Adam Boyd | Lend Me Your Ear, I’ll Give You My Tongue

22 October – 26 November 2016

Pattern Recognition

At first glance, Adam Boyd’s ‘Lend me your ear, I’ll give you my tongue’ offers viewers a wall of intricate, convoluted lines, punctuated by cracks, slits and, on occasion, windows through which oceans of blank space can be seen. The effect is arresting, almost overwhelming! But at a second glance, things begin to change. What at first seemed a wall becomes a complex pattern of interacting/overlapping forms, clashing perspectives, and zones of intensity, alongside a dizzy variety of visual and verbal puns, allusions, and jokes. Figures appear within figures; pictures are found within pictures; image evokes myth; text hovers on the boundary between word and image; disparate parts cohere to form unexpected wholes; and so on. ‘A wall with cracks soon collapse’, the title of one of Boyd’s large-scale drawings (8.5 metres in length), which flows from high up on one of the gallery walls down into the exhibition space, seems an apt introduction to the exhibition as a whole, particularly if one adds that in this case collapse uncovers a mobile, multi-faceted environment that invites viewers inside its spaces.

The complexity of these drawings and the multiple scenes they contain bring to mind Pieter Breughel the Elder’s crowded canvases, such as ‘Netherlandish Proverbs’ (1559), which dramatizes more than 110 different proverbs. And indeed this painting, Boyd tells us, exerted a strong influence on his ‘Untitled (the cloak of prevailing winds)’ and was in his mind while preparing the exhibition as a whole. But, of course, in ‘Netherlandish Proverbs’ the topsy turvy world it depicts is anchored by the carefully-ordered design of the painting as a whole, and by the eternal world that this ordered design is intended to represent; whereas Boyd’s drawings evoke a world in which these anchors are no longer in place, and bodies, things, times, signs, and desires can interact with each other in unpredictable ways: ‘Lend me your ear, I’ll give you my tongue’, Boyd promises us, bringing sound, taste, touch and (given that these words introduce an exhibition of graphic art) sight as well, into de-familiarizing conjunction with each other!

This brings to mind a different set of allusions: when divided from the eternal and refracted by Boyd’s drawings, Breughal’s topsy turvy world seems to anticipate our own world of big data, mixed realities, accelerating time, and information overload. As Marshal McLuhan had already noted more than fifty years ago, in this kind of environment, where ‘information overload’ is an every-day phenomenon, ‘we have no alternative but pattern-recognition’. And indeed, when seen in this context, one is tempted to place Boyd’s paintings alongside recent influential attempts to understand the relation between data, filtering, pattern, form, and art, such as ‘Data Drift’ (Riga, 2015), ‘Data in the 21st Century’ (Rotterdam, 2015-16), and ‘Big Bang Data’ (London, 2015-2016).

This comparison has its limits, of course. The works featured in these exhibitions represent pattern as fractal, mathematical, and to that extent objective form, independent of the observer; whereas in Boyd’s drawings pattern emerges in the potentially explosive interactions between data, bodily desire, point of view, culture, and subjectivity, and it is therefore never simply ‘there’ or ‘complete’. This enables the viewer to glimpse in these drawings, alongside emergent form, the signs of apophenia (seeing meaningful patterns in random data)—a possibility eloquently evoked by the ‘bird brain’ discovered at one pole of ‘A wall with cracks’ and the ‘frog’ in hot water at the other—as well as the interior dialogue that accompanies this emergence.

As one explores these drawings, another of McLuhan’s prophetic announcements seems apt: ‘The business of art is no longer the communication of thoughts or feelings which are to be conceptually ordered, but a direct participation in an experience. The whole tendency of modern communication . . . is towards participation in a process, rather than apprehension of concepts’. The experience offered by ‘Lend me your ear, I’ll give you my tongue’ is of a world that has become plastic, poetic, dynamic—and of the pleasures, possibilities, and dangers waiting those who step into it.

Professor Peter Otto
Head, English and Theatre
University of Melbourne