Viewing room #01

15.07.14 – 02.08.14
Cape Town

Over the course of two months, SMAC Art Gallery Cape Town will be featuring three themed viewing rooms, gathering works by artists from its roster. The first viewing room in the series, titled Typography, will feature works by Willem Boshoff, Georgina Gratix, Simon Stone and Ed Young. Typography will be on view from 15 July through 2 August 2014.

Sparring partners

The relationship between word and image throughout history has been one of multiple tensions and exclusions. Unlike the Chinese written character that combines both ‘verbal’ and ‘visual’ signifiers – “the form of the character for ‘garden’ suggests a closed space with lakes, hills and pavilions”[1] – the relation between the word and image in the West has generally been an agonistic one. In the Eastern Church during the eighth and ninth centuries, known as the period of iconoclasm, a privileging of verbal over visual representations of sacred narratives took place. In Jewish and Islamic cultures, the prohibition of images continues to this day. One of the consequences of this antagonism has been the attribution of greater authority to words and the credence in their greater efficacy at performing narrative or explanatory functions. Rare are the instances where words have been denigrated at the expense of images throughout an entire culture.[2]

But the long history between word and image has not always been exclusively one of exclusions or subordinations. In the Middle Ages, the history and traditions of Christianity were addressed by way of image and word. Words assumed a central position: “word made flesh and dwelt among us.”[3] As a consequence, artists who chose to illustrate a Christian event or idea would introduce the word upon the surface of the artwork. Later, in the Renaissance, even though words did not appear on the surface of the artwork, they were implicit, an “ineluctable part of the experience”[4] as religious, but also classical narratives, were being disseminated for the first time by way of print. In Chinese art, scrolls are inscribed with acknowledgements that help shape the viewer’s appreciation of the image. Modern Chinese artists continue this practice. The Pre-Raphaelites used to inscribe the title of the work in the frame specifically designed by the artist for his painting. Then there is the case of the exhibition catalogue, introduced, it is believed, around 1798, the year that the Royal Academy in London allowed the inclusion of catalogues as explanatory or supplementary material to what was being seen, not to mention labels…

But for the greater part, the principle that affirmed the separation between word and image reigned, particularly between the fifteenth to the twentieth century. This principle established the separation between the visual representation (connected to the idea of verisimilitude) and linguistic representation (unbound by it).  The two systems could not meet or mix. When they did, the relation was determined by some form of subordination, a hierarchy, intentionally disrupted in the twentieth century. To a certain extent, artists working in the twentieth century brought back the age-old connect between drawing and writing, referring to the written word not only as a means of transcribing speech, but as a double reality, gifted with a visual existence, a plasticity of its own.[5] The word was treated as a threshold, a connect to life, a bridge between sight and sound, an exciting point of encounter. Think Paul Klee or Stéphane Mallarmé, who treated the word as a visual sign and the space of the page as an integral part of the poem. Amongst the cubists, Braque was the first to use commercial type: the word “BAL” and the number “10,40” in Le Portugais. Analogously, Picasso in Ma Jolie introduced commercial type, intensifying the distortions of analytical cubism. The fifty-two papiers collés he produced between 1912-13, interestingly enough, were culled, according to Patricia Leighten, from headlines about the Balcan wars the political and economic state of Europe.[6] One might argue, as she does, that this was his way of pointing to his social milieu and signaling his commitment to antimilitarism.  Kurt Schwitters “persistently interwove textual and visual elements in both his poems and his collages.”[7] In his work, text and image are bought together not to identify, but “to spark off multiple meanings through associations”.[8] Schwitters operated by inversion, dissociating textual elements from their habitual contexts, so that we would see these elements pictorially, but also the opposite, so that we would ‘read’ his pictorial elements. He encouraged viewers to associate and dissociate, to look for the sensible in the nonsensical and the representational in the abstract.[9]

After 1945, with the rise of mass-produced commodities and packaging, artists across the Atlantic began to respond to consumption and the false resolution and dialectic between word and image contained in advertising.[10] In England, Richard Hamilton was proposing “a topography of the dark side” of the aesthetics of plenty[11] and in France, artists working with décollage sought to “disrupt the sensible interlocking of image and text,” denouncing commodity culture and the unwelcome Americanization of French popular culture.[12] Others, like Jasper Johns and Robert Morris, “(pressed) the spectator to consider the act of looking as an experience profoundly determined by language.”[13] Jenny Holzer and Barbara Kruger, somewhat later, employed the word to develop a public voice, mimicking mass media and its reach. In doing this, they were among the first to reconsider the mode of distribution of art, working outside the conventional gallery space and exploiting the urban public space as a site for their practice. It would be fair to say that today, hegemony lies neither with the image or the written or oral word, but perhaps with the interface, the amalgamation and superimposition that new technologies have created. ND

1 John D. Hunt. Introduction to Art, Word and Image, by John D. Hunt et al. (London: Reaktion, 2010), 15.
2 Idem, 16.
3 John 1:14.
4 John D. Hunt, 17.
5 Maria do Carmo de Freitas Veneroso, “O Diálogo Imagem-Palavra na Arte do Século XX, ” Aletria, (Jul-Dec 2004): 148.
6 See Patricia Leighton’s “Picasso’s Collages ands the Threat of War, 1912-13” in The Art Bulletin, Vol. 67, no. 4, Dec 1985.
7 Michael White, “Sense and Nonesense in Kurt Schwitters,”in Art, Word and Image, John D. Hunt et al. (London: Reaktion, 2010), 203.
8 Idem, 209.
9 Idem, 213.
10 See Robert Indiana’s early emblematic paintings.
11 Idem, 253.
12 Michael White, 256.
13 Michael Corris, “Word and Image in Art since 1945, ”in Art, Word and Image, John D. Hunt et al. (London: Reaktion, 2010), 225.