Born 1971 in Englewood, New Jersey; lives in Los Angeles, California
Shannon Ebner’s work centers on a do-it-yourself alphabet of handmade letters and signs temporarily placed—and strategically displaced— in public contexts. The artist sets language in the service of photography, her cryptic messages captured and fixed in black-and-white photographs. Populating actual yet uncertain landscapes or mise-en-scènes including California real estate sites, the La Brea Tar Pits, and the Washington Monument, these ephemeral signs spell out such darkly ambiguous phrases as “Landscape Incarceration,” “The Doom,” and “The Day—Sob—Dies.”
In On the Way to Paradise (2004) ten photographs of individuals wearing T-shirts that bear a single screenprinted letter spell out the phrase “SELF IGNITE.” Like her other publicly directed, language-and-photographybased works, this one reshu√es the shifting alphabet of language with the also fugitive—and frequently ominous— languages of resistance. Ebner’s works almost always also point toward fluctuating semantic contexts and to the uses and abuses of language.
All of these works belong to the Dead Democracy Letters series (2002–06), as what the artist has described in North Drive Press as a “direct response to the ‘war on terror’ and . . . the way that political events and language were constructed after the terrorist attacks.”
Ebner’s ongoing The Sun & the Sign series, begun in 2006, continues to mine language’s porous and indefinite topography. Sculptures Involuntaires (2006) pictures a makeshift wooden crate set in an anonymous, nonspecific site and containing—though hidden from view—all twenty-six characters that had comprised the Dead Democracy Letters. The spray-painted phrase “SCULPTURES INVOLUNTAIRES” [sic] suggests Brassaï’s photographs of graffiti and other ephemera in particular and more generally the Surrealists’ interest in the concrete irrational. Conjuring language’s opaque and mordant qualities and the limitations these impose, Ebner’s entombment of a particular alphabet simultaneously evokes its liberating potential, which once promised a language of infinite possibilities, the everexpanding syntax that dreamed of Stéphane Mallarmé’s Un Coup de Des . . . and Jorge Luis Borges’s “The Library of Babel.”
Ebner has noted that she draws on a photographic tradition spanning “from Atget to Ruscha,” a history of photographic practice that privileges photographs of signs as a record of facts and an index of truth— however fleeting. By embracing photography’s fundamental contradictions as well, however, her most recent work also unearths its fictions, “exploring the way the camera misunderstands what it is seeing.” Ultimately, Ebner’s photographic and semantic landscapes excavate the residue of language’s ephemeral materiality, leaving the viewer to make sense of what is lost and what is found. TODD ALDEN
Shannon Ebner, Sculptures Involuntaires, 2006. Chromogenic print, 49A/af x 62X in. (124.6 x 159.1 cm). Collection of the artist