Text based Art at Tate Liverpool. 1-10-10

The poet Carol Ann Duffy has curated a room of text based art at Tate Liverpool and it makes a very interesting exhibition. I suppose the question which comes to mind before you walk in is why doesn’t an artist just write if they are interested in words, but by the time I had made my way through the exhibits I had my answer. It had not occurred to me before, but as I walked round I was reminded that many of my favourite artists use text within their work, as some of them were represented.

The letter cutter and designer David Kindersley’s piece Letters Are Things, Not Pictures Of Things ( something that his mentor Eric Gill said) provided a kind of summary for me. It’s a beautiful work with classical text spelling out the title in pale blue and red. An example of Eric Gill’s own work was also shown, a beautiful exhibit, two classical white stone alphabet tablets, one in relief and one carved into the stone.

Anthony Gormley’s work Bed was also there. He ate his own body weight in toast and the bitten remains of the many slices are arranged to form a bed with the shape of his body delved into it. The toast had gained a wonderful brown toned colour range in time, like old worn tiles and bricks.

There were some examples from Gillian Wearing’s Signs series, including my favourite; a well dressed half smiling man in a suit holding up a sign saying “I’m Desperate” ( I have always wondered why he felt like that when he seems so together which is the whole point of course) and one that I hadn’t seen before, a tattooed man holding up a sign “I have been certified as mildly insane.” I like the fact that he describes his diagnosis so meticulously. It shows that he was being truthful and not just messing around. The full title of the series is Signs that say What You Want Them to Say and Not Signs that Say What Someone Else Wants You To Say. We all spend our lives keeping up appearances of one kind or another and Gillian Wearing found a perfect way of illustrating the tension between how we are and how we allow ourselves to seem. It is a work which has stood the test of time and still works now thanks to the fact that it says something universal about being human.

Tracey Emin’s pink neon sign in her own handwriting “Is Legal Sex anal?/Is Anal Sex Legal?” is very striking although I’m not sure that I need to know the answer. Tracey Emin gets a lot of flak for being too personal in her work and using her own life too much but that is exactly why I like what she does. She has the courage to make herself vulnerable and use all aspects of her life, both the admirable and the not so admirable. I respect that.

The prize for most words goes to Don’t Look Back by Fiona Banner, which is a written record of Bob Dylan’s first British tour in 1965, a mass of simple back capitals on a brown background which covers a whole wall. I spent some time looking at it trying to work out what it was trying to do and beyond a few thoughts about its monumental scale paying tribute to an artist who is idolised obsessively by his fans, I don’t think I quite got there.

My favourite piece was by the wonderful Richard Long. “Two straight twelve mile walks on Dartmoor, England”. In beautiful simple clear text it shows a list of landmarks which he saw on his walks accompanied by a series of short descriptive phrases ( “full moon rising” ) which distilled his experience into a single frame. Long’s art is always straight to the point, and it is fascinating how a few words of text in a clear plain background can bring the reader into the heart of what was a very sustained physical experience for the artist.

There always has to be one thing which completely passes you by in any contemporary art exhibition and for me, in this exhibition, it was Bruce Nauman’s “Good Boy Bad boy”. Two television screens showed a man and a woman ranting simultaneously in a way which meant nothing to me, in fact worse than that I found it profoundly irritating.

This exhibition was fascinating to someone like me who is trying to write. Words can, of course, make pictures of their own, but in the hands of an artist they can become a visual poem which is far more than the sum of it’s parts.

Photos are included by kind permission of the Tate Archive and are the copyright of the artists concerned.

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