The power of words

The latest exhibition at The Tetley showcases the work of Spanish artist Dora Garcia and explores books and performance. Yvette Huddleston reports.

Language – in all its potential transparency and opaqueness – is at the heart of the latest exhibition at the Tetley in Leeds.

Barcelona-based artist Dora Garcia’s show These Books Were Alive, They Spoke to Me! is an exploration of books, stories and storytelling and even takes its title, obliquely, from a book – it is a quote from Francois Truffaut’s cult film Fahrenheit 451 based on Ray Bradbury’s dystopian novel of the same name. Published in 1953, the book imagined a future American society where books are outlawed and burned by specially appointed ‘firemen’.

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The exhibition, which opened earlier this month, is fascinating. Dense and thought-provoking, it combines interactive performance art with film installation and printed material to create a narrative that centres on books about performance and performances about books.

It is almost impossible to pigeonhole – and that is part of its appeal – but its unifying theme perhaps is the importance of language in shaping our lives, the world around us and the way in which we inhabit that world, individually and collectively. “We make things happen and exist through the magical quality of language,” says Garcia. “Or it can exist by itself just for the pleasure of being.” Programmed to coincide with the 20th annual Leeds International Contemporary Artists’ Book Fair, which takes place at the Tetley next month, the show provides a retrospective look at Garcia’s career-long production of artists’ books and her ongoing connection, within her work, to literature, theatre and film. “For the exhibition we chose performance pieces that were related to books, reading and writing,” says Garcia. “There are some performance pieces which anyone is able to join in with if they want to.”

The Tetley lends itself well to performance as there are several quiet, smaller rooms where intimate readings can take place, leading off from the central atrium – which is reminiscent of a wide-open amphitheatre. In some of these spaces visitors to the exhibition will find volunteer amateur actors, trained by Garcia and her collaborator, actor Michelangelo Miccolos, reading out loud from a book or performing from a script. “There are copies available for anyone who wants to join in,” says Garcia. “And everyone can interpret it in whichever way they like.” This question of interpretation comes through very strongly in Garcia’s 2013 film The Joycean Society, screened in one of the rooms, which documents the activities of a group of amateur readers and members of the Zurich James Joyce Foundation. They have been meeting every week since 1986 to read aloud, pore over and comment on Finnegans Wake, Joyce’s notoriously cryptic novel.

Written in an experimental, stream of consciousness style it is considered one of the most difficult novels in the English language. The Leeds Finnegans Wake Reading Group will presenting collective readings at the Tetley during the run of the exhibition. “Reading to yourself without speaking the words is a relatively new pastime,” says Garcia. “It developed in parallel to the development of the novel in the 18th century. Before that stories were read out loud, so it was a community activity.”

At The Tetley until April 23. For details of the programme of events and performance times visit