Text and Temporalities: Is all this text blocking our view?
The tumultuous love story betwixt viewer and artwork, with the intermediary
character of text stood between.
Striking the balance between the immediacy of text in Siegelaub’s Xerox or the tangible distance from it in Bochner’s Blah Blah Blah…language and text is a fickle and tricky mistress in the discourse of contemporary art and the fixed temporality of the white cube. But is there now simply too much of it? And does it play too much of a leading role in conducting our visual experience? Where attention and presence are in constant deficit, have we perhaps forgotten art is first and foremost, a visual discipline. It is hence worth
unravelling the role of text and its entanglement through the discourse of art history.
Before we arrived at its role as the seducer, giving way into the mind a mystery of the artist and idea that lay before us, text was not necessarily always cast with such a leading part. We could point a finger at the dominating ideology of the white cube and its placement and overbearing positional agency of systematic art writing. However, language has been weaving its way in and out of art practice through multiple moments and isms so long that falling to such conclusion, seems naïve.
Again, referring to Siegelaub’s Xerox exhibition, which
would beg to differ at such a simplistic notion. His
polemic catalogue-based exhibitions contorted the role
of exhibition text altogether through the interlacing of
language into the work and temporal experience. This
particular moment being perhaps the most dramatic case
scenario built upon the premise of language becoming
the sole material form of the artwork.
Before such a polemic approach to the systematic dynamic of art writing, it is perhaps worth unravelling the function of text in past.
Above reads “Julia Donata, the freedwoman of Olympus, lies here” and in Greek below: “Good Ioulia Donata, the freedwoman of Olympos, farewell.” Simplistic, informative, and to the point. Inscriptions and hieroglyphics played an edifying role as historical documents, shedding light on their political and social moment. Mosaic, stone, and fresco inscriptions would directly communicate to our contemporary audience in relaying names, dedications, and documents. Its role has rather taken on a dramatic turn since.
Queue David Shrigley, Bruce Nauman, Ed Ruscha, Tracy Emin etc.
This particular Shrigley find was actually prompted by the 2021 Frieze art fair scavenger hunt courtesy of the White Pube. Whom, in turn, have also concretised their own unapologetic, to-the-point form of art writing and criticism.
TEXT AND CONTEXT
Furthermore, where historical art was itself an act of documentation (as seen with the Roman plaque above) and the timeline in which it belonged became an inherent property, contemporary art instead leans on the written media outlets at its disposal to secure its grounding context in space and time. In response, conceptual and minimalist artwork would harness form to demand utter presence with the immediate temporal experience. (As opposed to being a non-site-specific artefact that can be read through context). So, when we
are out of the works presence it would lose this intersection with space and time, because it was durational. An image of Tony Smith’s Die cube is not the same as physically walking around it. So, the documentation of its existence creates nostalgia that provides it a place in our linear context. But this does not necessarily intersect with the concept at the heart of the work nor interfere with its meaning or intrinsic idea. We could also argue that conceptual
use of language, like Kosuth’s Three Chairs, is an ahistorical and non-linear integration as it does not pertain to the context of the work. “Three Chairs” is materially enlaced in its being, it was texts purest form. However, documentation since this period (1965-75 roughly) has progressed to become increasingly independent from the work it aims to sustain. We have effectively moved from the catalogue’s literal entanglement with the artwork in Siegelaub’s Xerox, to catalogues becoming their own practice altogether.
SPACES AND SYSTEMS
One must consider the natural order prescribed by institutions that has become a rather systematic routine when digesting contemporary art. Contemporary institutions have come to create this orderly flow primarily sustained by text. In Brian O’ Doherty’s exploration of the White Cube, he contends that the gallery exists in a timeless portal and the walls of the white cube are removed from exterior life, it is a ‘chamber’4 aimed to not inhibit the works on the wall or inflict any context. Yet we have this text that can interrupt this flow, burst the utopian bubble we have actively chosen to enter. Our entire gallery experience is shaped by the minutiae actions,right down to the playlist we curate for ourselves. O’ Doherty describes this step out of the real world and into the otherworldly white cube as the “the presentness of life, which, after all, unfolds itself in time… Art exists in a kind of eternity of display and
though there is lots of ‘period’ (late modern) there is no time. This eternity gives the gallery a limbolike status; one has to have died already to be there.”5 Such a limbo-like status means the written context given in that space must be offered with caution. As we habitually walk away chewing on the fat of the hefty catalogue essays that weigh in on the concepts of the artwork, perhaps more so than the artist ever had themselves. Dan Buren contends to this
with “art not only plays out its part but is also engulfed. For if, even yesterday, works were revealed thanks to the Museum, nowadays they are no more than so much decorative gadgetry helping the Museum to survive as a picture or tableau, the author of which is none other than the very organizer of the exhibition” (translated). These galleries and museums, however, remain to be the lesser of evils in providing optimum environment for the consumption of art.
Fairs and biennales can often be suffocating to the integrity of an artwork, especially when the question of financial value is what is primarily at stake. The above image shows a rather extremist take on provoking the role of wall text.
We typically use theory to bolster our understanding and shape our art experience, and consequently curators become our nexus connecting such ideas to things, objects, and concepts. They make sense of the non-sensical and offer a pathway into a work that may previously have meant nothing to us. Where curators have taken on a multifaceted role as creatives, critics, and writers alike, it is becoming increasingly difficult to ascertain where the line must be drawn in terms of text overkill. Where they effectively hold monopoly
power in the publishing of information across the art world, Dan Buren in ‘Exhibiting Exhibitions’ puts it best “The subject of exhibitions tends more and more to be not so much the exhibition of works of art, as the exhibition of the exhibition as a work of art.” Whilst text is crucial as serving as a directive for the artwork, since Duchamp’s Fountain art has become in more urgent need of exterior explanation, this formality has snowballed, and art writing is becoming an increasingly meta practice.
Here’s Frieze magazines take on the practice of art writing,
“Art Writing involves relations between people, as discursive. In so far as it is art, Art Writing can engage public space no longer sustained by ground, including that of truth.”Maria Fusco, “11 Statements Around Art Writing,” Frieze Magazine, October 10, 2011.
Effectively it can fill gaps that were perhaps not even in question to begin with.
BERGER: Ways of Seeing
Using Magritte’s key of dreams to observe the gap between words and seeing, Berger pinpoints that “to look is an act of choice.”9 He argues that we innocently accept the text where it corresponds to the work. It compliments and often uses form to compose a narrative, and so structures our way of seeing.The text becomes an art of seduction, building the bond between you and the work. And so, the gap between contemporary output and past (modernism and previous) is that nostalgia is the form of value that informs a work; its provenance, multiples, copies, and texts, all give its power. In contrast, contemporary output is actually based much more on what we see. Today we are forced to look ourselves, but equally the presence of wall, catalogue, and review text becomes a comfort and a forceful influence, which we have seen grow into its own discipline. Without these elements that would then create nostalgia around an artwork, it becomes a static relic, perhaps even valueless. In today’s tumultuous art market, the slightest nuance in collective opinion around a work or discipline can immediately alter its value,so these fixed written influences of provenance are vital to the works lifespan. The consistent flow of written theory, opinion and criticism can sustain an artist and keep them within view in an incredibly saturated space.
Offering a different stance, we also have Vilém Flusser’s contention that texts linear form focuses the abstract hallucinatory nature of the visual image. In Towards a Philosophy Of Photography, he explores how context weaves in and out of visual practice, teasing with the nature of an image. Noting that images are comprehensible abstractions, abstractions of reality. And our ability to take abstractions and project them into our comprehensible space and time is from our imagination. He also raises the appropriate concern that the images lose their natural ability to provide orientation when we are actively ignoring them in favour of decoding images into the function of text. The meat of Flusser’s polemic notion effectively warns of the calculated ‘technical image’10 emerging from the mechanical nature of photography. Though reading between the lines of his notion that we are programmed through tools, we can decipher that it goes beyond the realms of photography.
He begins that we must go against the linear framework and allow the visualisation of life through images be a more organic process. Images, paintings, and all artistic practices must freely be able to form a visual canon that is not wholly tied to a context. Whilst in art we are not dealing with images that are necessarily technically captured, the contemporary canon encompasses a whole manner of disciplines that equally and aptly capture the nature of society. In the same way that the technical image or photograph naturally would. Images have the ability to make abstractions comprehensible and orientate us in a way text cannot. Offering a surface to the worlds abstractions without decoding them is “idolatry” according to Flusser, and so we must allow the interference of linear writing. Yet when such writing
becomes as hallucinatory a substance as images, its incomprehensible nature no longer serves a purpose, or in Flusser’s vocabulary it becomes “textolatry”. Therefore, images and text must be in balance, one cannot out-do the other. They must create a harmony that is both comprehensible and informative. Now again whilst this is primarily aimed in concretising the nature of photography, the parallel to contemporary art output is certainly extractable here.
Technical images are apparatus of a program, they are not a transparent window. Hence, they must be translated. Art equally is not a window into life. Though in past ages it has aimed to do so, as paintings were a tool to mirror the state of society and those leading it. However, this reflective image of society loses its transparency somewhat when we reach say Pollocks era. Where the medium is reprogrammed into rash renderings that aim to capture the state of the specific medium that forms the image. Luckily for Pollock, we had the trusty writings from Greenberg to bring to focus the hallucinatory nature of his work. And so, we have a sense of balance and companionship between text and image.
When the balance between these two contending roles is lost, we are faced with the danger of tarnishing a works aura. “Flusser describes the act of scanning an image, engaging with this significant surface, and re-animating it in time and space, as a magical consciousness”. This is not to be confused with forcing its conformity to the linear world of writing. Or as Flusser notes, “writing against the image,” and creating a “historical consciousness against magic.” Effectively “magical consciousness” is his idea of mediating a work without negating its aura. Though today this seems a rather romantic prospect in the world of catalogue essays, panel writing and free flowing online reviews and journals.
It is becoming ever trickier to tap into such ‘magical consciousness’. One may contend that historical consciousness against magical consciousness has come to prevail in recent years. Perhaps owing to the boom of the art market that’s upward trajectory is seemingly unending and reliant on the more banal written attributes of an artwork. If we were to look at works displayed for an upcoming auction at Sotheby’s, the supporting literature made up of condition reports, provenance and bidders notes would hardly assimilate to that of magic.
Though Berger would perhaps contend here that a work becomes an elevated artefact of value through such concrete nostalgia and its given airtime in the auction house. Even so, we run into the reality that its position as ‘past lot’ that went at found price can often beat the artwork to the punch in demanding our attention. To an extent we must be told a work is a rare valuable artefact for it to be appreciated as so. But perhaps provenance IS the magic for some artworks. In ancient renaissance religious altarpieces, we would read the pictures like a book due to the allegory enlaced in the work.
But when you look at Duchamp’s urinal, naturally you are also reading it’s surrounding text. Perhaps, in some cases, we must be told where to look for meaning or value. Otherwise to some, a urinal can just be a urinal.
IN CONCEPTUAL TEXT WE TRUST
Language hardens and softens with contemporary and conceptual art forms. Solidifying its presence as a tautological material in Kosuth’s work, to equally acting as a performative directive in Fluxus and Happenings. There is no hiding what the above text’s role is, it does not add or take away from the aura because to an extent, it IS the aura. Thus, texts magical consciousness is difficult to tap into when the language present is so concrete and euphemistic in controlling the work.
FLUXUS AND HAPPENINGS
“The line between art and life should be kept as fluid, and perhaps indistinct, as possible”Allan Kaprow, “Performance Art: Guidelines for Happenings,” In Theories and documents of contemporary art: a sourcebook of artists’ writings, ed. Stiles, Kristine, and Peter Selz (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996), 833.
This sentiment is perhaps something to be carried forward into the contemporary arena.
Since Fluxus, we’ve shifted from acting through the work as an event, to tentatively approaching art spaces as an arena, programmed by information. In rejecting any sensical framework or context, art would depend on the creative flow, allowing the hallucinatory elements of life – the abstract – to move in and out of frame and requiring no comprehensible text to solidify or rationalise its being. Artists had the desire to include the typically omitted unacceptable every day, and the transient. Therefore, what is crucial about text in this movement is that it had no solution. It did not aim to arrive at anything in particular, and so the work never became reduced, limited or closed.
The text was wholly tied to an event and artwork, as opposed to blocking or hindering its form. This flow of experience and open objecthood is best expressed by Brecht,
“For me, an object does not exist outside of people’s contact with it. There is no ‘real’ object as opposed to our idea of the object.”
The text is thus contingent to realising the artwork. It is a material support, but not material support like the handout you’d receive when walking into a show at Gagosian today. It is a material support in its direct morphological entanglement with the art idea. Now obviously not all text can have a role akin to that of the conceptual Fluxus movement. However, the expression of the art idea without any embellishments is an interesting parallel to consider.
As since then duration, time, space, and aura have effectively become flattened into the panel, catalogue, and pamphlet. Where conceptualism established that art is textually empty without the support system of the gallery, we have since perhaps over-toed the line of morphing said support system into a whole new discipline, that negates from the intrinsic power of the work and space. Art has struggled to freely exist as site specific, and anthropomorphic features become futile where the viewer is not temporally present with the site dynamics at play. The institution holds the power to focus our attention and create duration and yet our immersive experience is cut short by a wall text telling us to look for something that isn’t visually there. Perhaps we have reverted to what Michael Fried preferred, which was to distinguish art from experience and theatricalism. The phenomenological experience brought on by minimalist-like practices is becoming less accessible.
This leaves us questioning can art be site specific, open, and indeterminate anymore? Going back to Flusser and the surrounding technology guiding our eye away from imagination, such a notion feels increasingly unlikely. Much of today’s output is less intrinsically bound up in the temporalities of the precious object, but rather the response and literary fallout that ensues. This bears great contrast to Joseph Kosuth notion, “my role as an artist ends with the works publication.” No artist with wet paint work at the mercy of commercial
galleries would dare to utter such a statement now. There is somewhat a dependence on not only the internal wall text, panels, and essays but also the collective opinion of Artnet, Artsy and ArtForum.
Another conceptual parallel of art that teeters on this fine line between material language and descriptive external text is Rauschenberg’s Erased De Kooning. Playing with the roles of authorship and ownership.
In a way it does restore a sense of magical consciousness to the art object. However, this was work that belonged to a rare moment in the canon where conceptual art held an impenetrable aura that we perhaps would not accept today.
A less savoury example of text inducing some enigmatic myth within the work.
The text here actually works in manifesting the works aura. We are less trusting and arguably more cynical as an audience today. Where our attention is in deficit and our ability to absorb work in ‘real time’ is itself a task, we would arguably struggle to draw ourselves into the ‘silence’ in the same manner. The danger came when art went from its ancient role of explaining art in a historical manner, then being materially intertwined in its magical essence, to going back to explaining the work but with these added multiple layers. It is no longer; here is a painting of a noble family, or these tulips signify wealth. The text has taken on a life of its own and blossomed into its own discursive practice. Though this is an incredibly reductive summation of texts role as there have been many crucial and polemic texts that have come from such evolution. Nevertheless, one must remember the essence of art is primarily a visual experience, art is to be seen, not read. Once art is read through the lens of its written context, it is hard to see it again.
We have begun to read art like a document, arriving at the end of the work before it is experienced. The magic to the action painters was following their process through visually and physically tracing the paint. Once you read it like an object, its aura, and this traceable essence in how it came to be is lost. The performative role as a viewer can no longer exist.
IS THERE A SOLUTION?
Where we now experience art in white walled mazes like Frieze, an environment that is all but impossible to insight any kind of phenomenological interaction, art is increasingly distanced as an object losing touch with its magical consciousness. There is instead this growing, imperceptible distance, filled by the burgeoning, thickening role of art writing. Additionally, in today’s art market we have another contender…the price of works, stuck on like a sticker in the reduced section. One can’t comprehend Banksy’s auctioned works without immediately jolting to the fact that we know exactly what price it went to. Often to the decimal. And sometimes the added premiums.
Lest we forget this treasure that went for a cool 450 mil at Christie’s in 2017.
Our experience of art is ever changing. In a white cube world, where do we land on experiential bliss with text optimally offering us this balance and creating the desired “magical consciousness”. It seems the looser and freer art got from its entanglements from mathematics and philosophy, the harder it lent on the discourse of historical consciousness. Is the simple antidote to cut wall text and replace it simply with the date and birth of the artist? What would be the repercussions of this… a purer magical artworld utopia that simultaneously put every curator/ critic out of a job?
Sadly, we have lost the Fluxus mindset. This fluidity is no longer such an accessible feat, as art becomes increasingly distant. But not distant in the magical ethereal sense where it holds enigmatic aura. It is rather distant as an object of value to be read through catalogues and criticisms. Any metaphysical elevation is somewhat flattened by this grounding obstacle of information. The Kaprow notion of “ensuring that the details of everyday life, the random constellations of objects that surround us, stop going unnoticed,” feels tough to achieve today. In a similar vein we also had “Pollock for example used the confines of the canvas as the only limit to an intrinsically limitless form.” His work now has limits to the price index of 61.161 million. We are faced with a catch 22 situation, as text (largely in the form of press) is crucial to an artwork’s survival, it can give the work a stage to a contemporary audience,
but simultaneously kill it. We’ve sort of gone backwards from Lippard’s dematerialisation notion as art slowly lost its material essence, to where we are now where we are inundated with it.
As shown below where we see this Monet battling for attention with its supplementary text.
Where Bochner intertwines language within the art itself, the Monet exhibit is facilitating language to seduce you, though perhaps at the cost of its aura.
RE-INSTATING THE AURA
One may contend the key influence and intermediary here being the curator. However, the curator has also been influential in exposing text as an infallible support system – queue Siegelaub. They must hence privilege the physical manifestation of the artists idea, but when this is no longer the clear objective and effective, is when we must rethink the role of the text.
The experiential nature of art should be an organic flow, that is bolstered by the light guidance of text, there to lean on when needed. It should not tamper with the aura and ultimately should exalt the idea into a magical state of being rather than flattening into a historical document. It should instil some magic or support a legend, note “Shit in a can”.
In the same way Flusser argues that we must fight the automated nature of the camera, the mechanical essence that drives itself, we must equally continue to allow new emerging visual disciplines to come to the fore and organically develop before us. Not to be quashed by the systematic flow of information that is engrained in the white cube ecosystem. When walking into the gallery, the wall text must not beat your eye to the punch.
The codes and systems that uphold the art world must not inhibit our ability to see.
SKETCH LONDON INSTALLATION