The use of text within to the visual arts can be traced back as far as the inscribed carvings found on cave walls created by the Indigenous population of Australia approximately 46000 years ago. However, over the past few years, the use of text in art, also known as the art of typography, has become a frequent means of communication for artists in the creation of their works. Text within art can be projected, scrawled, painted, computerised and carved to the point that a work may be created of nothing but language. The art of typography is the technique of arranging type in such a way that makes language visible. It treats fonts as individual entities to be enjoyed by the audience. Some artists deal with language as a character on its own as opposed to a surface to draw upon. These artists place texts in ways that are intended to stimulate the way an audience perceives a work, to evoke emotion or to create a statement.
However, others, particularly graphic designers, tend to focus on the decorative powers of text. Regardless of the artist’s intentions, the appearance of text within art can shift our appreciation of their sound and meaning. Artists that explore text in art include: Barbara Kruger, Yukinori Yanagi, Katarzyna Kozyra, Jenny Holzer, Wenda Gu, Shirin Neshat, Miriam Stannage, Colin McCahon and Jenny Watson. Artists such as Jenny Holzer, Wenda Gu and Shirin Neshat explore the cultural implications of language in art and the importance of language to identity through the inclusion of text that reflect a postmodern concern with the way we receive information in our contemporary society. Jenny Holzer is an American conceptual artist who belongs to the feminist branch of artists that emerged during the 1980’s. Originally an abstract painter and printmaker, Holzer became heavily interested in conceptual art and began creating works using text.
The introduction of text within Holzer’s work occurred gradually however, over time, they have entirely replaced images. These works are usually displayed in widely viewed, public areas. Holzer’s works typically deal with the idea of communication. She is highly aware of the power of words and the power of the media and therefore has a focus on the ability of language to distort or manipulate truths. “I was drawn to writing because it was possible to be very explicit about things. If you have crucial issues, burning issues, it’s good to say exactly what’s right and wrong about them, and then perhaps to show a way that things could be helped. So, it seemed to make sense to write because then you could just say it… no painting seemed perfect. In particular, I didn’t want to be a narrative painter, which maybe would have been one solution for someone wanting to be explicit.” – Jenny Holzer.
Through the use of text in art, Holzer is able to transmit powerful environmental, social and political messages that reveal beliefs and myths and show biases and inconsistencies that highlight her social and personal concerns of today’s contemporary society. Holzer’s works are confronting and provocative and inspire us to make changes. They make us remember that language is not always a factual statement; it can be true or false depending on the context. Holzer forces us to analyse our own behaviour and consider how we have been influenced and manipulated. Her works are designed to make us stop and think about how we are maturing socially. Holzer’s truisms “MONEY CREATES TASTE – 1982” and “PROTECT ME FROM WHAT I WANT – 1985” are part of her 1983-85 series – “Survival”. These are LED installation pieces consisting of large scale text that were projected onto a billboard in Times Square, New York.
The inscriptions were bright, clear and menacing and connected themselves to the everyday glow of the city. The phrases were flicked over the busy intersection for two to three seconds creating an element of surprise and capturing the audience’s attention. The main focus of these works was to make a profound statement about the world of advertising and consumer society today. Holzer’s aim was to persuade the audience to pause and reflect on their lives. Her work emphasises the notion that within our society, we are driven by the world of media, thereby producing a mass materialistic, consumerist culture. “MONEY CREATES TASTE” is almost a plea from Holzer to stand back and assess our needs as a culture rather than what we are fed to believe we want by the media.
The use of this concise statement “PROTECT ME FROM WHAT I WANT” has shown us that we are in the process of losing our identity and sense of culture and can be manipulated by the underlying motives of the media. Shirin Neshat is an Iranian born artist who, upon turning seventeen, moved to California to study art. In 1990 when Neshat flew back to Iran to visit her family, she was confronted by the changes in culture and the narrow restraints of everyday life in the Islamic Republic. She was faced by a very strict, pure form of Islam introduced by the Iranian government in order to erase Persian history. Since having lived in the two cultural contexts of Iraq and the USA, Neshat is able to examine the cultural concerns of individual beings in a metaphorical and poetic way. She attempts to address problems of identity, race and gender in a shocking manner and intends to undermine social stereotypes and assumptions.
Her works explore the differences between Islam and the West, males and females, limitations in life and freedom, old and new and the public and the private domains. Neshat aimed to provoke questions amongst her audience as she explored Islam through her art making and comments on issues related to feminism and multiculturalism. However, her works were not only confrontational and symbolic; Neshat also paid particular attention to aesthetics. In her 1994 print and ink, “Rebellious Silence”, Neshat depicts an Islamic, Muslim woman, covered in a veil holding a gun. Her calm face is divided by the starkness of the cold, steel weapon and is laced with Islamic calligraphy symbolic of the Niqab, a more extreme veil that an Islamic woman must wear as it signifies her obedience to the male supremacy in Islamic culture. Her clothing and weapon make us question whether this woman has rejected her submissive female role to embrace violence.
She is looking directly at the camera and looks determined to fight. Questions of motives arise amongst the audience. Neshat’s 1996 work “Speechless” is a black and white photograph in which Neshat has chosen to make herself the subject. This image is a close up of Neshat’s face. She looks determined and powerful however, like her creation “Rebellious Silence” – her face is covered with an overlay of Islamic text. The Arabic inscriptions that create the veil act as a barrier. It symbolises the support of the Islamic revolution. The visual struggle between Neshat and the veil is representational of the fight for freedom and the support of religion. By putting the text on her face, the body part where people can identify emotions the most, it serves as a reminder of the power that religion has over women and the oppression it has towards free expression. The gun in the picture is another juxtaposition.
The woman seems to be embracing the gun as a part of her, giving off a threatening feeling, but at the same time, it does not feel dangerous because of her conflicted emotions: freedom versus oppression. The inscriptions tell of a man who died in the Iran/Iraq conflict of the 1980’s. This is also insulting to the women who also experienced this conflict. Her art does not disapprove nor approve of Islam, but instead encourages the audience to reflect upon their own ideas, assumptions and expectations. He works carry both personal and emotional connotations. Wenda Gu was born in China and studied traditional, classical landscape painting. He was employed to teach ink painting and although he no longer practices in China, text remains central to his work. This initial technical training has provided the incentive for his most confronting pieces in which the powerful use of language challenges social and political traditions.
“These are questioning and symbolic works that violate the orthodox doctrine of artistic value. They represent a direct threat to authority.” Michael Sullivan. Gu ambitiously attempts to address, in artic terms, the issue of globalism that dominates discussions of contemporary economics, society and culture. He aims to appeal not only to the present population, but also to future generations in his quest to extend the boundaries of human perception, feeling and thought and express humanity’s deepest wishes and powerful dreams. Gu strives to unify mankind and create a utopian feel within his works. Gu worked to simplify the Chinese language and to encourage people to embrace new attitudes towards their old language. He combines a long standing fascination with classical Chinese calligraphy with a contemporary take on universal concerns that cross cultural and ethnic boundaries.
Gu’s work today focusses extensively on ideas of culture and his identity and has developed an interest in bodily materials and understanding humanity across ethnic and national boundaries. Gu’s 1994-96 work “Pseudo Characters Contemplation of the world” is a series of ink paintings in which he uses traditional calligraphic styles and techniques but subverts them with reversed, upside down or incorrect letters. The pseudo character series consists of three ink on paper scrolls in which he has combined calligraphy and landscape, disrupting the conventions of both, powerfully distorting artistic tradition of China. Gu has attacked the written word by glorifying the spirit of the absurd. Gu’s most significant artworks have been a series entitled “United Nations Project”. This is a series of 15 works that were conceptually planned to relate to the locations social, political, historical and cultural situation.
This series confronts two taboos. That of language and the human body. The main material for these installations are human hair collected from hairdressers from all over the world and the hair itself serves as a connection to all people. They typically consisted of screens tied together with twine, forming a canopy of internationally collected hair that was fashioned into nonsensical scripts combining the Chinese alphabet and others. His works are distinguished by the two themes which intersect. The first relates to language and the way in which cultural conventions are signified ad the second, is the use of human hair which is a symbol for significant human endeavours.
The human hair is a blueprint containing DNA information, which is common to all humans yet seen fundamentally as individual. Jenny Holzer, Shirin Neshat and Wenda Gu all explore the cultural implications of language within art. They share a prime focus on the links between culture and identity. They have used language and text to convey their powerful messages and have drawn upon their own personal experiences. Concerned with the human condition, both they and their artworks have had a significant impact on society and the way in which we interpret information.
Year 12 Visual Arts Art History and Art Criticism.
Essay on Text
The inclusion of text in artworks reflects a post-modern concern with the way we receive information in our contemporary society and the importance of language to identity. Explore the cultural implications of language in the work of Jenny Holzer, Wenda Gu and one other contemporary artist. Analyse specific artworks to support your argument.
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