The museum of contemporary art Detroit (Michigan, USA) currently hosts the show ‘words fail me‘. A collection of works by (American) national and international artist that visually present ‘words’. It’s a show that, among other things, raises questions like ‘is playing around with words art-worthy?’ or ‘are words also interesting on a physical level?’. Mind you, I am not questioning art forms such as novels, poetry of song lyrics here; I am only concerned with words as a visual art form.
Is ‘using words’ not just; ‘taking a short cut’? If you want to, say, make a work about the influence of multinationals and commercial companies on our society and how the prey on our fears, isn’t it just taking the easy way if you present the word ‘terror’ in inflatable plastic party letters, like Dutch artist Marc Bijl did? And if you present the the sentence ‘Everything is going to be allright’ in neon letters, like Martin Creed did and you do that over and over again on different buildings; does that mean you’re making new installations, or just copying something that might just not be that clever in the first place. Are artists that merely write abusive words and phrases on walls to achieve an ‘emotional effect’ merely lazy? And really can we stand another work in neon that’s placed in a corner of two White walls?
One possible answer would be, “hey, at least they are making more of an effort than those darn minimalists… placing a light-tube in the corner of an empty room (Dan Flavin, ‘corner piece’, 1987), what the hell’s that about?” Another answer would be: “Have you ever SEEN a work by Bruce Nauman?” Who made a lot more fantastic works, but I’d consider his wordworks to be among the best visual art-pieces ever made. Which is one of the biggest problems with ‘words as visual’ right there. It has been done. And it has been done up to such an amazingly high level that it would take a lot of confidence or stupidity to try and add to that what is already there.
Kay Rosen is probably a thousand times the artist that I would ever hope to be and perhaps I am just too stupid to get it, but a work like ‘blurred’ to me, is just a visual pun. And even though a great artwork may sometimes be indistinguishable from an elaborate prank, this pun really isn’t that brilliant.“ Or how about the ‘people like you need to fuck people like me’ in neon by Tracey Emin? Again, an artist I have loads of respect for and who made great stuff (even involving words…) but I cannot see this in any other way than merely a bad Nauman cover. Just like Tauba Auerbach seemed to have done with a lot of her works like ‘Yes No Morph 1’. Not that there is shame in doing covers. Radiohead played a version of ‘Rhinestone cowboy’ once.
I would like to come to good decisive conclusion on this subject, but, especially not in a blogpost, I can’t. I feel it’s an academic discussion anyway. As with any other medium artists use there are great examples of wordworks and there are some poor ones, just like there are great paintings and some that are ‘not-so-good, Lucy’. A lot of times words may be a shortcut to an effect that could also have been achieved by other means but words, like brand-names, logos and icons are also a sign of the times that artists should work with. Because they’re familiar to us, because words have meaning beyond meaning and because sometimes it’s just a fucking good idea to do so. And the other wordwork stuff? Well, everyone is entitled to his or her lesser moments. Even me.