Word and Image introduction

C104 Article

Word/image encounters are as inevitable in contemporary art as they are in our lives. They tend to be suffused with value judgements, hierarchies, and meanings of all kinds. (Neo) conceptual art operates mostly by means of language; art utilising scientific strategies or other research-based work requires a medium. Often, artists choose words. But just as our understanding of art has expanded into visual culture, words can be understood to include codes of all kinds, including computer programmes, chemical formulae, etc. Then there is the old-fashioned artistic response to literature, particularly Irish literature, which has long graduated from notions of illustrating or serving literature and is often not so old-fashioned at all. Among the possible gains of an investigation into word/image encounters is the insight that while the traditional borders between the genres continues to serve as locus of innovation, in artistic practice any boundaries have long been traversed in all directions.
David Scott presents the historic background to these matters, with particular emphasis on contemporary practice as seen at Documenta11. I subsequently look at Joseph Beuys' long-lasting inspiration by James Joyce. Brian O'Doherty/Patrick Ireland is a doubly gifted artist, who nevertheless separates the genres by working in each under a different name. His legendary issue of Aspen 5+6 is Mary Ruth Walsh's topic. While an encounter of reciprocal inspiration between the works of Beckett and Nauman serves to outline the necessity of interdisciplinary practice when addressing the futility of artistic creation, Paul O'Brien scrutinises word/image works by Willie Doherty from the perspective of committed art practice. James Elkins completes this feature by drawing attention to Joe Davis' research-based attempts to convert into code and then implant into the DNA of mice an image of our galaxy.
Two artists' projects are integral parts of the presentation on this topic: Karin Sander completed her Wordsearch project with a publication in the New York Times on 4 October, 2002. Sander, like Davis, came to prominence using computer-based technology, scanning people and exhibiting the re-constituted 3-D scans as small-scale sculptures. For Wordsearch, Sander carried out research into how many languages there are spoken in New York. She mapped their occurrences and reflected on how some of them could be noted down, given the absence of computer fonts for some. Finally, Sander asked 250 New Yorkers to write down a typical word or one of personal significance in their language. The newspaper publication subsequently turned the found words into a visual, almost sculptural whole, which resembled the layout of the stock-market listings a few pages later. Wordsearch reflects on multi-cultural issues, on how identities are bound up with language, on New York post 9/11 and on culture (art and language) as capital.
Ecke Bonk, co-founder of Typosophes Sans Frontières, situates his practice between visual art, typography, philosophy and (book/logo) design. His interest in the historicity and visuality of language informed not only his non-logo for Documenta11, but also his yellowed title pages of the Brothers Grimm's dictionary displayed in the same exhibition. Here, he contributes synthetic photograms or scanograms, scans of test tubes, and other glass objects directly placed onto the scanner. He links this experimental work with science (Schroedinger's research in Dublin), as well as investigations into the etymology of the word scan. The findings point towards rhythm and jumping (Sanskrit skandati - movement, steps, and jump; Middle Irish sceinnid - he or she jumps). Bonk's procedure, in good conceptual fashion, relates to Marcel Duchamp's ombres portées, the shadows of ready-mades e.g. in tu m'. The artist has also worked on Duchamp's contemporary Joyce and set (with students) a page from Finnegans Wake in lead type, shown at documenta X, 1997. That book's cyclical structure can here serve to complete the circle of contributions to this feature on word and image interactions.
Dr. Christa-Maria Lerm Hayes is Government of Ireland Post-doctoral Fellow in History of Art at University College, Dublin, and author/curator of a forthcoming book/exhibition on 'Joyce in Art' at the RHA, Dublin.

Article reproduced from CIRCA 104, Summer 2003, pp. 30.