Palimpsest of voices, an online project by Leontios Toumpouris
Review by Andrés Valtierra
You may access the website and encounter the fragment of a drawing floating in an empty, reddish space. Click refresh and a piece of clay is hovering now towards you. Do it again and an abstract, gleaming, dark figure slowly spins on its axis. For this year’s edition of Glasgow International, the Cypriot artist Leontios Toumpouris prepared an online presentation that challenges our assumptions of what it means to display objects in a digital space. The past fifteen months have seen a proliferation of online exhibitions that rely on a 3D rendering of a white cube, where images of bi-dimensional artworks or scans of sculptures are displayed as if within a gallery. Perhaps out of a desire for things going back to normal before long, we seem to have clung to the familiar, domesticated exhibition spaces with which we are so familiar. In contrast, the project Palimpsest of voices puts in motion a process of exploration and recognition. Here we have some objects located in an abstract expanse—one in which there are no referents for its size or orientation—, ordered without a singular axis but forming a constellation of a sort, a cluster that one explores as one zooms in and out, rotates and pans along the 3D model that is the artwork.
The starting point of the project is a series of workshops that the artist organized at Glasgow Sculpture Studios with a group of over 130 participants connected to Oakgrove Primary School, consisting of pupils, staff and family members. Throughout several sessions, they explored the malleability of clay, how some types of material work better with each other, and how, if you cut a heterogeneous knob of several varieties of clay in half, you may encounter some abstract, unplanned figures inside that resemble the strokes of an unprecedented calligraphy. Through a practice consisting primarily of sculpture, Toumpouris’ work explores the fragility and mutability of language. For several years now, he has been creating glyphs that appear to belong to constructed languages, although there is not a complete linguistic structure behind them. Then he inscribes them onto pieces of leather or clay, or decomposes them visually to create metal or ceramic sculptures. On this occasion, next to making them familiar with strategies pertaining to sculptural practice, the artist invited the participants in the workshop to imagine how new graphemes could be generated, what they could mean, and what would be the relationship between the visual aspect of the glyph and its phonetic and semantic contents. In short, this was an exploration of the arbitrariness with which language is formed and structured, and yet how it creates communal experiences, albeit sometimes ephemeral. His ultimate intention, it would appear, was for this group to reimagine how the development of these invented graphic signs could give rise to new ways of connecting with each other.
As with many other projects programmed to take place after the pandemic began, the presentation of Palimpsest of voices was postponed and, eventually, relocated to the digital space. Toumpouris’s original idea was to display the objects produced during the workshop in the Assembly Hall of Oakgrove Primary School; when this was no longer possible, he decided to formulate a digital platform that bears no resemblance to that particular gallery or, in fact, to any physical room. This is one of the most striking features of the artwork: it is bewildering at first, yet invites the user to continue exploring it and to try to make sense of it. 3D scans of the objects and glyphs are suspended in a given order, and it is difficult to imagine what caused their position in relation to each other: this is a system that is alien to us, the viewers. It seems as if a developing network had been paused, or as if we had been granted access to the inside of a fictional cell. Yet this is perhaps as close as we can get to a visual representation of the structure of any language, of how the elements connect between themselves, seemingly having fixed positions but, in truth, these being arbitrary and always about to change. At the end one the day, it is for the users to establish signification within the structure.
If the workshops or the communality they created are not immediately apparent in the artwork, maybe this is because the migration we all lived to digital platforms since early 2020 made absent relationships of this kind. Mediation of most of our interpersonal experiences through a screen gave way to necessary explorations of how we can digitize our connections to each other, or rather, to what an extent we can really do so. In other words, this implied a need to reimagine, again, how we relate to each other, to create new languages, new signs of communication beyond the fixed ones we already knew. The artist, in turn, transported this urgency to creating a new category of space, to reinventing how we can display objects, which are secluded in a studio or in a warehouse, and make them accessible for a larger public. As users of this platform, we give signification to the connected elements within it, and become yet one more of the voices to which the title refers. We participate in a palimpsest that obtains even more layers each time someone new, or even recurring, interacts with it.
Palimpsest of voices can be accessed at: https://palimpsestofvoices.net/