Just as the conceptual art of the sixties and seventies, a young generation of artists is intensively focusing on the use of language in art. Unlike back then, this is not about the conversion of image into language, resulting in sober textual works. Artists like Falke Pisano, Mario Garcia Torres, Aurélien Froment and Josef Strau are taking a more analytical and documentary approach in their exploration of the relationship between language and image in order to create new perspectives.
In a lecture entitled The Space of Words that Jacques Rancière delivered at the Musée des beaux-arts in Nantes in 2004, the philosopher used Marcel Broodthaers’ appropriation of Mallarmé’s poem Un coup de dés jamais n’abolira le hasard (1914) as a point of departure to discuss the relationship between words and space. In 1969, Broodthaers created a series of plates based on the twelve spreads of Mallarmé’s book, substituting the words, which were deliberately arranged across the page, with black bands. This displacement from word to image highlights the ability of language to generate space. It also approaches the surface of the page as an ‘exchange surface’, as a space of shift between different mediums, in which, as Rancière puts it, ‘signs become forms and forms become acts.’ However, this displacement ought not to be understood as the demonstration of any sort of equivalence between words and images. On the contrary, by turning Mallarmé’s words into illegible forms, Broodthaers magnifies the gap that exists between word and space, exploring the discrepancy between these two elements as a productive space.
A number of contemporary artists seem to position their practice within this zone of tension described by Rancière between signs, forms and acts. The relationship between word and image has played a key, already thoroughly discussed role in the art history since the beginning of the twentieth century, from the cubist compositions and Dadaist collages to Lettrism and conceptual art. However, the practices discussed in this essay appear to mark a turn regarding the status of language within the field of visual art. While the avenues traditionally explored by artists concerned the use of words as images on the one hand and, on the other, the use of language as an artistic medium, these contemporary practices are more interested in exploring the displacement and the heterogeneity between word and space as a way to produce meaning. In these practices, language is approached as a tool to question the very nature of art practices. Through their work with language, artists such as Falke Pisano, Mario Garcia Torres, Aurélien Froment and Josef Strau activate different features characteristic of it – including its performative aspect, the notion of circulation and narrative – as a way to rethink the position of art today.
A sculpture turning into a conversation
‘Things can sometimes turn into other things… Friendship can turn into love, and the other way around. Situations transform into completely different situations regularly, a book can be turned into a film, solid material can turn into liquid in many cases and sometimes in gas, the phenomenon of transformation is of course a rather exiting spectacle.’ These words introduce Falke Pisano’s A Sculpture Turning into a Conversation (2006), a work that exists both as a lecture and as a video installation and which recounts, through the presentation of a spoken narrative and various visual materials, the transformation of an abstract sculpture into a conversation. The work illustrates how Pisano’s practice is articulated around a continuous movement between objects and language, which functions as a tool to question the status of art objects. As Pisano puts it: ‘how can an object exist in different conditions?’ Many of Pisano’s works explore the possibility of an unstable object, approaching the displacements between object and language as a performative space and allowing her to explore multiple presentation forms: performance, reading, lecture, installation, publication, construction of abstract sculptural models, and so forth.
Her installation Object and Disintegration: The Object of Three (2007), which was recently presented at the Balice Hertling Gallery in Paris, consists of three videos projected onto a white wooden construction reminiscent of architectural elements by the avant-garde designer Eileen Gray. Through the use of written and spoken texts and a digital animation depicting an abstract construction gradually transforming itself, the three videos question the triangular relationship between object, artist and viewer. Each video is articulated around a different point of view, named by Pisano as the ‘creative subject’, the ‘engaging spectator’ and the ‘constructing artist’. As the installation’s title evokes, the disintegration of the object through the use of language is a central component of Pisano’s work. Abstraction functions as one of the possible points of encounter between objects and language. In this way, one of the videos states, ‘The object that is soon to be encountered, is not visible yet. It still has to come into existence for the spectator. This object, which might or might not exist empirically, will exist for him from the moment he begins to perceive it until he can’t distinguish it anymore from his surroundings.’ The evanescent nature of the Pisano’s objects results from a complex process of construction and deconstruction based on language.
This productive tension between the materiality of an object and the evanescent nature of language is also present in the work of Mario Garcia Torres. Several of his pieces foreground questions linked to the circulation of other artists’ works based on different forms of immateriality, with the goal of exploring their emergence, their becoming and their resonance today. For instance, What Happens in Halifax stays in Halifax (in 36 slides) (2004-2006) takes as point of departure a project that the conceptual artist Robert Barry created with a group of students in 1969 in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Barry invited the students to come up with a ‘shared idea’ that would be kept secret within the group. Barry stipulated: ‘If the secret leaves the group, the work will then disappear.’ Presented as a slide projection, Garcia Torres’s project consisted of reuniting the group of students, not to reveal the secret but to recreate the conditions for a new discussion between them.
Garcia Torres’s Today…(News from Kabul) (2006) also engages the processes of activation and circulation characteristic of language. Each time the work is presented, the latest news from Afghanistan is written twice on the wall, both hands writing symmetrically on each side of the body. The work is based on a number of elements associated with Alighiero Boetti’s practice, including his interest in Kabul, and directly refers to one of Boetti’s works, Today is…(1970), consisting of these words followed by the date, written on the wall using the same system. Garcia Torres’s work illustrates a will to invest the practice of other artists with new problematics, notably of a social and political order. It also explores the question of the circulation of language and its activation within the exhibition space.
Reading between the lines
Aurélien Froment’s practice could be described as the development of a network of heterogeneous references, drawing on the wide field of cultural productions – including architecture, cinema, literature, art history – to create a body of works that unfolds like a construction game. Froment’s piece De L’Île à Helice à Ellis Island (2005) literally illustrates this process of connections. The work consists of a shelf on which are displayed about forty books ranging from literature to philosophy to science fiction, where the last word of each title establishes the beginning of the next: Island of Silence, Le Silence de glaces, La Glace à quatre faces, etc. A narrative unfolds from the juxtaposition of the titles.
This process of association and juxtaposition is also applied to his work as a whole, as Froment propagates complex plays of echoes and associations of ideas between the pieces that he creates. For example, a number of works that Froment has created since 2002 take as starting point Werner Herzog’s film Fitzcarraldo (1982). Froment’s interest in the film lies primarily in the analogies and reverberations between the script, which is based on the character’s quixotic project to build an opera in the Amazonian forest in Peru, and the narrative of the actual shooting of the film. In 2002, Froment created a scale model depicting one of the scenes of the film in which Fitzcarraldo’s boat is transported over a mountain to reach a river on the other side. Froment’s interest in the film has extended to forms as varied as lectures, a series of videos and even the design of a tattoo. In June 2007, Froment gave a lecture at the Kadist Art Foundation in Paris, in which he put into words the links between the different pieces. The lecture was based on the presentation of archive materials ranging from film stills, press cuttings, photographs taken by Froment’s relatives in Peru and images of his own works. In Froment’s practice, language functions as the space in which these associations can be materialised.
The notion of a meaning that arises ‘between the lines’, from the combination of heterogeneous elements, also emerges in a video Froment recently completed for an exhibition at Project Arts Centre in Dublin. In reference to the magician Arthur Lloyd, nicknamed the Human Card Index, who could produce almost any kind of printed documents from his pocket, Théâtre de Poche (2007) shows a prestidigitator manipulating images drawn from different contexts. A key scene of the video shows the character placing a great number of images around him, which seem to float in space against a black background. The lay-out of the images, by establishing physical connections between the images, is reminiscent of Aby Warburg’s Mnemosyne Atlas (1924-1929), described as a ‘history of art without text’. A companion publication, bearing the same title as the video and collecting three interviews with people whose job is linked to the production and the transformation of images – an architect, a picture retoucher, and a puzzle maker –, highlights the way Froment’s practice develops in constant movement between language and images.
For a few years, Berlin-based artist Josef Strau has been composing a body of works that explores the way the medium of text can relate to the three-dimensional medium of an exhibition. These works are hybrid objects created by assembling different types of lamps with typewritten texts displayed on various supports, including posters and labels. These textual elements might be attached, glued or clipped to the lampshades, linked to the lamp stands, placed on the walls or arranged on the floor in connection to the lamps. Their dispositions occasionally oblige the reader to perform various acrobatics in order to view them. In some cases, the texts are also available for the viewers to take away, proposing an ‘extended visit’ of the exhibition. Strau’s practice stands as an attempt to spatialise the acts of writing and reading, developing what he calls ‘narrative spaces’.
In autumn 2007, Strau presented two parallel exhibitions, Voices and Voices and Substitutes, at the Galerie Daniel Buchholz in Cologne and at the Stedelijk Museum’s Docking Station in Amsterdam, respectively. Both exhibitions were based on the same series of six posters concerning figures as varied as the German philosopher Schopenhauer, the Polish writer Bruno Schulz and the American architect Daniel Libeskind. Each poster consisted of a combination of three or four texts, conceived as different ‘voices’, as different interlocutors for these figures. The texts are quickly written, evoking the Surrealist style of écriture automatique, putting into question the notion of authorship through the idea of an ‘unconscious writer’. The group of figures depicted in the six posters also participates in this rethinking. As for Strau, references to texts such as Rousseau’s Confessions result from an attempt ‘to find some early theories on the question of authorship, or what is the source of writing, before the theories of unconsciousness were developed’. This aspect of Strau’s work is also directly connected to his interest in the notion of the ‘non-productive attitude’. Rather than a total lack of production, this attitude indicates a reduction of the intentional will in a given production. In the same way, his hybrid sculptures are built in a mode similar to the idea of écriture automatique, functioning as ‘a spatial substitute of the écriture process.’
‘An artist does not construct a volume, he writes a volume’: Mallarmé’s understanding of the creative process as the articulation of language into space could be used to describe the works featured in this essay. The practices of Pisano, Garcia Torres, Froment and Strau engage various forms of displacement between word and space as a way to rethink the status of the work. In some respects, this aspect echoes the concerns of conceptual artists who, from the sixties, explored language as a medium in itself and as a means to ‘dematerialise’ the artwork. However, these new language-based practices appear less interested in articulating their work around a critical distinction between language and object, between immateriality and materiality, than in using language as a strategy to experiment with new ways of making objects. More precisely, through the activation of different features characteristic of language, including its ability to circulate, to transform itself and to develop narratives, the work is approached as a heterogeneous object, as the hub of a network of connections and interactions between the various elements that it involves. In her video A Sculpture Turning into a Conversation, Falke Pisano states the fact that ‘The space in this text begins on one side and ends in a completely different condition on the other side.’ It is this ability of language to alter objects that is at play in the practice of these artists.
Motive Gallery, Amsterdam
5 April-17 May
Work of Falke Pisano is on show at the exhibition Object, the Undeniable Success of Operation, SMBA, Amsterdam, 24 May-6 July
At 20 May the performance Object and Disintegration: A performance in trialogue form is on view at the 5. berlin biennale
Mario Garcia Torres
Kunsthalle Zurich, 12 April-May
Work of Josef Strau is on show at Manifesta 7, 18 July-22 November.
- Jacques Rancière, L’Espace des mots, Musée des Beaux-Arts de Nantes, 2005, p. 13.
- Martijn van Nieuwenhuyzen, interview with Josef Strau, in Stedelijk Museum Bulletin, n°6, December 2007, pp. 28-31.