Text by Denise Courcoux
A pioneering experimental poet with a brilliantly assonant name, Bob Cobbing was an imposing, formidably bearded figure. His thundering, throaty voice delighted in and madly exaggerated the rolls, sibilance and groans of the English language; his joyfully animated performances must have been quite something to behold. ABC in Sound rises to the considerable challenge of conveying the vitality of these live shows in the form of a retrospective exhibition.
Cobbing’s seminal early work, 1964’s ‘ABC in Sound’ – which explores the possibilities of the basic building blocks of language, the alphabet – provides an appropriate constant soundtrack for the show, and a point of reference that recurs throughout. The wooden framework used in the space mirrors the display of a major 1971 exhibition at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, which included work by Cobbing alongside that of his contemporaries Paul De Vree and Reinhard Döhl. The partitions work well here, playfully turning the gallery into a place to explore rather than prescribing a route for visitors. Where screen after screen of archive video footage might have been rather dry, here little tv monitors are hidden ’round corners to be stumbled across.
As with the ’70s exhibition, scattered panels set into the framework here display monochromatic prints of ‘concrete’ poetry – where the visual arrangement of the words helps to convey meaning and rhythm. Text is repeated and layered, and manipulated into geometric shapes. Cobbing demonstrates a fascination with language in all its forms, explaining in one of the videos the pictorial qualities of language, and how a letter might be seen as ‘an abstract painting’. The same visual approach to text can be seen in a case of front cover designs for the book of ‘ABC in Sound’ which were made by his wife Jennifer Pike, a significant partner in artistic collaboration.
The poet’s concern for the imagery of lettering provides further context for the archive ephemera on display here. Homemade writers’ magazine mock-ups from the 1950s sit alongside a linear red noticeboard – a nod to the one Cobbing used as a pinboard at home for his ideas – dotted with copies of flyers and vintage newspaper clippings, to form a textual timeline of his many projects and collaborations. A wall is given over to posters of performances by Cobbing and his contemporaries; in many cases the only clue to the year of their production is the font used, hinting at historic typographical trends. The vinyl lettering that curves around the posters, spreading in waves onto the windows, lends a haphazard rhythm to the layout.
The playfulness in Cobbing’s work is always evident and often infectious. It is hard not to laugh out loud at the absurd sequence of similes that plays upon fellow poet Liz Lochhead’s ‘A good fuck makes me feel like custard’, displayed here in one of the square partition panels. His lively 1980 performance of ‘Alphabet of Fishes’ in Liverpool is also particularly enjoyable, both for the local context and the pure relish with which he booms the word ‘wiggle’. Catalogue, a new film by Holly Antrum filmed at the home Cobbing and Pike shared (Cobbing died in 2002), debuts at this exhibition. Its grainy 16mm quality and lo-fi effects – we view part of the film through a homemade mask held over the camera lens – reflect the DIY aesthetic of experimental poetry’s ’60s and ’70s heyday. Pike reads out snippets of ‘ABC in Sound’ in a warm tribute, finishing on a list of ‘s’ words all about the structure of language – symbols, signs, semiotics, sentence – then, with a knowing smile, an appropriately naughty ‘s’ word to end on.
Bob Cobbing: ABC in Sound is curated by Rosie Cooper and William Cobbing. The exhibition marks the beginning of Bob Jubilé, and is on display at Exhibition Research Centre, John Lennon Art and Design Building, Liverpool John Moores University until 22 November 2013.
Denise Courcoux is a writer based in Liverpool, and is Gallery Coordinator at The Bluecoat.
Images by Andy Freeny