Who Knows comprises 12 pairs of coloured neon phrases, modelled on the declension of the verb ‘to know’, which here moves though a simple set of variations and reversals. Like much of Etchells’ work, Who Knows reveals a fascination with rules and systems in language and in culture, especially in the way these structures are both productive and constraining. The work’s repetition and recombination of individual phrases – ‘I know’, ‘You know’, ‘We know’, ‘They know’ – produces a playful paranoia, nodding to the surveillance, snooping and data-harvesting topic already high on the agenda in this digital era, and which has anyway moved closer to the fore thanks to the revelations of the former intelligence contractor Edward Snowden in May 2013.
First shown at Vancouver Contemporary Art Gallery, January 2014.
About Tim Etchells’ neon and LED works
Etchells’ neon and LED pieces often draw on his broader fascinations as an artist, writer and performance maker, exploring contradictory aspects of language – the speed, clarity and vividness with which it communicates narrative, image and ideas, and at the same time its amazing propensity to create a rich field of uncertainty and ambiguity.
Through simple phrases spelt out in neon, LED and other media, Etchells strives to create miniature narratives, moments of confusion, awkwardness, reflection and intimacy in public and gallery settings. Encountering the neon sign works, in the streets of a city or in the space of a white cube gallery, the viewer becomes implicated in a situation that’s not fully revealed, or a linguistic formulation that generates confusion or ambiguity. As often in Etchells’ work, in the neons the missing parts of the picture are as important as the elements that are present. Invoking a story, or projecting an idea out-of-context, the work invites us in, but into what exactly we can’t be sure.