Concrete Words

A Heap of Language, Robert Smithson

“This much is already known: for every sensible line of straightforward statement, there are leagues of senseless cacophonies, verbal jumbles and incoherances.”*

So, I finally decided to blog about what started this entire site in the beginning: text and art. I’ve been thinking about it recently, after I obtained a residency in Ireland, applying a little tipsy one night for a project I’d been thinking about for the last two years. I completely forgot about it, until a letter of acceptance greeted me when I drove back to work after Christmas and I had to jog my memory on what on earth I’d applied for. Anyway now that I’ve (mostly) finished laughing at my skill at tipsy applications, I’m thinking maybe tipsy grant writing should be next 🙂

My project, based on the Borges story “The Library of Babel” is still at grassroots level, but it is a knowledge-versus-meaning-based idea. It’s an ideal project to play with text within, because language can be slippery. You could replace the tiniest thing, such as a comma and it can entirely change the context of your sentence. Even emphasis on one word can change a sentence’s meaning. So is the search for meaning as dependent on commas and emphasis? What if the answer has been in front of us all along, but the punctuation or the arrangement of words just wrong?  Is it all just a Heap of Language without these definitions, as in Robert Smithson’s drawing of the same name. Smithson, primarily known for his land art, such as the Spiral Getty, was intrigued by oppositions, language as material being one of them, and his early drawings reflect this.
I’ve been interested in the difference between reality and what we tell ourselves and others for a while now, and so the collision of language and meaning is something I’d like to explore more. I am also a little deaf and so the omission or de-emphasis of certain words can have ridiculous results.

An example of one artist exploring some of these themes is Douglas Gordon, a Scottish artist, primarily film/video based who is possibly best known for his 24hour version of Hitchcock’s Psycho. His work deals with the dualities of good and evil, heaven and hell, and one way he explores these is through the written language.

His “Meaning and Location” (1990), installed at University College London, demonstrates “not only his emphasis on the importance of context, but also his exploration of semantic anomalies. By printing the same text twice with a misplaced comma (‘Truly I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise. Truly I say to you today, you will be with me in paradise’), he compromises and multiplies the original meaning of the words from the gospel of St Luke.” **

With the rearrangement of one comma, being in Paradise is whisked from being a definite to an indefinite, from the present into the possible future.


In an exhibition, “Pretty much every word spoken, heard, overheard from 1989-2010,” at Tate Britain earlier this year, Gordon explored a “fascination with language and its potential for ambiguity, obscurity and multiple meanings.” Change one word here, one word there, and the interpretations are endless. If one word is misheard, misunderstood, misconstrued, misinterpreted, misapprehended or mistaken you have grasped a completely different end of the straw. It may not necessarily be wrong, but just different.


Another artist molding text into art is Jaume Plensa, a Spanish artist and sculptor, who makes figures out of welded text, as well as other large scale public art.  I like this image of an installation, Song of Songs, which although I haven’t seen in person, suggest a maze in which meaning is found randomly, haphazardly, hidden within a string of text. Much like the “Library of Babel”, only if you can find a concrete sentence can you obtain understanding. Perhaps this maze is a sea of knowledge, with infinite but fleeting meaning(s) and maybe it’s what we alone grasp out of this ocean that defines us.

Self Portrait, Jaume Plensa

His sculptures of public figures, seem to re-iterate this idea that we are molded and indeed built up of words: words we grasp from the infinite maze, words that resonate with us, words that give us meaning and hope, words that define our dreams.

And so, as I watch Neil Jordan’s Ondine and dream of Ireland, I’m knitting my own string of concrete words out of this heap of language, commas and all, to build into my new project sometime, hopefully, in the future.

Sometime hopefully, in the future.

*Pg.80, Labyrinths, Borges

**http://www.tate.org.uk/servlet/ArtistWorks?cgroupid=999999961&artistid=2617&page=1&sole=y&collab=y&attr=y&sort=default&tabview=bio

***http://www.tate.org.uk/britain/exhibitions/douglasgordon/default.shtm

***

For more on Douglas Gordon,

see

http://www.guardian.co.uk/culture/2010/may/17/douglas-gordon-artist

http://www.guardian.co.uk/artanddesign/2002/nov/05/art.artsfeatures

and http://www.gagosian.com/artists/douglas-gordon/

For more on Jaume Plensa,

see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jaume_Plensa

For  more on Robert Smithson,

see

http://www.robertsmithson.com/introduction/introduction.htm

Thanks to Brigid McGuire for input!

About CT

Claire Townsend is a freelance costume designer/maker and theatre practitioner.
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