Art Review: This exhibit brought to you by the word “the”

By Rob Scherf

Take a moment to consider the immense amount of information the average person intakes every day. Discounting the things our minds are required to internalize–class notes, conversations–there are always thousands of incidental details around us demanding notice. Imagine the millions of tiny and disposable bits of human life that those unremarkable details are built from, never given a moment of thought. All things considered, who in their right mind would ponder the minutia of life, but an artist?

Robert Kelley’s Minutia is a conceptually staggering installation, to say the least. The idea for the piece sprung from a lunchtime conversation, legend has it, included the strange line, “the first time I heard the pages of a book turning.” Obsessed with the beauty of that single sentence fragment, such an obscure and disparate combination of words, Kelley decided to dissect it in the most intricate detail by writing a full book on each of the clause’s eleven words, attempting to understand the full meaning of each piece of the puzzle independently.

Physically, the features of Minutia are elegant and compelling. Eleven books are beautifully leather bound, are arranged on eleven wooden lecterns in a large circle and lit brightly from above. Participants are encouraged to enter the space and read the books one by one, and while the reading is thought provoking when on one’s own, the exhibit is only complete when eleven people simultaneously find themselves examining the eleven works of Minutia, each implicitly interacting with each other as a part of the installation itself in a make-believe symposium.

Within Minutia’s tomes lies the installation’s real challenge. Writing an entire book on one word is a daunting task, even worse if an artist wishes to avoid both dull scholarism and utter wank. Kelley has accomplished his work studiously, peppering his books with both forewords and afterwords by respected thinkers who seriously wax poetic about single sentence parts like “time” and “I”. The meat of these eleven works, though, is Kelley’s own philosophizing on the meaning of such perceptibly inconsequential as “a”–in his preface to The Book of “A”, Kelley sets his goal with that particular work as being to “make the indefinite article most definite.” What follows is almost three hundred pages printed with only the word “a” in the middle, and a footnote referencing the line from T.S. Elliot’s “The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock” where that particular “a” came from.

Another of the works, The Book of “The”, is simply hundreds of pages of the word “the” repeated ad nauseam. While the book’s preface challenges the reader to think about the uniqueness of “the”, the one-ness of any object which the title “the” precedes, Kelley’s implementation of his concept is at best disposable and at worst, lazy. The Book of “The”‘s routine logic is endemic of the entire installation: many of the books on display have so few or so simple ideas that finding real worth in them seems to become an exercise in out-thinking the artist.

The Minutia installation may certainly be a unique piece, brimming with intriguing ideas, but it’s weighed down by uneven execution. Kelley’s concept, however, is an intellectual delight. Rarely do we have a chance to examine anything around us in such great detail, let alone the fascinating microscopic mechanics of our own language.

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