Henri Chopin (1922, Paris – 2008, Norfolk) is best known for his unique works of concrete and sound poetry: poetry in which the meaning or effect is conveyed by visual or sonorous means. He is considered an artist, poet and curator, but is mostly recognised by his typewriter poems, known as dactylopoèmes. His work challenges conventional notions of speech, language, music, sound and semantics. Chopin’s sound poems and dactylopoèmes dismantle preconceived verbal or symbolic meanings, and focus instead on purely sonorous or decorative qualities. The latin alphabet, he insists, “is more geometric than calligraphic for our vision,” and possesses “constructivist forms”. Chopin has often been described as a descendant of the lettrisme movement, yet the artist himself refused to be affiliated with any movement and cherished his artistic independence.
Chopin’s interest in concepts of value, meaning, order and disorder can be traced back to his experiences during the war. In 1940, when the German army advanced in France, his family fled from Paris to the south, where they were then captured and held in a forced labor camp in Olomouc, now a part of the Czech Republic. After escaping the camp at the age of twenty, Chopin was soon recaptured by the Germans who sent him on a “death march” between eastern Prussia and the Lithuanian border.
Having miraculously survived, Chopin’s experience on the death march had an irrevocable impact on his art. He had listened to the voices of his fellow marchers, sounds which permeate and reverberate in his oeuvre. In the 1950s, he became a pioneer in sound poetry, experimenting with his own breaths and cries. Chopin saw no limits to his practice, at one point swallowing a microphone in order to record the sounds and movements of his body. By using modern-age technology, Chopin sought to access the primality of communication; to deconstruct communication as we know it; to experiment with communication beyond its symbolic meaning. The tape recorder makes the inaudible audible while the typewriter, with its repetitious typescript, displays the pure, pre-symbolic form of letters and words. In this way, Chopin simultaneously merges the pure and visceral with the mechanical. He explores the unexplored spaces that lie behind language and communication.
Chopin served in the French army, and then worked as a radio and television producer. He published his first collection of poems, Signes, in 1957. Between 1958 and 1974, he edited OU, an international journal of experimental concrete and sound poetry. During the 1980s, the artist spent time in Naples collaborating on publications with Giuseppe Morra, founder of the Fondazione Morra, a leading contemporary art institution. Chopin moved to Norfolk, England, in 2001 with his daughter and continued to travel to give live performances until his death in 2008.
MoMA Museum of Modern Art, New York; Centre Pompidou, Paris; Espace d’Art Contemporain, Paris; Whitechapel Art Gallery, London; Museo Nacional Centro De Arte Reina Sofia, Madrid; ICA Institute of Contemporary Art, London; Centre d’Art Contemporain, Geneva; Summerhall, Edinburgh; Fundação Serralves, Porto; M HKA, Antwerp; Fondazione Morra, Naples; Galerie Georg Kargl, Vienna; Galerie Natalie Seroussi, Paris; Dependance, Brussels.
Tate Modern, London; V&A Victoria and Albert Museum, London; MoMA Museum of Modern Art, New York; Centre Pompidou, Paris; MACBA, Barcelona; Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Yale University; Fondazione Morra, Naples.
La Crevette Amoureuse (The Shrimp in Love) (1967–75); Le Dernier Roman du Monde (1971); Portrait des 9 (1975); The Cosmographical Lobster (1976); Poésie Sonore Internationale (1979); Les Riches Heures de l’Alphabet (1992); Graphpoemesmachine (2006).
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