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Artist Looks at Miscommunication with Humor

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An exhibit underway at Chicago's Museum of Contemporary Art gives insight into what it's like to be deaf. Chicago artist Joseph Grigely

uses video, audio, sculpture and paper to take a funny and touching look at communication. Along the way, he pays homage to mundane conversations about things like kitty litter, that we take for granted.

If you can imagine going deaf as a kid, think about the audio that would be stuck in your head.

For artist Joseph Grigely, it's commercials and the Gilligan's Island theme song. That's why he calls one of his pieces, “Remembering is a difficult job, but somebody has to do it.” He sings about Gilligan from a TV screen, framed by palm trees, and a huge screen showing icy water.

ambi of Grigely singing

Grigely'd already lost most of his hearing from a fever, when he was little. Then, when he was 10, he was out playing King of the Mountain. He got pushed off the hill, went rolling down and landed on a stick that went in his good ear.

GRIGELY: It's kind of weird because you open your eyes once you reach the bottom. And all of your friends are standing over you and they're waving their arms. Everything was weirdly quiet.

He says it was like watching the world with the sound turned off. He was deaf from that moment on.

When Grigely's talking with someone, he'll often ask them to write a note to aid communication. One day, after dinner with a friend, he found scraps of paper all over the studio. He laid them out, and was intrigued by the strange fragments of words and drawings. Nothing made total sense.

GRIGELY: And yet it made sense by not making sense.

That was the starting point for him to make art. Now he saves all those notes. He mounts them on the wall in loose narrative form.

They say things like: too much whiskey, but I am a painter, he bit my nose, or “I don't think the monkey can be made to want to fish.”

His wife, artist Amy Vogel, collaborates from time to time and often interprets for him.

VOGEL: Joseph and I often talk about how you can hire intepreters for often really important things, but not for overhearing. And in schools, kids get interpreters for class, but not for the playground or the lunchroom or in the bathroom. So those little everyday things really do have a kind of meaning.

Grigely likes to imagine that every word we speak becomes a material object. And he envisions the words piling up in the garbage or taking over the kitchen.

Amy Vogel explains:

VOGEL: Looking at Joseph's work, it does come back sort of the humor and I'll say it, beauty of the everyday. And just the subtle differences in all of us as human beings.

A piece called YOU features five silver speakers hanging from the ceiling. A series of people try to say the name of artist Ed Ruscha.

GRIGELY: It comes out from the time when a lot of people were talking about how my work is about my deafness. And I'm trying to explain, No, no, no, it's not about me. It's about how other people communicate.

Like when they write him notes and can no longer rely on the flourishes of speech to get their message across. Or when there are mistakes in lip-reading like in his video installation, "St. Cecilia."

ambi sound of Christmas carol

On one screen, a choir sings traditional Christmas songs. On the screen next to it, you look at the choir, and you'd swear they're singing the same thing. But you walk to the other speaker, and you hear this:

Sound of song

Yes, they are saying Johnny was a bastard child, and Doosie wants a collie. Grigely gathered mistakes people make lip reading, to create these lyrics.

A friend asked Grigely once, what he does with his anger over being deaf. Because it's the humor, not the anger, that shows in his art.

Grigely says it's like renting a storage unit on the edge of town.

GRIGELY: I kind of keep the anger out there, but someday I'll have to go back to that storage unit and clean it out and make something out of it.

Until he's ready to deal with anger in his art, he wants to share the wonder he feels in everyday conversations about cat litter and ice fishing.

Joseph Grigely's show runs through February 22 at the Museum of Contemporary Art.

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