Language: Foreign & Local Among the numerous recurring themes that unite Erica Van Horn’s large and diverse body of work across time, format, medium, and material, is her fascination with language and its power to shape thought, experience, and memory. Exploring the relationship between language and place, the artist has considered “foreign” language and the site-specific “local” language of particular communities. While her focus is often on meaning, Van Horn never loses sight of the visual qualities of language and the ways in which handwriting and printing can inform our reading of both public and private documents, from books to signs to letters. Living for extended periods in France and Italy, Van Horn has explored the languages of these places in text and image, narrative and abstraction, exposing much about their culture, landscape, and character. This work also interrogates the ways language marks one as a foreigner, an outsider in a linguistically defined community. As a long-term resident first of England and now of Ireland, counties whose residents share Van Horn’s native language, she is no less interested in the sometimes subtle and sometimes obvious differences she finds in varieties of English. Throughout her career, Van Horn’s work has continually explored language as a window into the life of a place and its inhabitants; in colloquialisms and regional language use, Van Horn identifies subtle truths about the ways language both describes and creates community. At the same time, Van Horn’s work recognizes the deeply personal qualities of language and the significant part it plays in determining identity and experience, in making and understanding memory.

Italian Lessons 1-17

Italian Lessons 1-17, [Docking, Norfolk, England: Coracle, 1992]

Employing a wide variety of printed formats, from small books to postcards to a commercially printed eraser, Van Horn's Italian Lessons series explores the process of language learning, the experience of living in a foreign country, and the relationship of language to place. In addition to using a variety of formats and materials, Van Horn's series of lessons makes use of narrative, humor, nostalgia, image, and rhetoric to demonstrate a small fraction of the ways one encounters and experiences a foreign language. The Lessons also serve to document something of Van Horn's time spent in Italy; they record not only the artist's attempts to learn a new language but also something of her daily experiences.

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Beinecke Call Number: 2004 Folio 53

++ See also I Fingerprinted Italian Lesson no. 13 in Leftovers

No Confetti or Rice, on the Steps or Inside

Erica Van Horn & Simon Cutts, No Confetti or Rice, on the Steps or Inside, [Pittsfield, NH: Coracle], 1989

In celebration of their wedding, Erica Van Horn and her husband (and frequent collaborator), artist Simon Cutts, reprinted a notice posted outside an English registry office. The document demonstrates the artists’ marked awareness of the language that is always around us, and the significant role such “background” language can play in shaping experience. In this case, public address in the form of a prohibition becomes a private celebratory announcement, transforming both the form and meaning of the message.

Beinecke Call Number: Zab V3115 +979A 39

Living Locally, 1-15

Living Locally, 1-15, Ballybeg, Grange, Clonmel, Tipperary, Ireland: Coracle, [2001-2009]

In her Living Locally series, Van Horn celebrates the landscape, culture, and community of her adopted home in rural Tipperary, Ireland. Collecting, documenting, and illustrating the regional language of the area, Van Horn both acknowledges her position as a kind of outsider (a “blow in,” in the local slang, referring to “anyone who moves here from somewhere else”) and locates herself firmly within the community. The Living Locally series also calls attention to Van Horn’s sheer love of the curious and quirky turns she finds in English, the aurally pleasing sound combinations, the paradoxically conflicting meanings from one locale to another, and the language’s endless flexibility and transformability.

Beinecke Call Number: Zab V3115 2002S

++ See also This Is the Everyday


Speculations, [United States?: s.n.], c1982

Contained in a house-shaped box, Van Horn’s Speculations considers the unusual language used to describe real estate. “Terms like INVEST IN SAND caught my attention,” Van Horn writes. “I couldn’t stop thinking about it. Each of the folders inside the box offers the option of a dream life, all in a realtors’ language.” As is the case with several other projects from this period in Van Horn’s career, Speculations was made in several variant copies. Each copy was enclosed in a different kind of house-like box.

Beinecke Call Number: Zab V3115 982S

Pour la plupart, Je ne comprends pas les conversations en français

Pour la plupart, Je ne comprends pas les conversations en français, Vitry-sur-Seine, France: [s.n.], 1983

One of several books Van Horn made while living in France in the 1980s, Pour la Plupart, Je ne Comprends pas les Conversations en Français, or “For the most part, I don’t understand conversations in French,” uses unusual materials, including graphed board and typewriter correction tape. “The random letters look like gobbeldy-gook,” Van Horn tells us, “a version of my frustration while listening to French.”

Beinecke Call Number: Zab V3115 983P

Je Ne Parle pas Francaise

Je Ne Parle pas Francaise, [Paris?: s.n.], 1983, London: Coracle, 1990

Part book part board game, Van Horn’s Je Ne Parle Pas Francaise, or “I do not speak French,” plays with the relationship between image and text, “illustrating” various verbs with simple drawings that layer Van Horn’s personal associations with words atop their standard meaning. Her particular choice of verbs—which includes activities, as in “to eat” and “to drink,” verbs focusing on the visual, such as “to see” and “to look at,” and others describing more emotional states, like “to be afraid” and “to amuse”—suggests a kind of narrative of the artist’s experience of the time and place of the work’s creation. The artist’s intentional or accidental misspelling of the word “francaise” calls attention to her difficulty learning a new language.

Beinecke Call Number: 2009 Folio 69

Gumigas Zimogs: A World Guide to Rubber Stamps

Gumigas Zimogs: A World Guide to Rubber Stamps, London: Coracle, [1996]

Using various font styles and colors, this “world guide to rubber stamps” includes the words “rubber stamp” individually stamped in numerous languages, representing countries around the world. The book, an obvious celebration of this utilitarian printing technology, functions as an album exhibiting a collection of a kind. That Van Horn’s interest in assembling collections of similar things extends to words, demonstrates her interest in language as an art-making material.

Beinecke Call Number: Zab V3115 996G

++ See also Remnant Book of Practice Pages for Gumigas Zimogs in Leftovers

Sans Signaux

Simon Cutts and Erica Van Horn, Sans Signaux, London: Coracle, 1990

A collection of “found” signs (the title of which indicates, perhaps, that the artists took each from its original location), Sans Signaux is a kind of travel diary, recording quirky and unusual messages from shop windows in England, France, and Belgium. These very simple messages provide a clear sense of the character of the sign’s (often anonymous) maker and its setting. Removed from their usual contexts, these signs also highlight the inevitable idiosyncrasies found in words, phrases, and meanings that are specific to a particular place.

Beinecke Call Number: Zab V3115 +990S

++ See also Stoppage, or, The Possibility of Mending Invisibly in Leftovers

Short Cuts

Erica Van Horn & Simon Cutts, Short-Cuts, [Ballybeg, Grange, Clonmel, Tipperary, Ireland]: Coracle, 2008

This title documents a collection of a kind, a series of location-specific terms for “the names used in Britain for those narrow passageways between buildings, the short-cuts from street to street, the alleys which criss-cross between houses in a row.” The format of Short-Cuts, an accordion-folded pamphlet, physically reflects the criss-crossing paths described by the text.

Beinecke Call Number: Zab V3115 2008S

Small Houses

Small Houses: the Buildings of Tom Browne, Ballybeg, Grange, Clonmel, Tipperary, Ireland: Coracle, 2007

In Small Houses, Van Horn honors another artist, a friend and neighbor who works in an unconventional artistic medium: a retired builder, Tom Browne makes miniature versions of the houses of friends and family. Browne’s work is itself a kind of portraiture, a fact Van Horn recognizes and acknowledges by putting Browne’s replica of her own house on the cover, essentially making the book a sly double portrait. In addition to celebrating Browne’s houses, Van Horn’s narrative in Small Houses reveals ways in which a maker’s sensibility extends to Browne’s quotidian chores and daily life in rural Tipperary, Ireland. As part of her “Living Locally” series, a group of works that observe, document, and honor Van Horn’s adopted home community in Tipperary, Small Houses is also a portrait of a place, a community, and a landscape as viewed through the work of one member and recorded and described by another.

Beinecke Call Number: Zab V3115 2007S

++ See also Portrait & Likeness