I went to Dave Ball’s studio to do an interview about his ongoing project A to Z, which might, by the artist’s estimation, take somewhere between 20 and 30 years to finish. Dave selects words that he chooses to illustrate from the Concise Oxford English Dictionary, following and keeping the alphabetical order in which the words were originally arranged. He exhibits one letter at a time, giving himself and the public time to go through the quantum of information that comes with each word.
To document such an ambitious long-term project is a real challenge, so I set off to do this interview with a carefully selected set of questions I had prepared before, which turned out to be pretty obsolete when I got to encounter the actual work and the artist himself.
I was very interested in Dave’s own view of his project, and during two hours of free discussion he gave me a lot to think about.
The first thing I saw when I arrived at Dave’s studio was a series of photos on the wall displayed in five horizontal rows, the work in progress for letter “C”. Each photo had a tag of the word that had been illustrated. My first reaction was to go from one photo to the next, following each row, going from perceptual experience to acknowledging the meaning denoted by the words. The relationship between the visual experience and the conceptual one contained by denomination creates an interesting path of associations in one’s mind, and also gives the feeling of going into the core of etymology. As I followed the succession of the words, the repetition of the roots of the words stood out, such as “catharsis... cathedral... catholicism”, creating another level of connections for both the images and the notions. As a viewer I felt driven into a narrative experience, one that could go back and forth, upwards and downwards, depending on the order in which I followed the images. Dave’s approach to illustrating concepts gives enough space for each viewer to create his own interpretation path.
While looking at the images I became more and more aware of the complexity and the size of the project, and shared my opinion with Dave, misusing the word “heavy” when referring to the works. Dave replied that “heavy” sounds like something that you need to break away from. In a way, this is exactly what he is doing, within the boundaries that he himself has set.
A to Z speaks about interpretation within a given system of tools of communication. The alphabetical order in which the words appear in the dictionary is a key aspect; before, there existed other types of classification, such as categories of objects-animals, plants, body parts, etcetera. Alphabetical order is relatively recent, and the good thing about it is that it is not subjective: it is arbitrary and established, so everybody understands it and there is no argument.
The creative exploration is very similar in this case to scientific research, mostly because of its repetition. The whole project is about repetition in the way of process and not of result; each letter is put through the same process of selection and illustration of the concepts, but the results always come out as surprising. Dave began working on “A” with the intention of realizing a series of drawings for each letter. The drawings for “A” were often based on Google Image research, whereas for “B”, Dave attempted to illustrate each concept from his own memory; “C” takes the form of a series of photos. The repetition within the selection is preserved, but each letter comes with its own personality, which generates a specific medium of expression. He is interested in systematic ways of doing things, and absolutely resists jumping ahead when he starts illustrating a letter. Repetition leads to the need for creating diversity, so the evolution of the works in the near and distant future is anything but predictable.
Dave chose to illustrate nouns, the most widely used words in a language, which are both objects that can be illustrated in a literal way, and concepts that have nothing visual in them, and which call for a metaphorical approach. Getting a quantum of information on which everybody agrees as a valid system of communication, and filtering it through a personal view while maintaining something of a neutral approach, is possibly the most striking thing about this project. Dave is a witness who links together his way of seeing the world with the possibility for others to build on it, creating their own path of associations.
Dave is also a witness who reaches out and presents the absurdity of the world, the arbitrary aspect of what is present in our daily routine. His works focus on what is already there in all its triviality, and makes it noticeable. ‘I try not to create too many things in the world.’
His works speak about deeper meanings in a solid and simple way; he often uses humour as a form of expression: ‘I think humour is very effective for reaching people and pulling them in. Hopefully after that, they will start to have a deeper engagement.’ To highlight different aspects of reality through humour is very effective, as long as the work is not labelled as humorous, in which case the viewer’s expectations are predetermined. Dave’s work has a quality of giving the viewer the feeling that they are on familiar ground, operating with well-known concepts that suddenly appear in a different light. ‘In a way it’s a very democratic project, but on the other hand it’s very much about my understanding of the world. But people can build on it; it makes them have reactions. People feel compelled to make connections.’