Foreword to Art and Writing 



Word and image; text and texture; letter and line. There are so many levels on which writing and art come together, so many ways in which they interact, so much to be said about this interface that it is difficult to know where to start and when to stop. Sometimes the connections are very loose, as in texts which are illustrated or simply adorned by imagery, or images supported by text: the essays in a catalogue accompanying an exhibition, the titles - present even for "untitled" works - which, according to convention, are printed on small white cards and mounted discreetly on the gallery wall. More complex and interactive conjunctions come with comics and graphic novels, illuminated manuscripts, and the best of children's illustrated books. There are rare but compelling examples of adult illustrated prose such as that produced by WG Sebald, whose use of photographs as indeterminately fictional documents parallels the dream-like nature of his texts, or Tom Phillip's glorious Humument, which brings text and images into a unique and dense relationship, or much older experimental publications such as Laurence Sterne's Tristram Shandy.


The modernist interest in artists' notebooks and manifestos gave a new role and prominence to artists' writings, elevating them to the level of the art work itself. Art criticism and theory spawned their own genres, sometimes of simple commentary, sometimes of striking value in their own right: Klee's Angelus Novus is both the occasion for Walter Benjamin's exploration of the very idea of an "angel of history", and also a painting transformed by this critique. Cubist painters experimented with the use of newspapers, tickets, and other everyday items in painting, and with their collages and photomontages, as well as their experiments with typographic poetry, the Dadaists really began to integrate images and text. The drawings of Adolf Wölfli, the "outsider" artist - actually a true insider, locked up as he was for much of his life - who covered the backs of his drawings with wild writings and filling every space of his images, in what is said to have been his horror vacui, with words, sentences, sometimes long, spiralling texts, demonstrate the power of more intense interactions between the image and the word. Works like Rene Magritte's Ceci n'est pas une pipe or Roy Lichtenstein's Whaam, and those of artists such as Barbara Kruger and Jenny Holzer make the connection undeniable.


When Paul Klee wrote of drawing as "taking a line for a walk", he might just as easily have been describing the work of the poet as that of the artist. Indeed Klee's work is an interesting example of an artist using letter-like formations without regard for writing itself: an audience unfamiliar with the Western alphabet might assume that his forests and cities are populated by words. But artists who use words - as Klee also did from time to time -which carry all the meaning and resonance of language in their works are clearly doing something else. They are, at their most interesting, using text as a dense kind of image, an image which has a richer, or at least very different, function and effect than, say, the patch of colour next to it. A painting which uses words has an additional string to its bow, an extra means with which to communicate, something which detractors might even feel allows it to cheat by taking a short cut and making an unmediated appeal to its audience. But why not use whatever materials are to hand? A text which relies on the use of italics or capital letters rather than using the words themselves might also be said to be cutting corners to produce its emphatic effects. But all writing is inescapably visual, and the contemporary sophistication of advertising and graphic design has left no doubt about the power of fonts and colours, even handwritten styles, to shape the impact of a text. What happens to a poem by William Blake when, stripped of its colours and images, it appears in the Baskerville print of a cheap paperback, or can be shifted between fonts on a screen?


The use of writing, whether hard, impossible, or easy to read, is now a common feature of contemporary art. It was, in fact, the prevalence of textual material in so many of Ikon's recent shows that prompted us to explore this theme. The notebooks, sketches, and texts scrawled on the wall of the gallery - and even its toilets - by Nedko Solakov; the postcards and dated boxes painted with such precision by On Kawara; the almost legible masking tape writings stuck with such abandon on the wall by Matias Faldbakken: as artists become increasingly free and bold in their use of materials, media, and themes, it seems that word and image, text and texture, letter and line, are coming together as never before - at least, that is, in the context of Western art and languages. Elsewhere, they have never been so far apart: Chinese script, itself composed of pictograms rather than letters in the western sense, has always been incorporated into traditional Chinese painting, and the Islamic desire to avoid representational forms has given a complexity to calligraphy which has long blurred distinction between letters and images in Arabic, Farsi, and Urdu. Artists like He An, whose Mandarin text ran across the top of a Birmingham car park, or Shahzia Sikander, with her abstract lines dovetailing into Thai and Urdu scripts, or Shuruq Hulub, whose Book of Signatures brought Arabic into the gallery, have put some very different relations between image and text on show at Ikon too. 


Those who cannot read the script, whether because of their own linguistic ignorance or the deliberate use of illegibility by the artist, may of course miss out on swathes of meaning and affect. But such loss can also be a privilege. Scripts which are scrambled, obscured, incomplete, or simply unknown to their audience can give writing a chance to break free of the imperatives of meaning. And even at its most legible, the presence of any writing in visual art is less about communication than the decontextualisation of text, a deterritorialisation which both reduces and elevates writing to the status of drawing: a matter of taking lines for a walk.




Sadie Plant, Birmingham 2012