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Art installation of metal type
Art installation of metal type

Installation view: Jonathan Berger: An Introduction to Nameless Love, Participant, Inc., New York, 2020.   Courtesy Participant, Inc.  Photo: Mark Waldhauser.

Not long before COVID-19 rendered in-person art viewing a faint memory, I walked into a dimly lit gallery where clusters of illuminated words appeared to float in space, like the digital rain of the Matrix. Yet unlike computer code, I could read these clusters of text—they were conversations, poems, confessions. “What can I ask you that nobody seems to ever ask you?” one began. “After months of being in that funk, I got accustomed to it,” another one continued.

Jonathan Berger’s large-scale installation An Introduction to Nameless Love has taken over every square foot of Participant Inc, curatorial icon Lia Gangitano’s beloved not-for-profit art space on the Lower East Side. As the press release states, the work is rooted in Berger’s exploration of relationships that exist “outside the bounds of conventional romance.” This concept is inspired by his close friendship with artist Ellen Cantor, who passed away in 2013—serendipitously, the two artists first met at Participant Inc in 2006. For several years now, Berger has been engaged in an ongoing and wide-ranging series of conversations about the idea of unconventional love. At Participant, six of these conversations have been materialized into skeins of letters mounted on wire armatures—they are textual sculptures, or perhaps more accurately, sculptural texts.

At the same time as he documents the dialogues he has carried out with his interlocutors, Berger also draws in excerpts from song lyrics, poetry, and nonfiction, and invites guest editors (none of whom are editors by profession) to work with him. What emerges are texts that balance oral history and poetry—grouped together like stanzas—that follow a mysterious structure. Consisting of tin, each letter is manually crafted with a consistency in shape and size that leaves the viewer mesmerized by the meticulous hand labor required. One sculpture departs from the flat, page-like form of the others. Instead, it curves into a multifaceted textual sphere that is placed towards the back of the gallery, surrounded by intricate textual waves resting on the floor.

Berger’s desire to think through the complexities of love is not particularly visionary, nor is he the first artist to materialize language. It is, however, his integration of these two impulses that is so alluring. Contemporary art historians often identify figures like Bruce Nauman and Jenny Holzer as artists who understand how tightly body and language are intertwined, even to the point that they can function one in place of the other. However, the groundbreaking work of these artists has parallels in the past. Those who have dipped into premodern art historical scholarship know that similar ideas existed during medieval times, when monastic script was considered to be a voice that speaks without a body, allowing the dead to converse with the living. It is this longer history that Berger draws upon.

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