The Rag Papers – Corin Sworn – Chisenhale, London – Review

Corin Sworn’s The Rag Papers at the Chisenhale Gallery is as much about the certainty that objects hold in our construction of the world, as it is about their fragmentary and disruptive capacity for slippage. Sworn uses what we see (objects), what think of this (reading) and how the mind meanders from this (memories) to problematise the reading of objects when what they denote has become so mutable.


The central narrative of the exhibition explores a conflation the artist made between Roland Barthes and Susan Sontag’s ideas whilst reading Sontag’s introduction to a Barthes Reader: reading Barthes through Sontag. Sworn further complicates this using Barthes’ notes that were in preparation for his last, but unfinished text The Preparation of a Novel as a framing device for the work. And so both Sworn and The Rag Papers attempt to pick through fragments left after the death of the author as he himself seemed to be arranging his past writings.

This conflation of what is presented to us, then emeshed and rewritten into existence by the (object) ‘reader’ is extended by Sworn into both video and the accompanying light installation that fills half of the blacked out gallery behind the viewer.

On screen, two characters alternatively inhabit a sparse, but tastefully bourgiose studio: one is an old man ponderously arranging notecards and old photographs of junk shops, while the other, a middle-aged, woman with brown to blonde shoulder-length hair searches the office, seemingly trying to make sense of the material. Of course this could be Sontag and Barthes but at the same time it feels as though this is being pointed to to make this very point. This seemingly obvious, diagetic connection is quickly complicated however as cutaway images of other domestic settings and furniture (read presumably as memories) spiral off from the totemic objects in the study. It is with this both cinematic and structuralist gesture –heightened by an intensification of the register of the sound and location in the surround sound system– that this distrust in the certainty of what objects ‘tell us’ propagates.

As if to ensure that this conflatory and wandering power of objects in connection with narrative (its probably not Sontag and Barthes on screen) is not lost on us, the video shuts off abruptly, leaving the gallery in darkenss. Again the directional speakers shift the position of the dialogue and a female narrator, maybe the Sontag character, more likely a third, describes a search and piecing together of material from junk shops and vast clothes sorting depots  – clips of which interrupted the main narrative before vanishing in the blackness. More overtly than before in our complicity with documentary-esque video, we are brought into the web of uncertainty and fabrication as the previously unlit lamps illuminate and bridge the space we are sat in. The hanging pendants switch on at somewhat erratic intervals during the third character’s monologue, hinting at a momentary, but nonetheless ambiguous clarity. Light bulb moment? As the pieces of the work come together, it seems that the spatial interrelation of what is seen on screen and what the narrative has lead us to believe is briefly crystallised: that with The Rag Paper’s formal completeness Sworn seems to hint that what is read between objects and memory is ultimately what is important in negotiating our relationship to them.

However, as the video begins yet again to meander around possible interpretations for the objects it frames, we are left with a deeper ambivalence to if any of what we have seen and begun to connect together is connected. Certainly, this gameplay provides a neat reminder, that with the death of the author came the reader. But it seems that what is really at stake here is to ask if the ploughing back through everything (and all that it could be) that followed in the wake of of this paradigmatic shift which we now unabashedly appropriate has any other meaning than being connected to the thing we put next to it.