A joint proposal by Sarah Knill-Jones and Boryana Petkova for Poush

text by Alexandre Colliex


Two performances, one large-scale painting, one installation, one sculpture, one wall-drawing, two graphite drawings, a few swirling lines in space and so many words. Here is a two-woman show best visited with memories of Herman Melville… and the willingness to contribute, as visitors are kindly asked to read aloud.

This duet of an exhibition is an investigation into the tricks and treats of language in the media of the visual arts. It is also a visual metaphor of a literary tour de force.

In two radical performance-based installations that they have chosen to re-create for the occasion Sarah Knill-Jones and Boryana Petkova are investigating their own relationship to language. And while their artistic practices would seem at odds with one another, their respective challenges with the language have much in common. Non-native French speakers both, they invite us to share in their confrontation with the spoken word. But also with the written word as we shall see.

In a recent performance she presented at Poush in 2021, Sarah Knill-Jones embarked on a marathon reading of the entire unabridged version of the Great American Melville Masterpiece of Moby Dick, only subverting the original text by deftly inserting she / her / hers for every masculine pronoun. The sheer physical feat of mouthing the words by the thousands, the spit and the foam forming at the corner of the mouth, the drudge and lull of flipping through hundreds of pages, those 26 hours of sailing through the surf in the wake of the white whale slowly took on the form of a bodily struggle by the Scottish-born artist to which visitors were silent witnesses.

The very struggle of mouthing the words is also at the core of Boryana Petkova’s performance from 2021 in which the artist is seen mumbling the words “Please”, “Thank you” and “Sorry” with a mouth full of slowly solidifying plaster. Spit and foam again point to the sheer effort of forming the words of a foreign language.  It turns out it has been a highly personal experience for both artists. Boryana graduated from the National Academy of Fine Arts in Sofia (Bulgaria) before joining the ESAD in Valenciennes where learning French was her first task. Similarly, Sarah studied fine arts in her native Glasgow and in London before travelling around the world. The French language is an experience in mouthing and mastering unfamiliar syllables and sounds.  

Now the artists are turning the tables on the visitors. In a recreation of her Moby Dick performance, Sarah is inviting the visitor to act out the marathon-reading of the complete novel, page by page, in a participative relay race. Each of us is indeed invited to walk through the hanging veils and come to the fore where the novel is piled up in a stack of A4 pages. Each page has been drawn by the artist in a slow painstaking process of frottage on the floor of the studio. Each is an original work that we can take away with us … only after we have read it aloud in English, in the original version of the novel, presumably not the mother tongue of visitors to Poush, here in the Clichy suburb of Paris. It is for us to spit out Melville’s words in English while, beyond the veils, other visitors are listening to our effort and waiting to read further into Captain Ahab’s mad pursuit of the white whale. We, as awkward English speakers, are laboring aloud and activating the piece. Only then can we wander off holding one page, the tiniest part of the book and a fraction of the artwork. Thus, disseminating Melville’s masterpiece throughout the city.

It is difficult not to see the pile of pages diminishing with every visitor-reader as a metaphor of a captured whale eaten away by the sharks in their frenzy, in one of the novel’s enduring if gory scenes. It is also a discrete reminiscence of Felix Gonzalez-Torres celebrated candy piece of 1991 when he filled a corner of the Art Institute of Chicago’s gallery with 175 pounds of colorful, wrapped candies. Visitors were invited to pick a candy, slowly depleting the pile which stood for Ross, his lover, whose body had shrunk to death with the Aids virus.

The whale. The words. The wires

The bodily impact of the words. How the words are extracted from the body. And what traces they leave is suggested in the swirls of dark lines and actual wires that invade the whole exhibition, linking up the works of both artists.

Boryana’s mumbled words from the nearby video, Spit it Out, from 2021 are superimposed on the voices of the visitors reading aloud. In the next room, a sculpture is made of three vertical metal rods holding what appears to be small transparent jewels. Those are glass imprints of the artist’s mouth. Maybe the very same ones that were molded after the liquid plaster she is holding inside the fence of her clenched teeth in the opposite video. Set in miniature metal fangs on top of their rods, those glass beads actually allow us to peer inside her mouth, the most intimate of glimpses. Here is the soft palate, the rows of teeth and the tongue muscle, all molded in clear glass, all parts of our body machinery to masticate the words and spit them out to the world.

Dripping from the glass jewels, white slime has overflowed on the floor. Certainly, this must be the liquid plaster the artist has been twirling around her tongue. Or maybe this stuff has been oozing from the large-scale drawing on the wall. A seascape it must be, full of the froth from the sea surf, the swell of the waves, the thundering breakers. The visitor is left to decipher what body fluids have thickened on the floor. They might even point to the whole barbarous hunt for the sperm whale and jelly-like white spermaceti they were poached for.

Now in that large-scale painting from 2021 -The mystic-marked whale remains undecipherable (Moby Dick) harpoons have flown and bitten into the flesh. Lines are jolted out from the frames and are now swirling onto the walls and into the exhibition space. In a series of drawings, Echoes, the round mass of black graphite on paper and the protective glass have been drilled clean and metal wires looped through the work itself. It seems the works have therefore been harpooned on the wall and spools of wires left hanging loose. Those same black lines are now swirling on the hanging veils that partition the space. They unspool from the ceiling grids onto the floor and up into the pages of the book. They also crawl out of a frame and up the wall which they engulf in their taut spool. Their blackness bubbling up in a giant whalelike mass .

Words are returning to the mere choreography of lines, abstract yet meaningful. The wires. The words. The whale.