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41  |   S E E  N O,  H E A R  N O,  S P E A K  NO
Wall sculpture, 2002/2003
Painted wood
100 x 150 x 4.5 cm

Private collection.


Whereas a bird and the number nine lend the wall sculpture CUCKOO form and substance, in SEE NO, HEAR NO, SPEAK NO three monkeys and four letters share the focus of attention. The letters are E, V, I, and L and the monkeys, of course, the infamous primates that neither see, hear, nor speak evil: a Trinity of ostriches (birds through the back door), whose heads are ever firmly planted in the sand.

Sand, desert sand, played a major rôle here as well, insofar as there was such a great deal of it shifting and drifting around and through the considerations that led to the definition of “The Axis of Evil” in the year 2002—and, just a few, fatal months later, to the planning and prosecution of the Invasion of Iraq. With impunity, the word “Evil !” had been cried from the roof tops, inscribed on the banners of the faithful, and so worn to tatters, that it was fit for nothing but to be waved and worn over furrowed fields sown with the seeds of perfidy. As—and on—the sleeves and coattails of a bogeyman, it served to drive off clever crows and pesky sparrows (more birds!), at least until the unspeakable harvest could be brought in.

The Three Wise Monkeys, which hear, speak, and see no evil—and to which, therefore no evil can occur—originally came to us from Japan, where they had apparently arrived with Buddhism—from India by way of China—in the eighth century. Their names in Japanese—Mizaru, Kikazaru, and Iwazaru—are phonetically identical with descriptions of the animals and their suggestive gestures, and represent, as such, an enviable synonymy of word and image. Long considered indigenous to our Western culture and popularized in the mid-twentieth century as the epitome of Kitsch, to us here they no longer stand for wisdom, but for its opposite, namely, calculated ignorance: we can’t be dragged into, or considered answerable for what’s going on around us, if we’re oblivious to it. Indeed, certain sections of society go so far as to equate the monkeys’ simian philosophy with the omertà’s code of silence—their own distinctive recipe for longevity. In 2002, at any rate, the three deliberately indifferent apes observed many a red-letter day. Although not represented physically in SEE NO, HEAR NO, SPEAK NO, the monkeys’ spiritual participation cannot be denied, ignored, or underestimated.


Crafted entirely of wood—pine, balsa, beech, etc.—the piece is painted using just two colors. For the supporting background panel, I used a synthetic-resin enamel in a shade the manufacturer dubbed “Natural White,” but which is in fact a preternaturally pale shade of grey-green; and for the figures mounted on this backing I chose a chalk-white, high-gloss radiator enamel. The structure of the wall section is reminiscent of a typesetter’s case, whereas the color of its semi-matte surface soon brings clinical or medical equipment to mind. I myself can never look at the work without beginning to think of the most unnatural experiments and research projects; and although my thoughts in this direction have thankfully never become fully fledged, a feeling of unease—an impression of, well, evil—remains. Will the monkeys be taking part in these trials—actively or passively, voluntarily or othrwise? One way or the other, they are nowhere to be seen (and all the more menacing for it).

SEE NO, HEAR NO, SPEAK NO, 2002/2003

Wall piece, painted wood, 100 x 150 x 4.5 cm

The piece’s wooden frame measures 100 by 150 centimeters, and is divided into twelve sections arranged in three horizontal rows of four divisions each; in the top row, the letters E, V, I, and L are given in basic Stage-1 Braille—cell by cell, that is—legible for those who do not see; in the four middle sections, the same letters are expressed as sema phore flag signals, for those who, at a great distance, cannot make themselves heard or otherwise understood; and in the bottom row, the four letters are formed in the manual alphabet used for, and by, the deaf—or even the deaf and blind. Thus, one word, evil, is not spoken with the human voice, nor expressed with the spatial eloquence of signing, nor even written in literary Braille, but spelled out using three specialty alphabets : articulated letter by letter, symbol by symbol, sign by sign .

The four letters E, V, I, and L can be anagrammed to spell veil, a homonym for “vale” ( of tears ? ), as well as vile, a homonym for “vial.” Spelled backwards the word evil is, of course, “live,” meaning as a verb, pronounced with a short I, “to have life,” or “to survive”; or as an adjective, pronounced with a long I, “alive; full of life; transmitted while happening (of broadcasts); loaded or unexploded (of ammunition); burning, glowing (of coals); electrically charged (of wires).”

It is no accident that the raised Braille dots in SEE NO, HEAR NO, SPEAK NO are placed on wooden discs resembling Petri dishes; nor is it merely by chance that the work’s miniature signalmen bear a striking resemblance to crash-test dummies; just as it must be taken as simply being in the nature of things that, of the four hand gestures, the first happens to be a balled fist, the next the V-for-Victory sign, the third a simple line, and the last a right angle—or is it meant to be a handgun?

Words deliver us from ignorance. They transcend time and space. Out of them cultures arise, and through them culture is preserved—or not, as the case may be. In fact, of all that we believe to have learned about the world, we’ve encountered next to nothing at first hand, but solely through written or spoken narrative. The vast majority of things in this world are known to us not in natura, but at best as words or images. Our personal store of knowledge is really a collective one, amassed at second or even third hand, though we may act upon it as if it had been gleaned from three-dimensional haptic, visual, and aural experience—regardless of how many senses we have at our disposal. SEE NO, HEAR NO, SPEAK NO is, however, not about the loss of one or another of these senses, but about the loss of meaning and the erosion of sense—not about inability, that is, but about strength: the enormous strength, the power of the word and of words: a power that that has all too often been perverted to manipulate knowledge and corrupt belief, and one it is all too easy to abuse, for the very reason that we rely so much upon it.

The word evil stands for the legions of words that have been, and shall become, twisted and instrumentalized: exploited by those benighted souls, driven by an insatiable desire to possess ever more of the material world, who are unable to resist the temptations of that world’s fugitive, albeit deathless, temporal powers.