March 05, 2010

Art and Text

Having read Simon Morley’s “Writing on the Wall” last year and just finishing “Art and Text” from Black Dog Publishing, I started to write these thoughts with the intention of comparing the two and considering questions that are cumulatively thrown up by both books about the current position and possibilities of text art. Obviously there have been other such surveys previously but as the foreword of ‘Art and Text’ observes: “this timely survey, … attempts to address the use of text in modern and contemporary fine art… it aims to present the appearance of text as representing a fundamental conceptual shift in art practices, wherein the production, motives and intent of works may be seen to be in part, or wholly founded upon a linguistic basis”. It is the premise too of the Text Festival and Language Moment that something fundamental is happening, so what do these books contribute to the discourse? Well, on reflection “Writing on the Wall” is so much better than “Art and Text”, I have been drawn more to consider why the latter doesn’t offer much forward momentum to the debate.

Flicking through the two books in a bookshop, one could be forgiven for buying “Art and Text” before Morley’s book because the former is sumptuously illustrated. On closer examination though the typographical design of “Art & Text” is irritatingly affected – especially the staggered indent blocking of paragraphs and then, given that it is a book about the use of text & image, the clumsy insertion and spacing of images within the flow of the essays suggests that the graphic designer has little insight into the textual violations this creates.

The book is structured with 3 opening essays followed by illustrated sections titled “Text”, “Context”, “Semiotext”, and “Textuality”. Wanting to cut to the chase, I started reading the third of the essays, “Text Art Today” by Dave Beech. I generally rate Beech’s critical writing, but this essay doesn’t really offer much insight into the issues and problems in contemporary text art. One is the fallacy that “many contemporary artists for whom text in one way or another is a vital ingredient in their practice, does not merely employ language but also raises serious questions about language itself” (my italics). This claim is often made in relation to text art and just as frequently found wanting; I certainly don’t see much evidence of language challenged in the book. Most of the examples featured are not to do with questioning language itself but rather rely for their effect on 1) its location or material, 2) list-making or 3) normative substitution. In themselves not invalid as artistic strategies but in a discussion of innovative language use in art, you expect, well… examples of innovative use of language in art.

There are lots of examples in the book of artists’ text which relies on its location or its form presentation. Bob & Roberta Smith for instance has made a career of writing not very interesting things in old-fashioned sign-painting style. At his best the texts can be mildly amusing or whimsical but are never more than that. Glen Ligon’s appropriated texts, transferred into paint or neon, function conceptually primarily in transference from the original source to the new presentation. Negro sunshine is a quotation from Gertrude Stein.
Dave Beech’s own practice as part of the collaborative group Freee is a case in point ( );

“What are aesthetics? Strategic Question #31” pictured in the book – a green banner hung from the railing of the Ponte dei Barcaroli in Venice. It’s an eye-catching gesture – the relationship of the colour and flatness of the banner juxtaposed with the Venetian architecture, tourists and light. But as a piece of language art it is, to quote Benjamin Buchloh’s phrase from ‘Art and Text’, the ‘vernacular of administration’. The recursion of a public text parsing public textual intervention in the contextual heart of the biennial is of course valid commentary, but it is no more linguistically challenging than if it was an advertisement from the Advertising Standards Agency which raised the need for advertising to be legal, decent and honest – on reflection, that might look quite striking on a bridge in Venice. Although not featured in ‘Art and Text’, the work for Terms of Use featured on the Freee website exemplifies the frequent laxness with which text artist practice approaches the use of language. The 3 members of Freee are pictured in t-shirts which read in total:
'Don’t let the Media have the monopoly on the freedom of speech'

The question in my mind when I looked at the images is to wonder how much more linguistically interesting it would have been if each of the 3 or 4 images of it had been in a different order. As is, it is just a slogan and not one that has much effect on the reader. I wonder why they have a capital ‘D’ but no full stop.

'have the monopoly don’t let the media on the freedom of speech'
and other/all combinations would have been artistically freer speech – all they had to do was change places.

The other strategy exemplified in the book/text practice is list making. Don’t get me wrong, some of the works featured are conceptually powerful – Douglas Gordon’s List of Names (a list of every person he could recall having met); Susan Hiller’s The J.Street Project; not in the book, but someone I am really enjoying at the moment Riiko Sakkinen . The accumulative effect of listing is a legitimate practice but it’s rare to find a list that is linguistically challenging. Similarly the normative or substitution act creates some interesting and dull work: Mustafa Hulusi is given a lot of space in the essay but as far as I can see all he is doing is writing is name. Also, given a high profile in the essay, Simon Patterson; Great Bear is a great piece but the claim that Patterson’s work “seeks to extend and explore the limits of language, history and object relationships” is unsustainable, because in the limits of language are a long way further on than simple though admittedly referentially entertaining list substitution. Contrary to the quotation from Iwona Blazwick, Patterson does not release “the ‘vernacular of administration’ from institutional identification to invest it with poetic possibility”. As Phil Davenport observed to me, “it’s poets that extend the boundaries of poetic possibility”. And this is one of the glaring weaknesses of “Art & Text”. In “Writing on the Wall” Bruce Nauman observes “the point where language starts to break down as a useful tool for communication is the same edge where poetry or art occurs” (Nauman doesn’t feature in “Art & Text”.) There is no reference to contemporary poetry which is actually exploring the limits of language parallel to the developments in contemporary art. This is a frequent blindness in the artworld – Beech for instance references the relationship of linguistic turn in philosophy to text art practice but doesn’t mention or doesn’t know that poetry has been influenced in the same way.

Of the other essays in ‘Art and Text’, Charles Harrison’s retrospective consideration of Art & Language is interesting but in part a little self-serving. Whereas Will Hill’s analysis in ‘The Schwitters Legacy’ is a bizarre read. Its subtext seems to be that the relationship of the word to the image is by definition an opposition rather than a dialogue; it’s all ‘language is fragile and illogical’ apparently; artists are always ‘exposing the limits of language’ apparently. The other slant in this history comes from Hill’s graphic design/typography specialism – so the analysis has that bias; concrete poetry for instance – the only reference to it in the book – is framed as a graphic space. Admittedly, this is justified by a quotation from Dom Sylvester Houédard but it is clearly selective referencing; noticeably absent is location of the concrete tradition through the Noigandres Group – “Concrete poem, by using the phonetical system (digits) and analogical syntax, creates a specific linguistical area-"verbivocovisual" - which shares the advantages of nonverbal communication, without giving up word's virtualities. With the concrete poem occurs the phenomenon of metacommunication: coincidence and simultaneity of verbal and nonverbal communication; only-it must be noted-it deals with a communication of forms, of a structure-content, not with the usual message communication.” The end of the essay is a weird rushing list of creative practitioners, from Laurie Anderson and Brian Eno to Renzo Piano and Richard Rogers to fashion designers Margiela and the Antwerp Six, putatively unified by their exposure of artifice in their visual forms. This is concluded as: ‘this exposure of artifice has been enabled by the dialogues between art and language.’ This essay is deeply unsatisfactory.

I don’t really have time to discuss “Writing on the Wall” – suffice it to say, that it is a much more considered piece of work, which tracks the intertwined trajectories of the language, the visual and the conceptual.

It’s a regular feature of this blog to note the manifestations of language across artforms, and these and other recent books coming out of visual art into language also indicate heightened possibilities. These two books collectively make me wonder: Is a canon of text art being manufactured here? And if so, as these canon-makers have varying levels of capacity for the job, does it stand examination?

The two books share examples of work by the following artists:
Guillaume Apollinaire, Art & Language, John Baldessari, Fiona Banner, Robert Barry, Xu Bing, Mel Bochner, Victor Burgin, Martin Creed, Hanne Darboven, Hamish Fulton, Gary Hill, Susan Hiller, Svetlana Kopystiansky, Joseph Kosuth, Barbara Kruger, Guillermo Kuitca, Glenn Ligon, Simon Linke, El Lissitzky, Richard Long, Ken Lum, Stéphane Mallarmé, Mario Merz, Shirin Neshat, Simon Patterson, Raymond Pettibon, Tom Phillips, Jack Pierson, Richard Prince, Martha Rosler, Ed Ruscha, Kurt Schwitters, Jeffrey Shaw, Robert Smithson, Nancy Spero, Cy Twombly, Andy Warhol, Lawrence Weiner, Christopher Wool.
‘Art and Text’ has another 64 images of artists not in ‘Writing on the Wall’. While WotW has many more images of artists not in ‘Art and Text’ – including Beuys, Holzer, Broodthaers, Baumgarten, Kawara, Nannucci. Interesting in both books that the only artists in their shared canon that one might locate specifically as poets are Guillaume Apollinaire and Stéphane Mallarmé, which really indicates the disconnection from later poetry that continues to diminish the potential for discourse.

According to the Sculpture Journal (vol.18.2, 2009), there were five exhibitions in the UK focused on 'the Word' in 2009 - of which the Text Festival was one ("We were challenged to rethink our spatial and emotional relationships with the written word, and both signifier and signified were released from the rules that have come to exist as much in poetry as in prose" reviewed Kirstie Gregory). The ICA's poor 'Poor. Old. Tired. Horse.' was another. Because there actually is something happening, there is a prospect (already manifest) that Text is becoming fashionable among curators and critics, many of whom have only a superficial grasp of the issues and the fertile possibilities, so having the landscape cluttered with an arbitrary canons contributes only further confusion and partiality when the moment demands rigour.

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