Picking up another question mark, he addresses another person across the room. The artist’s words fall effortlessly from his lips, but they refuse to take purchase in my own head. He is speaking Irish, I would later come to learn. A knot begins to tie itself in my stomach and he looks expectantly at a women who responds only with wide eyes. He repeats his question, reading again directly from the card. Several intense moments pass, during which I can only imagine that her heart is pounding in her ears at least as loudly as my own is in mine.
Clendenin breaks his expectant gaze, turning again to the words scattered at his feet. His eyes flick back and forth, and he cranes his neck while striding carefully. His toes barely disturb any of the words. He is looking for a specific word this time. Several words. He picks up a card, and another from the opposite side of the room, and several more. Repeating his original question, he gestures and mimes with his whole body, hoping perhaps to transmit something not in the words themselves. And he reads from the new cards in his hand, only single words, but English words. Adding several more words from his floor-lexicon, a recognizable and stilted pidgin translation emerges.
“You like get lost travel nouveu ville?”
“Do I like getting lost when I travel somewhere new?”
He nods and shrugs his shoulders. Close enough.
“I try not to get lost…”
Clendenin addresses each of us watching in this manner, asking questions in English, French, Spanish, and Irish. Sometimes the exchanges are quick, and sometimes several minutes pass before he and his interlocutor find some kind of mutual understanding. What are you passionate about? What’s your favourite movie? Do you like any sports? The artist articulates himself using only the words and phrases he finds on the floor, in addition to bodily gesture.
Eventually, a brave soul seats themselves at one of the tables and soon the artist joins them, question-card in hand. Clendenin poses a question in French, and his tablemate responds—in English—after screwing their face up, as though trying to recall distant French lessons. The artist replies in kind, albeit still in French, but without turning to his words on the floor for his vocabulary. They both converse like that, going back and forth from French to English, until Clendenin stands up in search of a new question card to bring to someone else who has sat himself at another table.
At some point, I find myself sitting across from the artist, nervously waiting to find out what question and language he has in store for me. We lock eyes. He speaks slowly, but I am nevertheless unable to understand his words. Sitting here at the table, Clendenin speaks freely, but only in the language of the question card in his hand: Irish. He pantomimes speaking, pats his chest, and points at me. Tell me about your… He stands up and returns with the word in English. Family! I tell him about my sister, and my parents, and my dog, and I ask him about his family. Several minutes later he has taught me the Irish words for mother, father, sibling, and step-sibling. The process is labourious, but the dread which welled up in my throat when I first heard those seemingly unintelligible syllables fades as I begin to enjoy the collaborative process of learning and understanding something new.
Clendenin’s performance has various modes of engagement with his audience and it is presented as a puzzle: we are asked to figure out not only how to communicate with the artist but also the rules by which we are able to engage him. The work is strongest in those moments when the artist must literally find the words to express himself, balancing precariously and moving deftly on the balls of his feet. He makes bodily, in a very literal and present way, the grasping feeling of needing to articulate something but not being able to find the words. It resonates viscerally with that momentary feeling of amnesia when the word you need is just on the tip of your tongue—or under the tips of your toes.