Little Thieves


Machine-cut plywood, rope

Install dims: individual letters are 18-25 cm tall

410cm H (= total drop of the work from the ceiling) x 220cm L x 50cm D

Photo: Rob Harris

Though much of Etchells’ sculptural installation work with text has been made using neon or LED, Little Thieves (2023) is one of a number of pieces that explores the use of machine-cut letters, made in this case from plywood. As is often the case there’s a sense in which the form of the piece takes its cue from the phrase it uses, here such that the letters, suspended on makeshift strands of knotted rope, make an explicit echo of the English-language idiom ‘little thieves are hanged but big ones escape’. Creating a dialogue between form and content, the letters ‘become’ the image they are describing. A mix of both humorous and serious energy the work is in one sense a comical gesture, which nonetheless draws our attention to the seriousness (gravity) of the idiomatic phrase about politics and social structures.

Etchells says “The interesting thing about the work for me is the tension between letters as semantic carriers, building blocks for meaning, and as objects and elementary 3D sculptural forms. Like many pieces the work points in two directions – we’re asked to think about the social and political realities outside of the gallery, and at the same time asked to consider the sculptural object here in the room in front of us, the literal hanging/suspension of the wooden letters in the gallery”.

About Tim Etchells’ text works

Etchells’ text 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 works 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, 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.