Mark Manders

Room with All Existing Words

Aula de Canibales

Mark Manders in conversation with Oksana Pasaiko
Antwerp, June 2022

Oksana Pasaiko: Can you talk a bit about why you wanted to make a room with Skiapoden?
MM: First of all, it is a room filled with all existing words, not just Skiapodes. Above the entrance there is a group of newspapers that contain all existing words. Every word occurs just once, in a random order. All these words can be found in a dictionary. Many years ago I made a room with only the number five, and ever since I’ve had this idea of dedicating another room to a single word but one that is hardly used, a very uncommon word. After some years I decided to dedicate a room to the word ‘Skiapode’. Over the past decade I’ve become very interested in critical thinking. I didn’t understand how it was possible that bright, intelligent people could lose themselves in strange beliefs and conspiracies. For years I’ve studied the mechanisms of cults, especially cults in relation to strange conspiracies. I find it very interesting how our mind can be fooled and can fool itself. This weakness sheds light on fascinating aspects of our mind.

When I saw a picture of a Skiapode, I decided to choose this word as the focus for an entire room. The interesting thing about the myth of the Skiapode is that it never really took off. It appeared and disappeared in different periods and regions of our world. It just never made it big. It is a failed myth. Skiapodes are commonly described or depicted as figures with a large single foot, figures who are in the habit of lying on their back during times of extreme heat and who shelter from the sun by the shade of their foot.

What fascinates me is that throughout history people really believed in the existence of Skiapodes, or if they didn’t believe in them, somehow needed, or needed to create, this image. For some reason Skiapodes tend to hold their big foot with both hands, almost as if they are holding their foot as a strange object that just suddenly grew and became part of their body.

I decided to make ‘fake’ Skiapodes by different artists and from different periods, and now the majority of the Skiapodes were made in Ronse over the last few years. These fake Skiapodes were gradually edited into reality and published online. It is a very scary thing, if you think about it, how easy it is to add fake information to our world and how quickly this information seems reliable. It shows how vulnerable our minds and our society are.

OP: Disinformation is such a topical subject. It is very telling that a QR code creature leads you to a fake Wikipedia page … To me, this room also feels like a complex time machine. I was born in Ruthenia, and this room brings me back to the youth of my late grandparents, to their classrooms. The size of the doors makes you feel small, as if you shrank a bit upon entering. The closets also remind me of Le Corbusier and J.J.P. Oud. It brings me back to the 1920s.
MM: Well, this room is a strange mix of different time periods. I understand that it can bring you back to the 1920s, but putting stickers on closet doors is something one rather associates with the 1980s. I’ve created Skiapode images from different periods and regions. Some are situated in the Middle Ages, but I agree, a lot of the images seem to come from around the 1920s. The most recent is a Maria Lassnig painting from 1998, ‘Selbst mit einem Fremdbein’.

OP: As I understand it, this picture was in fact made in 2022, eight years after Maria Lassnig died.
MM: That’s correct, but by admitting that, everything would become more complex and fluid.

Song of the Leopard

Mark Manders in conversation with Oksana Pasaiko
Los Angeles, February, 2023

Oksana Pasaiko: Can you talk a bit about why you wanted to make a second room with Skiapodes?

MM: Again, it is a room with all existing words, not just the word Skiapod. In this room, above the spot where one stands while looking at the Skiapod slides, you can find the group of newspapers that contain all existing words. The word Skiapod is just one example. I could or should make at least about 171,475 rooms. 

The first Skiapod room was a didactic room that was more or less placed in the 1920s. I thought it would be interesting to create a room situated in the 2020s. This room is more like a conceptual didactic art installation or exhibition room. In it, I investigate how an image or idea can travel through different media and periods. I also became interested in how our body makes the sound of the word Skiapod. That resulted in the didactic phonetic diagram that is now projected in this room. And that, in turn, resulted in the ‘Samuel Beckett’ work ‘Act with One Single Word’, where an actress tries to tell the story of her life by saying just one word in different ways.

OP: Could you talk about where this fascination for ‘how our body says Skiapod’ comes from?

MM: Well, at the time I made Room with Fives in the 1990s, I was also fascinated by all the different shapes chairs can have, how a word can have so many different forms in reality, and how that connects to our thinking. Around that time, I also visited a zoo, and I noticed something very fascinating: In one part of the park, you had a kind of wooden viewing deck. Near the stairs at the entrance to this open space, you had a little sign with the word ‘Leopard.’ Many of the visitors would say this word out loud as they entered the open space and read the label. It was fascinating to hear this word so often and see that very leopard from a distance. I liked the idea that there are many leopards in this world but only this one was surrounded by the word leopard spoken out so often. 

With this Room with All Existing Words, I think I have made it also that the word ‘Skiapod’ gets more attention, also in the spoken form, and then mainly in and around this small staged room.

OP: In that sense, it is interesting that on the fake Wikipedia page, there is a link to a talk by the philosopher Daniel Dennett about how memes want to get spread in as many heads as possible. For me, this whole work feels like a poem made of one single word.

MM: It's special that you are mentioning this. It reminds me of what ‘Geppetto’, the puppet maker, once said to that wooden creature he made. ‘And now Pinocchio, let’s make a beautiful poem and use only one single word!’

It is true that by diving deep into all aspects of one single word, it can become a whole kaleidoscopic and related universe. It really says something about our brain that we can make so many valuable, meaningful and sometimes poetic connections. And sure, in this case, they are connections that are not true or factual - they're totally made up. Pure fiction. In this context, it is perplexing that the current early version of ChatGPT literally hallucinates when asked about what, for example, Daniel Dennett or Ludwig Wittgenstein have said about Skiapodes. ChatGPT makes this nonexistent connection up. It is really like a psychosis, making up connections that are not there and even warning us of its danger. 

OP: For me, with this work, you are also touching something very scary and complex. It makes the fundament of meaning tumble. It scratches a strange uncanny and thin surface. Are we all psychotic together?