By ALEX BACON December 3, 2023
Constance De Jong: On a Continuous Present, carefully curated by Karen Di Franco and Lara Pan for Chelsea Space in London, explores American artist Constance De Jong’s weaving of language and visual content across several decades of work. De Jong has been active since the 1970s as a writer as well as a performer and maker of multimedia objects and installations. Examples of all these kinds of works are on view at Chelsea Space.
The exhibition is divided into two primary sections, one by the entrance and the other occupying the main room of the gallery, which also features a newly commissioned vinyl work in the window, which is visible both inside and outside the gallery. By the entrance are two vitrines and a wall display of archival material related to key episodes in De Jong’s career. De Jong often revisits performances and rearticulates material from different moments of her practice in new ways, as in the 1976 London performance of her seminal Modern Love, which began as a component of The Complete Works of Constance De Jong and then circulated as a performance and book, which was reprinted in 2016.
The gallery’s main room surveys a range of projects from the 1970s to the 2000s, from books, to exhibitions curated by, and featuring De Jong, and collaborations with artists like Tony Oursler or Tony Conrad It is clear that De Jong emerged from the particular context of the mid-to-late-1970s collaborative spirit of the New York art world, in which artists regularly worked across disciplines to realize ambitious projects.
De Jong’s work feels as relevant today as it did when it was produced. For example, as one approaches the main room, having absorbed information about the background of the artist’s early practice, one hears her voice methodically intoning a stream of consciousness narration that moves between personal accounts of the speaker's sleep patterns and the like, and perennially topical current events involving financial malpractice by banks and corporations (Bedside, 2019). As one rounds the corner and approaches the piece, one finds that the audio element is paired with a visual, script-like component. Thus our initial, auditory experience is subsequently juxtaposed with a readerly one. Short enough to loop multiple times over the course of a single visit, and permeating the entire space for that duration, we are encouraged to follow along with the “script.” Yet, this leads us to realize that what we hear differs in subtle ways from what we read. This is because De Jong memorizes and then speaks her texts extemporaneously, inevitably dropping certain words and shifting certain phrasings.
This is a clear example of the kinds of layering involved in much of her work, where one register of meaning or content delivery is rarely encountered alone. We often find photographic material interwoven with text, and also object-like elements, like light boxes, projectors, and shelves. For example, the collages that make up a work about 18th and 19th Century British and American female astronomers, which juxtaposes written texts and diagrams by them, and images of them, with De Jong’s own writing (Night Writers, 2019). These palimpsests unpack continuities across time—hence the title of the exhibition, On a Continuous Present, which is drawn from Gertrude Stein—in ways that can be surreal and seem disjointed temporally, with different time periods seeming to coexist in the act of remembering conjured by De Jong’s simultaneously lucid, present, and historically grounded writing. WM
Alex Bacon is an art historian based between London and New York. He is co-publisher of Circle Books and, until recently, Curatorial Associate at the Princeton University Art Museum. He is currently completing his PhD in Art & Archaeology at Princeton University with a dissertation on Frank Stella and the emergence of Minimalism in the 1960s.view all articles from this author