"…for, to treat the subject with the clearness and coherence of which it is susceptible, it would be necessary to give a full account of the present state of the public taste in this country, and to determine how far this taste is healthy or depraved; which, again, could not be determined, without pointing out in what manner language and the human mind act and re-act on each other, and without retracing the revolutions, not of literature alone, but likewise of society itself."
The above quote is taken from the Preface to the Lyrical Ballads by William Wordsworth. In this introductory essay, the poet explicates subject matter and its relationship to poetic verse, giving a retrospective analysis into his own thought processes when composing. He describes his main concerns as describing incident "in [the] language really used by men," so that there can be no "essential difference between the language of prose and metrical composition." His aim? To build a poetry of sincerity rather than of artifice.
In the following feature on artist Karl Holmqvist, Christabel Stewart recalls an exhibition held recently at The Pratt Institute of New York in which Holmqvist participated. The exhibition stated, "to understand a language is to understand a way of life; to interrogate language is to interrogate the social and cultural landscape, the grammar of lived experience." The experience of text is one to which we can all relate, be it as devotees, avidly reading everything that crosses our paths, or as a casual reader, flicking through a newspaper on the morning commute.
All art forms are a type of language - and some more so than others. What is the purpose of bringing the written word into a visual arts context, and what can we learn from it? The historical relationship between text and visual arts in the period before the Industrial Revolution was limited to biography and review. As artists began to utilise industrial techniques in the creation of new work, a fresh form of visual arts exhibition was created: the manifesto. A political and social revolutionary act that underscored the importance of art to society, with a newly created lingua and terminology that defined the optimism of Modernism in the early years of the 20th century.
This is a revolution still in flux. The model of the British contemporary art gallery in the 21st century (one industry in which the British are world leaders) is a synthesis of white cube, performance space, library, reading room, café, bookshop, cinema and garden. Artists are asked to consider the abrogated Kunsthalle as a singular edifice, linking every internal and external facet in order to engage with audiences who, historically, may have considered the traditional art gallery an intimidating space.
We are living in the days of the artist-writer and writer-curator; the shock of the neologism.
Intention and Delivery
A contemporary and very select History of Art & Writing.
By Ajay RS Hothi
De Appel is an "internationally focused" centre for contemporary art established in Amsterdam in 1975 and currently housed on the grounds of a former private school for boys. Their activities range from on- and off-site exhibition to live performances, book fairs and publications. De Appel also hosts a nine-month curatorial residency for approximately half a dozen selected applicants per year.
De Appel, which functions as a space for the research and temporary presentation of contemporary visual arts, faces a problem common to small-scale galleries and arts venues by not having the facility for the archive and collection of objects. Instead, the organisation collates, commissions, publishes and sells a range of artist books, monographs, anthologies, catalogues and journals. Since its first, a catalogue to the exhibition UNLIMITED. NL #1 in 1998, de Appel has published more than 140 books, including commission-based works from artists such as Louise Lawlor, Rirkrit Tiravanija, Olafur Eliasson and Thomas Demand.
Publishing has traditionally been treated as an art form secondary to formal exhibition. A medium that supports the exhibition as well as providing a prolonged life span for the work and audience extended beyond those people who would have seen the work in-situ. Printing and publishing methods developed in the early 20th century were an essential element in promoting modernism and "the new way of looking at things."
Alois Senefelder was the German writer and actor who invented lithographic printing. Without his technological developments, artists working in Paris in the early part of the 20th century, including Toulouse-Lautrec, Alphonse Mucha and Hector Guimard, would not have reached as many people as they did, with their advertisements for absinthe, the Moulin Rouge and cabaret entertainments littering the city. The decadent Art Nouveau that defines fin-de-siècle Paris was borne directly from this influence. Consequently, this Art Nouveau movement resonated throughout Europe, with significant proponents across Benelux, Germany, Britain, Austria and the Czech Republic (formerly Bohemia). At the time, Russia had begun experimenting - bringing philosophical Constructivist techniques to art and architecture. This "art in service of the revolution" had one of the greatest effects on European modernism, influencing the Bauhaus among others.
Using text to reinforce the messages implied and conveyed through fine art methods is one of the oldest techniques utilised, particularly in painting and sculpture. Ancient Islamic art relied heavily on text and calligraphy, was craft-based and decorative. It was also in service of a specific ideology, in a similar vein to the Bauhaus and Russian Constructivism. However, utilising text as the visual artistic medium was the concept being explored at this juncture. As the 20th century gave way to conflict, and as Europe rebuilt its skeleton from the debris of two world wars, the first international exhibition of Concrete Poetry was held in 1956 in São Paulo, by the Brazilian group, Noigandres. Sometimes referred to as "visual poetry," Concrete Poetry uses printing techniques and skewed typographical arrangement to add to the intended effect of the verse. Like any self-respecting Modernist movement, it came with a written manifesto.
The manifesto, a staple of early 20th century modernism (like propaganda, Concrete Poetry and Art Nouveau), was an attempt to fuse visual artistic media in order to create a comprehensive and cohesive model of modernity. Can art, visual art as we currently understand it, be published?
Since 2007, de Appel has published F.R.David, a journal exploring the relationship between image and text, looking with a jocular-serious sideways glance at how the word can function on the white rectangles of the printed page, alongside the white cube of the contemporary art gallery.
All art forms are a type of language, and this is the fundamental conceit that underpinned F.R.David's purpose. Subject matter over the initial seven issues included the notion of idiolects and personal vocabularies (in the issue, A for 'orses), the circulation of storytelling (The Book of Intentions), the tyranny of communication over today's art world (Stuff and Nonsense), and the compression of letter writing versus the redundant delivery of intention (With Love). Taking newly commissioned texts, art works and reprinted essays, F.R.David placed pieces by figures such as Charles Dickens and philosopher, Maurice Merleau-Ponty alongside the works of artists and writers including Robert Smithson, Stuart Bailey and Liam Gillick.
In the early part of this century, the Netherlands was a hothouse for art and design publishing. At approximately the same time de Appel was setting up its publishing imprint, two recent graduates of Dutch design colleges were looking to formalise the research they were conducting into contemporary graphic design. In 2000, Englishman Stuart Bailey and American David Reinfurt set up the organisation Dexter Sinister. They published Dot Dot Dot, a journal which lost its specific focus on graphic design early in its published life, morphing into "an orphanage of true stories deeply concerned with art-design-music-language-literature-architecture and uptight optipessimistic stoppy/relevatory ghostwriting by friendly spirits mapping b-sides and out-takes" (in Reinfurt and Bailey's own terms). Dot Dot Dot became an international success and, in 2005, Dexter Sinister moved operations to New York. Reinfurt and Bailey dissolved Dexter Sinister earlier this year and, with collaborator Angie Keefer, have since set up The Serving Library.
Working as a hybrid between the models of the Archiving Library (where books are collected, concentrated and protected in a fixed location) and a Circulating Library (instigated in Philadelphia in 1731 by Benjamin Franklin and The Leather Apron Club, who pooled their resources to purchase books collectively which were then circulated among the group), The Serving Library is comprised of three strands of activity: an online public archive of submitted texts, available as complimentary PDFs; a physical library space in New York; and a publishing programme. Every six months, the documents created by The Serving Library are compiled, printed, bound and distributed as Bulletins of The Serving Library. The pilot issue has recently appeared in stores.
The Netherlands and New York have already been mentioned. Both have claims to be the home of art writing. Meanwhile, in an east London former tenement office studio, Book Works has been commissioning, printing and publishing high-quality contemporary visual arts since 1984. Due to publications such as Two Oxford Reading Rooms by Joseph Kosuth, Globexpander by Paul Etienne Lincoln and All Books by Liam Gillick, they have become recognised as a world leader.
In 2004, Ian Hunt and Maria Fusco - an elfin Belfast native who is integral to this story - edited the Book Works publication, Put About: A Critical Anthology of Independent Publishing. The compilation acted as a state-of-the-nation address for the visual arts and its relationship to publishing. In addition, it collated a series of seemingly disparate texts, thematically linked by a concern that text on a page is unequivocally relatable to art on a wall and can be engaged with and responded to accordingly.
In 2008, Book Works launched The Happy Hypocrite, Fusco's bi-annual journal. Employing words as an intuitive method of exhibition, as opposed to definition and the rational comprehension of a topic, is integral to The Happy Hypocrite and the tenets of art writing. On the first page of issue one, deliciously sub-titled "Linguistic Hardcore," Fusco noted the importance of the, "voice from the back of the room." Subsequent issues were sub-titled, "Hunting and Gathering," "Volatile Dispersal," "A Rather Large Weapon" and the expositionary existential query, "What Am I?"
Fusco has recently set up an MFA in Art Writing at Goldsmiths University, the only qualification of its type in the UK. She also instigated the Whitechapel Art Book Fair at Whitechapel Gallery, the only institutional art book fair in London. And launched Volatile Dipersal: Festival of Art Writing - also at Whitechapel, where Fusco was the inaugural Writer-in-Residence following its re-opening.
The impact on the visual arts sector was undeniable and led to a spate of new publishing/curatorial imprints being formed, notably Four Corners Press. In addition to publishing newly commissioned and sumptuously designed texts, it also published existing out-of-copyright books with newly-designed art work. Highlights include Bram Stoker's Dracula and The Picture of Dorian Grey by Oscar Wilde. Raking Leaves also produces original art works in the form of limited edition books. It is led by former Book Works board member Sharmini Pereira, a curator specialising in commissioning artists from the Asian sub-continent.
This notion of an ongoing research archive, assembled by publishing, has a very specific relevance in today's art world. Increasingly, the textual form is gaining currency as an open, transparent, personal and engaging art form. With the models of digital distribution being explored within print publishing, however, it is questionable how much impact the printed, bound and distributed issues of Bulletins of The Serving Library can have. All the contents are available online and downloadable as PDFs. The publishing industry is having to adapt to digital technologies in the same way that music and cinema previously had to. Will the adoption of art publishing into the mainstream of visual arts have an adverse affect on what people will consider an engaging arts experience? As small-scale galleries take on the functions of a Kunsthalle or contemporary art museum, are we looking at these venues becoming hubs for civic cultural outreach?
The future of text in art is still being written. The MFA in Art Writing is approaching its fourth year and has already established an alumni organisation, Antepress. It has the opportunity to broadcast original works on Resonance FM, as well as working with exhibitors such as Art on the Underground, South London Gallery, David Roberts Art Foundation and, naturally, the Whitechapel Gallery. There is currently one research student at the Royal College of Art studying the contemporary history of art writing. Another, Stuart Bailey, will begin a research degree at Durham University on a similar topic this year. It remains a difficult thing to navigate a subject that has not yet reached an identifiable end point. For those critics and historians who are looking to document and analyse the phenomenon, there is a rich vein to tap for ongoing content.
The highlight of the year for artists' books is the New York Art Book Fair, held annually by Printed Matter at MoMA PS1. Appropriating the model of the art fair, it is a place for arts publishers to promote and sell their wares. Further, there is a dedicated space for events, launches, readings and seminars. Inordinately successful, the event remains, however, an art fair with all of its associated boons and constraints.
Again, A Time Machine is Book Works' addition to the burgeoning of exhibitions showcasing art and text. A fluid touring exhibition, which differs from one space to the next, it opened at Eastside Projects, Birmingham in February this year. Part One featured Jonathan Monk, Slavs and Tatars, Dora Garcia and The Happy Hypocrite in a show that is based on the concept of raiding the archive and bringing the dead back to life. Self-reflexive, critical and evolutionary, Part Two ran at Motto Berlin/Chert between May and June with artists and writers including Maria Fusco, Stewart Home and Simon Fujiwara. Next year, Parts Three, Four and Five will tour The Showroom, London, Spike Island, Bristol and White Columns, New York.
Now here is where it gets interesting. We take the written word for granted.
Everywhere we are surrounded by words, all of which are transitory. The lifespan of a printed word is short and word meanings change generation-by-generation. Books, thought to be everlasting, are as ephemeral as the paper upon which they are printed. More books have been forgotten than have ever existed. Visual art is sanctified. Paint is an unstable material and yet millions of pounds are spent annually on the upkeep of historic works. Why?
Because it is art.
Bring the word in to the gallery and it is spoken once and, regardless of whether it was recorded or not, the memory of that breath remains - hanging in place. I am 28 years old and yet I have a very clear and distinct memory of Joseph Beuys at the Whitechapel Gallery in 1972. That, and the moments he spent performing before leaving the space, getting in a cab and heading to the Tate Gallery for further performances. Still I am struck by its power. I cannot be the only one.
"I'll Make the World Explode"
By Christabel Stewart
Karl Holmqvist is an artist who has very effectively kept language as the focus of his practice. Born in Sweden and currently living and working in Berlin, he has become widely respected for his unconventional work with text and spoken word. Purportedly inspired by early modernist writing such as T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land, Holmqvist employs a writing method based on quotes, a repertoire which incorporates a diverse range of sources: Concrete Poetry, beat writings, cut-up lines from films and pop songs are used in their entirety. These appear engagingly in unembellished spoken word performances, such as those he might give at an exhibition opening or at a performance event. Text is used elsewhere in his work. Often his own handwriting is applied directly to gallery walls, or onto collaged works, found objects (a white Panton chair, casually inscribed with black marker), video, and performances in environments conceived by other artists. When performed as spoken word, readings by the artist employ the use of reversals, word games and, most characteristically, endless repetition. One commentator has described this as a process he puts language through, so that it "reveals a liberatory intent for both writer and listener, and also for language itself, forcing an escape from the demands of linearity and constraining grammatical correctness that's usually imposed on it."
He has invariably been involved in the most compelling exhibitions comprising text, publishing and poetry of the last decade, becoming an increasingly celebrated habitué of a direct language approach. At the recent Bice Curiger-curated Illuminations at the Venice Biennale, Holmqvist recited his work in a temporary, leaning concrete outdoor garden "pavilion" constructed by Oscar Tuazon and painted by Ida Ekblad. Refreshingly, Holmqvist isn't caught up in the vogue for theatricality; instead, he's informed by a desire to engage with linguistic form and popular culture, and communicate with his audience.
In Gregorio Magnani's For Fans and Scholars Alike at West London Projects in 2009, language was the cornerstone of the show. It was most specifically focussed on the "deliberate blurring of the distinction between cultural labour and leisure." This was demonstrated by creating "ways of, and places for, reading and listening, as well as what is written or said," as the formal mainstay of the exhibition. In this setting, Holmqvist's work with printed matter, typography, to reveal pop icons and minority celebrities, were emphasised in a large wallpapered area and a stage, on which he performed his poetry. Often a celebration of nonsense and repetition that he employs to illustrate the intimacy of engaging with text in all its fractious manners, it also offered evidence of an energetic DIY publishing and distribution nature.
In Foreigners Everywhere, curated by conceptual "ready-made" artist, Claire Fontaine at galerie T293 in Naples, Holmqvist was invited to participate "for his ability to converse between the problematic aspects of contemporary life and the quotidian aspects of pop songs, adverts, extracting potentially 'political' poetic moments of everyday life." They chose his 2009 video, I'll Make The World Explode, a work that takes its title from the Grace Jones song Corporate Cannibal. Holmqvist's half-hour video and poem explores human interrelations, ranging from recording artists inciting homophobia to Rodney King's "why can't we all just get along?" quote. Jones has a powerful presence, of course, and her cross-dressing androgynous persona shatters prejudice.
At the heart of Holmqvist's endeavour is a rejection of the authenticity of creativity and the idolatry of pop celebrity. By prioritising the cover version of a song, he mocks the dogmatism of pop celebrity. He discussed the overarching effect of dominant language on popular culture and its effects during a recent interview. "I feel that English, especially American English, is imposed on us in a similar way through pop culture, and my relationship with it is ambiguous to the extreme. But I also felt that proper English is in the minority at this point, since most of us are using the language with heavy accents and our own more or less fabricated grammars for communicating with each other. It allows for reinvention in a way that you don't really have in other languages, and that goes both for the spoken and the written word. Rule breaking and reinvention is what we need to do," (Mousse magazine, issue 20).
Finally, one of the reasons Holmqvist's approach is appealing, and is being celebrated, is his honesty and awareness of his limitations. "I certainly hope to be subversive, but it's more of a soft-spoken subversion, and therefore not really one in the end. All I can say is that one needs to be a bit careful with what claims there can be for art, one's own or anyone else's, and what it actually does, since it's more part of a symbolic, reflective order that comes together in the minds of the people looking at it and sometimes only after quite a long period of time, at that."
If Holmqvist were writing this piece, I imagine he would find space for an example of repetition. A reversal, a quote and, finally, some rule breaking. In 2006, a review of his work expressed concern that Holmqvist didn't leave enough room to communicate his own views. That he gave too much space to the thoughts of others. But I believe there is a great deal of Holmqvist in his work and a great deal worth figuring out though his expression.