Poetry being forever lost must submit to its own vacuity; it is somehow a product of exhaustion rather than creation. Poetry is always a dying language but never a dead language.
Robert Smithson, "A Sedimentation of the Mind: Earth Projects"
There is a monstrous horizontal wooden box in Shannon Ebner's small studio; roughly constructed, it is supported by four legs ending in caster wheels, like an unwieldy cart. The box's door, located on its side, flips up to reveal its contents: a stack of flimsy cardboard letters, each roughly three by six feet in size, some painted black. The letters are leftover props from a 2003-4 series of (mostly) black-and-white photographs titled Dead Democracy Letters, which Ebner exhibited in 2005. On the inside of the box's hinged door she has written "Sculptures Involontaires"—a reference to a photographic series of scrappy constructions (a rolled slip of paper, a dismembered cigarette pack, and so on) made by Brassaï in 1932. The borrowed phrase signals the complications of a practice in which photographs are typically the final form of work that is equally entrenched in sculpture and language. Echoing her exhibition title, Ebner jokingly refers to the big box as "the coffin," and the heap of language inside suggests a body of work laid to rest but also, more pointedly, the nearly endless possibility of letters redeployed as other words and new works of art.
If Brassaï's involuntary sculptures were the product of nervous habit, then Ebner's Dead Democracy Letters are the result of anxiety about the conflicted space of language in a culture on the brink. Ebner's propped letters obviously recall the Hollywood sign, but the words she stages are far more ominous and urgent: Each photograph literally positions language in the uninhabited landscape, like a warning sign for an unseen—unsee ing ?—public. In USA, the word "NAUSEA" is perched vertiginously on a cliff overlooking the Pacific Ocean. The title's letters jump out of course, as does the word "SEA", woozily suggesting seasickness. Exploiting the potential of the medium's artifice, the confining frame of the camera paradoxically enlarges the space of the imaginary made available to the viewer. In Landscape Incarceration, the eponymous phrase is staged as a running barrier along the desert horizon. We view the letters from behind, cheap scaffolding and all. The disorientation slyly reflects the eroding border between private interiority and public exteriority. Ebner's language, whether borrowed or not, is quietly derived from private meaning but speaks volumes when placed in the imaginary, if wholly artificial, space of the public. In turn, her photographs bear witness to the construction of meaning itself, however ephemeral or involuntary.
This essay originally appeared in the catalogue for the 2006 California Biennial at the Orange County Museum of Art, October 31 - December 31, 2006.