Tongues on Fire (Installation View). 2001. SECCA.
Deep Breathing : Lesley Dill's Language Arts
By Nancy Princenthal
Tongues on Fire : Visions and Ecstasy Exhibition Catalogue
Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art
Of the many ways to vent the human engine-of the many escape routes for what lies inside the body, firing up and down its nervous system and circulating through its veins-the most ordinary, and confounding, is speech. "We are animals of words," Lesley Dill has said. "If you were to cut us open anywhere, what would come out would not be just blood and organs, but also language."
For many years Dill has explored, with great precision and sympathy, the intersections of the visual and the verbal. In sculpture, drawings, and collages, photographs, and performances, and in work that combines these media, she has examined the body language of words, both oral and written. What concerns her particularly is the knife-edge of the boundary shared by words and images.
In her most recent work, Dill hones the knife still sharper. The center of gravity of Tongues on Fire: Visions and Ecstasy is oral language and personal revelation, forms of expression well outside the compass of most visual art. In the words of Emily Dickinson, whose poetry is central to Dill's work, they transcend even the "single screw of flesh that pins the soul."
Of course, to say so is to make rather extravagant spiritual claims for Dill's current project, but such claims are not out of proportion to Dill's ambition. Tongues on Fire aims squarely at the most inaccessible kinds of mental experience, those that are sometimes described in the terms of traditional religion, and at others in terms of psychology. Her subject, broadly speaking, is language that has no fixed representation, in words or pictures: language in abeyance. But, in one of the many paradoxes Dill's work courts, it also involved a particularly materialized kind of spiritual speech: individual written accounts of rapture, the powerful music of a spiritual choir and gospel song.