Encompassing photography, painting, sculpture, sound and moving image works, These Rotten Words focuses on the physicality of textual, gestural and vocal forms of communication. Rottenness is defined as both bad and decayed and, in a world where public discourse has become increasingly dominated by divisive polemics, the exhibition embraces language that is more contingent and intimate. The artists call attention to the physical properties of communication: the mouth and the hand are inextricably linked. While the hand enables us to shape materials, the voice — and our use of language — offers a further tool to manipulate the world around us.

Words become disentangled from the author’s intention. Limbs float freely. Bodies are scaled up and down. The familiar and at hand becomes estranged and unknown. To rot is to decompose, offering an opportunity for reassembly. The artists in the exhibition suggest a form of renewal, probing the possibilities and limits of the body and its voice. Text can be a vehicle for melody as much as meaning. We may talk before we know exactly what we want to say. Speech is slippery, and intention is as much about inflection as content — all languages carry inefficiencies and lacuna.

Anna Barham presented a new, single-screen video exploring the cicada — an insect with tongue shaped wings that is primarily heard rather than seen, its distinctive rasp acting as a kind of sonic camouflage for other sounds. Marie-Michelle Deschamps and Anneke Kampman produced a series of new sculptures and audio works that examine the sonic and acoustic properties of the voice. Kampman’s work, a kind of alternative audio guide, provided a narrative through the exhibition. Devlin Shea, Rebecca Ackroyd and Joanna Piotrowska recall John Bulwer’s assertion that “gesture is the only language natural to the body,” each focusing on bodily gesture. David Austen presented a text painting alongside a series of figurative watercolours. Johann Arens’ sculptures promote tactile engagement, framing the spectator’s gestures alongside the other work on display.

Foundation Press, a platform for experimental publishing activity in Sunderland, will undertake a brief residency during Experimentica – presenting a series of print workshops and printed artworks in response to the exhibition.

These Rotten Words was commissioned by Chapter to coincide with Experimentica, the arts centre’s annual festival of live art.

These Rotten Words continues on from a number of exhibitions curated by George Vasey exploring ideas around intimacy, language and gesture including A Small Hiccup, at Grand Union, Birmingham (2013) and Emotional Resources at Northern Gallery for Contemporary Art, Sunderland (2014).


  1. Art Review

  1. Location:

    Chapter Arts Centre

  2. Curator:

    George Vasey

  3. Partners:

    Newcastle University

  4. Photography:

    Jamie Woodley