Contemplating the Contemporary: Text and Language based art

10 August 2016

Contemporary art is all around us, but we often still ask: “Is it art?” In this blog series exploring how and why we make art, Guillaume Vandame looks at art in our Medicine Now gallery and beyond for Contemplating the Contemporary.

Contemporary art is dominated by issues of communication and narrative. With the rise of globalisation, advances in technology such as the Internet and advent of social media, and a wider range of diverse voices emerging, these issues related to text and language have become increasingly more complicated.

Throughout modern art history, the use of text and language based art has resulted in varied responses by artists. Following the aftermath of World War I, European artists such as Kurt Schwitters and Hannah Hoch translated feelings of disillusionment and confusion through multi-layered collages and assemblage, sourcing found newspapers and literature as material.

The purpose of words in relation to their meaning further developed in American art in the 1950s and 1960s with clean-cut Pop artists such as Robert Indiana’s sculptures and Roy Lichtenstein adopting the text-based narratives of comic strips to frame his images as a commentary on consumerism and modern life, while experimental Fluxus artists such as George Maciunas and Yoko Ono deconstructed language for political manifestos, poetry and performances, and Conceptual artists such as Mel Bochner, John Giorno, Lawrence Weiner, Joseph Kosuth, On Kawara, Ed Ruscha and Bruce Nauman isolated language as a complete subject in their work and explored this theme as objectively as possible, sometimes quite literally with neon lighting, instructions and concise descriptions produced as minimalist paintings, sculptures, murals and environmental works.

In the 1970s and 1980s, in the aftermath of the Vietnam War, language became a subject for artists such as Barbara Kruger, Jenny Holzer, and Richard Prince to express disillusionment towards consumer culture and politics – whether through Prince’s monochrome joke paintings and Kruger’s text-based work mimicking advertisements to Holzer’s truisms projected onto buildings and engraved on a wide range of found objects.

Since the 1990s and early 2000s, language has evolved in unprecedented manifestations with the work of Raymond Pettibon, Christopher Wool, David Shrigley, Martin Creed, Alfredo Jaar, Glenn Ligon, Mark Titchner, Heman Chong, Fiona Banner, Shirin Neshat, Tracey Emin, Kay Rosen and Heather Phillipson, addressing issues as varied as feminism, race, belief and identity.

In our Medicine Now gallery, one can find some works of art which continue these themes of text and language based art. For the American artist, Jane Lackey (b. 1948), one can find the work of art, SNPS/SLIPS 20, made from the cover of a discarded dictionary as a material. Laser engraved onto its deep red surface, is a text, which reads the following:

the pastor placed his hand
the pastor paced…diner at eight, inner
at date,
Ed and Bessy, bed and essy
a whole blox of flowers, chrysanthe-
mum plants, chrysanthemum pants,
it’s any consolation….any consultation

The text reads as a poem whereby a single letter added or removed changes the meaning of the word and ultimately the meaning of the sentence. Lackey uses these bizarre alterations towards nonsensical ends – even inventing the word ‘blox’ – as a metaphor for the issues that occur with genetic coding.

The title of the work is a play on words and references ‘single nucleotide polymorphisms’ (SNPs), the genetic variations that occur when a cell is divided and reproduced. Frequently, the cells which carry this information and the coding consisting of the letters A, T, C, G experience errors in copying and this results in a genetic mutation. Similar to Lackey’s text, a single nucleotide can be replaced, added or removed (for example, an A could be removed from a sequence of code or an additional nucleotide could be added or replaced with a T, C, or G).

Usually these genetic mutations are harmless and in fact they attribute to each individual’s unique identity. Sometimes these genetic mutations can have more dramatic effects on the human body too: if an individual is born with an extra sex chromosome this could change their physical appearance and their gender identity. In a more sinister way, whether occurring by chance in genetic coding or influenced by external factors such as lifestyle and environment, these genetic mutations have also been linked to various forms of cancer, sickle-cell anaemia and Alzheimer’s disease.

Lackey’s work makes light of this seriously complicated challenge which occurs in all organisms on some level. On another level, through the use of laser engraving, she poignantly suggests the futuristic notion that one day we will be able to intervene the process of genetic coding through mechanical methods; a notion also commonly associated with eugenics and dystopian visions of the future.

Similarly, contemporary British artist, Katherine Dowson, also uses language to negotiate the boundaries between medical science and daily life. Her work of art, Dyslexia, is made from eight equally sized wooden building blocks placed on a slim wooden plinth made from wooden flooring. Each block draws from a palette of primary colours and has an engraved letter (together all eight blocks spell the word ‘DYSLEXIA’); a technique evocative of the art of Jasper Johns.

 11.-Katherine-Dowson

Katherine Dowson, ‘Dyslexia’ 2004. (Courtesy of the artist and Wellcome Collection, London.)

The letters are disconnected, randomly stacked and placed on the plinth so their formation is ambiguous. On each of the six equally sized planes of wood, one finds the text, “This should not be difficult”, repeated endlessly. By using such elementary materials and subject matter, Dowson points to the challenges and emotions experienced by dyslexic children as a stark contrast to the depersonalized treatment of the words and their placement in the work. What can only be seen from a distance, such as the text written on the planes of wood, may not be as visible to another individual who struggles with dyslexia and has a different style of learning and communication.

 12. Jasper Johns

Jasper Johns. Alphabet, 1959. The Art Institute of Chicago, Gift of Edlis/Neeson Collection. (© Jasper Johns/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY)

Beyond Medicine Now, Wellcome Collection has shown some brilliant works of text-based art with highlights including work by Alfredo Jaar and Jenny Holzer in last year’s exhibition ‘Forensics: The anatomy of crime‘, while one can currently find seminal works of art by Mary Kelly and Jean Holabird exploring language in relation to memory, synaesthesia and development in the exhibition ‘States of Mind: Tracing the edges of consciousness‘, on until 16 October 2016.

Guillaume is a Visitor Experience Assistant at Wellcome Collection.