Curated by Ed Krčma
Ormston House, Limerick
9th July – 7th August, 2015

Stephen Brandes, Maud Cotter, Angela Fulcher, Tom Hackney, Catherine Harty, Caoimhe Kilfeather, Susan Morris, Trevor Shearer, and Alison Turnbull.


Download the Compression catalogue



Dichten = condensare.
Ezra Pound[1]

This exhibition brings together contemporary artworks that achieve density and compactness of meaning through the use of spare and concentrated means. While much recent art has depended upon high production values and spectacular effects, Compression explores strategies for the generation of aesthetic and conceptual magnitude via the articulation of more modest artistic materials.[2]

While such work develops the exacting standards of modernist aesthetics in the visual arts, in which elements deemed inessential were radically expunged, the term ‘compression’ is more familiar to poetic discourse. For Cristanne Miller, writing on Emily Dickinson’s poetry, ‘compression’ denominates ‘[any] language use that reduces the ratio of what is stated to what is implied.’[3] In his celebrated 1918 text, ‘A Retrospect’, Ezra Pound encouraged poets ‘To use absolutely no word that does not contribute to the presentation.’[4] Pound would demonstrate the salutary and medicinal effects of this principle in his ‘Fan-Piece, for Her Imperial Lord’ (1914), for example, which distilled a stodgy ten-line translation of a Chinese poem by Howard Giles into the following tercet:

O fan of white silk,
Clear as the frost on the grass-blade,
You also are laid aside.[5]

The crystalline directness of such poems has affinities with contemporaneous experiments in modernist visual art. To take an example from beyond Pound’s immediate circle of Vorticists: in reducing his means to orthogonal axes, white rectangles, black bars of varying width and extension, and unmodulated blocks of primary colour, Piet Mondrian created a pictorial system of great rigour and flexibility. Seeking to reach decisively beyond a significance that was merely subjective, Mondrian cancelled the fluid, autographic mark – the chief conventional signifier of intense emotional engagement – in favour of a concentrated set of discrete parts rendered with tight manual control. The paintings hold a different kind of dynamism and potency, achieved through the precise calibration of pictorial units that are all the more enigmatic for being so openly declared.

By both specifying and integrating his terms, Mondrian brought painting to the structural condition of language, considered as a mobile system that generates significance through the differential relation of its parts. The effect of his iconoclastic purge was to dramatically increase the value of those pictorial elements that remained.[6] In a 1979 essay, Rosalind Krauss argued that the crucial structure sustaining this kind of aesthetic project in the visual arts was the grid.[7] While resistant to the referential aspects of verbal language, the grid nevertheless provided a kind of fundamental pictorial grammar, which allowed painting to train attention relentlessly upon the organization of visual experience:

This structure, impervious to both time and to incident, will not permit the projection of language into the domain of the visual, and the result is silence. This silence is not due simply to the extreme effectiveness of the grid as a barricade against speech, but to the protectiveness of its mesh against all intrusions from outside.[8]

In a documentary filmed in New York at the end of 1963, Marcel Duchamp referred to chess as a ‘school of silence’.[9] Models of art making associated with the ‘anti-retinal’ legacy of Duchamp are often set in opposition to the rigorous probing of the conditions of vision by modernist artists.[10] Indeed, the avant-garde strategies of collage and the readymade, emerging in the years just prior to the outbreak of World War I, constituted major challenges to the authority of painting.[11] In part an extension of both collage’s rejection of manual virtuosity and its embrace of everyday ephemera, the readymade foregrounded skills associated more directly with conceptual moves: selection, placement, ordering, naming.[12] While registering the radical import of such challenges, it is nevertheless fruitful to consider the readymade and abstraction as neither antithetical nor mutually exclusive, but rather as two different modes of compression in art.[13] Indeed, many of the artists in the current exhibition explicitly dramatize the way in which readymade elements now constitute not so much a critique of painting and sculpture, but a means for their reinvigoration.

Decisive within the production of such an artwork is the selection of the specific readymade element that will ground its logic. One thing and not another: what is the best way to think of the nature and duration of such a decision? In one sense it is made in an instant: this image, object, data set, architectural plan, predetermined procedure, or material structure is suddenly recognized as singularly apposite. But an entire style of thinking and working informs this moment, a parsing and weighing according to criteria that are not always consciously articulable or even recognized. These are decisions embedded within a particular historical and cultural circumstance, and their meaning is established in relation to a wider field of emergent, dominant and residual formations: of established artistic conventions and lines of flight; of viable tactics of affirmation and negation; of patterns of cliché and circuits of available reference. Such a decision is a long time in preparation, but the event that supplies its immediate occasion might more closely resemble the logic of a chance encounter, or a dream.

In The Interpretation of Dreams, Sigmund Freud characterized the workings of the primary psychic processes in the following terms:

[T]he intensity of an entire train of thought may ultimately be concentrated in a single conceptual unit. This is the fact of compression or condensation with which we became acquainted when investigating the dream-work. It is condensation that is mainly responsible for the strange impression produced by dreams, for we know of nothing analogous to it in the normal psychic life that is accessible to consciousness.[14]

Such a statement raises the question of how we understand the term ‘normal psychic life’, of art’s proximity to that idea and, alternately, of art’s affinities with the strangeness of oneiric impressions. Making a space for contingent everyday events in his interpretive theory, Freud argued that the ‘day’s residues’ formed a crucial if subordinate component of the dream-image. The latter he compared to hieroglyphs and rebuses, which required deciphering.[15] While not expecting to find the end of every thread of its significance, Freud nevertheless retained confidence in his ability to solve the ‘picture puzzle’ posed by the dream. It is the resistance of artworks, however, to the protection of a specific solution that is in need of interpretation in the modern period.[16] Perhaps like the dream, still, the artwork embodies a form of compression that is not reducible to rational propositions and explanations; it holds a stranger kind of density.

In his posthumously published Aesthetic Theory, Theodor W. Adorno explored the riddling, language-like, enigmatical character of artworks in relation to the disenchantment of social life and the hardening of what he and Max Horkheimer had called ‘instrumental reason’.[17] Here the idea of compression can be set in relation to another type of abstraction, which has less to do with a formal mode of art making and instead describes a cognitive operation. This other idea of abstraction signals the bringing of sensible particulars under general concepts, an operation achieved by sacrificing singular qualities for shared and exchangeable properties. The reduction of things to a numerical monetary value, for example, constitutes an extreme yet ubiquitous example of abstraction, whereby the particular qualities of objects and activities are subsumed in order to enable exchange. ‘Viewed from the standpoint of the objective relations of capitalist society,’ Mikhail Lifshitz wrote in his 1933 book, The Philosophy of Art of Karl Marx, ‘the greatest work of art is equal to a certain quantity of manure.’ [18]

The power of abstract reasoning constituted a means of liberation from the powerful grip of superstition, mystification and blindly inherited wisdom. However, driven on by its own mythical aspect, it also accelerated the annihilation of tradition, intensified modes of exploitation, and prepared the way for the desiccation of experience. In 1944 Adorno and Horkheimer theorized this formation as the ‘dialectic of enlightenment’.[19] While by no means preferring those mystified forms of thought corroded by the forces of enlightenment, and keeping faith with the emancipatory impulse of that project, they aimed their critical energies against the hegemony of an abstract reasoning that remained at the service of domination, a trajectory that continues to penetrate the conditions of contemporary life. [20]

The rapid ascendency of digital technology over the last twenty years can be viewed as part of a new moment in this dialectic, and it is from within this realm that the term ‘compression’ derives one of its most common contemporary usages. Digital data is based upon the most fundamental of binary oppositions: 0/I. The extraordinary speed, availability, and democratic potential of this technology are enabled by vast sequences of this basic expression of difference. Data compression allows this information to be stored more efficiently (either by identifying and removing data deemed unnecessary, or by a ‘lossless’ technique of using algorithms to compress data files with no loss of information). Replacing any motivated relationship between informational content and technological medium, digital data is convertible, reproducible, and alterable to an unprecedented degree. A digital image file, for example, has no material dimensions or necessary output format; the material specificity of pictures (although not necessarily of computer hardware and display devices) gives way to the extraordinary mobility of data flows on which contemporary social life has increasingly come to depend.[21]

In its very etymology, the word ‘compression’ carries with it an emphatically material connotation, however (the Latin verb comprimere means ‘to press together’). Indeed, while in no way rejecting the capacities of digital technology – and indeed often making critical and inventive use of it – many works in this exhibition employ modes of making that strive to maintain a direct relation with physical objects and processes, via strategies such as casting, transcription, photographing, and unedited recording.

‘It is futile to reject general concepts’, Horkheimer and Adorno argued, while at the same time insisting that, ‘Classification is a condition for cognition and not cognition itself; cognition in turn dispels classification.’[22] The modes of thought and practice presented in this exhibition share more with that other direction in thinking: having assimilated forms of symbolic ordering, the task is to attend again to the material singularities around which our abstractions constellate.[23] Exceeding the rules of abstraction at the service of exchange, the compressed artwork reverberates from sites of qualitative concentration that are materially specific, formally spare, conceptually precise, and imaginatively rich.


[1] Ezra Pound, ABC of Reading (London: Faber, 1951), p.36. My thanks to Trevor Joyce for pointing me to this reference.

[2] I follow Theodor W. Adorno’s capacious conception of what constitutes artistic ‘material’: ‘Material… is what artists work with: It is the sum of all that is available to them, including words, colours, sounds, associations of every sort and every technique ever developed. To this extent, forms too can become material; it is everything that artists encounter about which they must make a decision…’ Theodor W. Adorno, Aesthetic Theory, trans. by Robert Hullot-Kentor (London and New York: Continuum, 1997 [1970]), pp.147–8.

[3] Cristanne Miller, Emily Dickinson: A Poet’s Grammar (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1989), p.24.

[4] Ezra Pound, ‘A Retrospect’, in Literary Essays of Ezra Pound (New York: New Directions, 1968), p.3.

[5] See James Longenbach, ‘Poetic Compression’, New England Review, Vol. 32, No. 1, 2011, pp.164–172.

[6] Here I am indebted to the analysis of Yve-Alain Bois; see his Painting as Model (Cambridge, MA, and London: MIT Press, 1993), and his introductory essay, ‘Formalism and Structuralism’, in Rosalind Krauss et. al., Art Since 1900: Modernism, Antimodernism, Postmodernism (London and New York: Thames and Hudson, 2005), pp.32–39.

[7] Rosalind Krauss, ‘Grids’, reprinted in The Originality of the Avant-Garde and Other Modernist Myths (Cambridge, MA and London: MIT Press, 1985), pp.8–22.

[8] Rosalind Krauss, ‘The Originality of the Avant-Garde’, in Ibid. p.158

[9] Marcel Duchamp in Jeu d’échecs avec Marcel Duchamp (dir. Jean-Marie Drot, 1963, broadcast on 8 June 1964, ORTV)

[10] An influential early example is Michael Fried’s 1965 essay, ‘Three American Painters: Kenneth Noland, Jules Olitski, Frank Stella’, in Michael Fried, Art and Objecthood, Essays and Reviews (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998), pp.213–267.

[11] See, for example, Louis Aragon’s ‘The Challenge to Painting’ (1930), in Pontus Holtén (ed.), The Surrealists Look at Art (Venice: Lapis Press, 1990), pp.47–73.

[12] See John Roberts, The Intangibilities of Form – Skill and Deskilling in Art after the Readymade (London and New York: Verso, 2007), pp.81ff.

[13] On Duchamp’s relationship with modernism, see Thierry de Duve, Kant after Duchamp (Cambridge, MA and London: MIT Press, 1996).

[14] Sigmund Freud, The Interpretation of Dreams, trans. by Joyce Crick (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999 [1900]), p.391.

[15] Freud, The Interpretation of Dreams, p.212.

[16] ‘We have already had to note that actually one is never certain of having interpreted a dream in its entirety; even when the solution seems satisfying and complete, it is always possible for a further meaning to announce its presence through the same dream. The quota of condensation is thus, strictly speaking, indeterminable.’ (Freud, The Interpretation of Dreams, p.212, italics in original). I borrow the phrase, ‘the protection of a specific solution’, from Susan Howe, My Emily Dickinson (New York: New Directions, 2007 [1985]), p.35.

[17] Discussing the work of Samuel Beckett, Adorno declared, ‘the increasing opacity [of artworks] is itself a function of transformed content… [C]ontent has become the critique of the omnipotence of reason, and it can therefore no longer be reasonable according to the norms set by discursive thought. The darkness of the absurd is the old darkness of the new. This darkness must be interpreted, not replaced by the clarity of meaning.’ (Adorno, Aesthetic Theory, p.27) Indeed, Adorno argued that ‘Artworks that unfold to contemplation and thought without remainder are not artworks.’ (p.121)

[18] Mikhail Lifshitz, The Philosophy of Art of Karl Marx, trans. by Ralph B. Winn (London: Pluto Press, 1973 [1933]), p.93.

[19] Theodor W. Adorno and Max Horkheimer, The Dialectic of Enlightenment, trans. by John Cumming (London and New York: Verson, 1972 [1944]).

[20] See, for example, Luc Boltanksi and Ève Chiapello, The New Spirit of Capitalism, trans. by Gregory Elliott (London and New York: Verso, 2005 [1999], esp. pp.443ff), and Jonathan Crary, 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep (London and New York: Verso, 2013).

[21] Paul Hegarty has recently argued that some kinds of video art – specifically, here, that of Ryan Trecartin – present another way of being in ‘digital times’ which, instead of assuming the hegemony of digital technology over contemporary life, suggests that ‘we are not beholden to it, but dwell in it, and that we can best occupy its spaces by not allowing it to be thought of as the dominant Imaginary of “our times”. Instead, the digital is a source, a method, a staging, area and a set of practices and materials as much as it is an apparently dematerialized source of cultural wonder or fatigue.’ Paul Hegarty, Rumour and Radiation: Sound in Video Art (New York and London: Bloomsbury, 2015), p.179.

[22] Adorno and Horkheimer, The Dialectic of Enlightenment, pp.219–220.

[23] Indeed, Adorno’s own theoretical system was frequently grounded in the smallest, most contingent details of everyday life. It was in such apparently inconsequential particulars that entire frameworks of thought and practice could be seen condensed: slip-on shoes, the material layout of books, or the astrology column in the Los Angeles Times. See, in particular, Theodor W. Adorno, Minima Moralia: Reflections from Damaged Life, trans. by E. F. N. Jephcott (London and New York: Verso, 2005 [1951]).