The Text is a Test. Language, word, reading in contemporary art
There have always been written words in paintings. Whether it is the words of the Angel to Mary (like in the Annunciations of Simone Martini and Lippo Memmi) or in cartouche displayed by people in scenes (like the manuscripts sometimes shown by the subjects of Hans Holbein’s paintings) or simply of the signature, artfully inserted in the painting as a part of it (like in the trompe l’oeil of Cornelis Gijsbrecht). In many circumstance text exists in the space of the image, verbal components affect the “figural”, as an optical representation and it contradicts the assumptions1. Instead of being limited to merely being seen, the words compel you to read, moving the attention from a level of visual perception to one of textual comprehension, at the price, however, of a double incongruity – that is, becoming itself a representation while at the same time, forcing the figure to become “readable”.
But in contemporary art, this presence no longer has the same sense of lyrical underlining, or of ironic subversion, and becomes an almost structural character of new forms of expression. This phenomenon is inextricably linked to the transformation of the aesthetic experience that overwhelms man at the dawn of modernity.
As Stephen Kern noted in his study that has become a classic, namely The culture of time and space, 1880-1918, in the few decades between the end of the 19th century and the start of the Great War, a real “experiential revolution”2 was observed. The rhythm of life became urgent, and actions, once dominated by slowness and contemplation, became frenetic. In particular, the acceleration imposed by the moving images of the cinema also involved new experiences, experiences that were completely different, such as reading. Cinema-goers were experimenting daily with this new relationship with time.
These men and women “dictate their telegrams, read their newspapers glancing at the titles and subtitles”3.
No longer confined to the world of the “book” or manuscript, modern communication exploded, from the telegram to the illustrated magazine, from the headlines of the newspaper to street advertising, from posters to neon signs, new forms of the written word meant new forms of attention and new reading speeds. The newly born modern world, next to the “Movement Image”4, saw at the same time the rise of a new social and experiential configuration; that is, that of the “movement-word”. The word, both written and spoken, inserted in a context that was increasingly being enriched by communicative possibilities that went beyond the “classic” medium of the press, began to manifest a restlessness that expressed itself in a variety of forms5.
Towards the end of the 19th Century small thaumatropes (disks which, when rotated quickly, superimpose the image on the back over that on the front) were already being proposed as a form of advertising: retinal persistence of the image of only consonants on one side of the cardboard is superimposed over the image of only vowels on the other side, creating a legible sentence from two sets of meaningless letters. In small objects such as this, and then in more complex objects such as the flashing neon signs or the titles of the first films, the use of “movement-word” was seen, which in addition to imposing themselves as a presence on signs, are placed in motion as in the frames of a film.
In this media panorama the letters were increasingly conceived as “images”: reading and seeing no longer constituted distinct perceptive acts, because in both cases the attention of the viewer (or of the simple inhabitant of the modern metropolis) was subjected to a state of uninterrupted and unprecedented excitement, while at the same time, this practice started to become the object of profound scientific study6.
Between the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century numerous psycho-physiological experiments sought to decipher the act of reading, to clarify the psychological mechanisms and even to measure the duration, quality, etc. The old associationist psychology, for example, maintained that reading happened via the recognition of one letter after the other, that became, in fact, mentally “associated” in words, and then in phrases and in constructions endowed with sense. But this approach, which tended to reduce the role of the reader to a sort of passive recorder of the proposed visual stimuli, appeared inadequate to the conditions of accelerated reading generated by the diffusion of urban advertising, rotogravure printing and cinema.
Moreover, in a similar conception of “chronologically ordered perception”, the role of memory was confined to that of an archive of signs that the reader can constantly compare with those perceived through the senses, like a “box” containing “photographic cliches” of images already seen7. In contrast to this perception, in his study on the structure of memory8, the philosopher Henri Bergson referred to the psychological mechanisms used while reading, which are a “true process of prediction”9. According to Bergson, when referring to the verbal representation, perception does not mean simply remembering, but also to anticipate through memories what we are “seeing” (in that moment). To express this active role of memory, the term “projection” is used in a way that psychologically tends towards the cinematographic: every written word is almost like a screen-painting on which the subject-spectator projects his memories-images, in this way organising his personal perception of the present that is always plastic and changeable.
The artistic avant-garde looked to transform these theoretical perceptions into aesthetic experimentation. Ferdinand Léger, in an article in 1913, was one of the first to establish a direct link between the revolution created by the invention of the press and that of the new media, primarily cinema. In his opinion “it is no coincidence that the evolution of means of locomotion and their speed find association in the new visual space”; he also added “the posters on the walls, the neon advertising, belong to the same order of ideas”. To read, talk, listen, write, all of this repertoire of gesture associated with the material transcription of language, became part of actions whose evident acceleration imposed a profound restructuring of the individual, on a perceptual psychological level, but also on aesthetic taste.
For their part, the Italian Futurists immediately understood the explosive possibilities contained in these theoretical options and strove to apply them, giving life to a real “typographical revolution” – leading to their proposal of the use, in the same page, of 20 different typographical characters, if necessary10. The Dadaists also used the typographic elements as an authentic artistic component, not only in their collage works, but above all in their vast editorial production. In particular, in 1916 Marcel Duchamp produced THE, a verbo-visual work in which the reader had to replace the missing words after the English article “the…” substituted with an asterisk. The subtitle of this work is very significant, since he referred to the painting that made him famous in 1913 at the Armory Show in New York (that is Nu descendant un Escalier, N° 2, 1912) which reads: “THE. Eye Test, Not a ‘Nude descending a Staircase’”. So what Duchamp did was focus not so much on the creative-generative aspect of the work, but on the performative aspect triggered by the act of reading: for this reason his works, in which a verbal element always appeared, were all considered as real “Eye Test(s)”; that is, “tests” of attention for the viewer’s eye11.
A continuous and uninterrupted line connects this pioneering experimentation to the neo-avant-garde of the 1960s and 1970s. Observing the cover of one of the more subversive and original Futurist books, Italo Tavolato’s Contro la morale sessuale (1913) is enough to grasp – beyond the revolutionary content – the impressive modernity of the graphic-typographic layout of the title. It is composed of letters, placed side by side on the page without spaces between, completely occupying the page. This recalls certain compositions of Concrete and Visual Poetry of much later, but also of the political propaganda leaflets of those years, precisely directed to obtain an intellectual response in the “active” reader.
And yet, what separates these experiences above all, though similar at the formal level, is the underlying aesthetic thrust. Futurist dynamism had grasped the experiential revolution due to the first medial wave – but the experiments of the neo-avant-gardes moved in a space dominated by television broadcasts, in an “ethereal” dimension in the McLuhanian sense. The use of the word in Conceptual works or in Visual Poetry was in fact decisively colder, more thoughtful, and played on a dynamic that was no longer mechanical, but rather electrical. This is best displayed in the conceptual videos produced by artists like John Baldessari, Lawrence Weiner, Ira Schneider, Richard Serra, Roberth Smithson or, in Italy, by Gino De Dominicis or Fabio Mauri. A memorable example of the latter is the famous Televisore che piange (The crying television), 1972 – a television performance carried out during a RAI broadcast, in which a desperate cry off-screen could be heard, while on the screen it was only possible to read the title of the piece12. The words became symbols and began a journey that gave them a double life: on the one hand, virtual on the screen (television or computer); while on the other hand, real in the form of a concrete presence, like the immense letters of Hollywood in Beverly Hills.
It is precisely by playing on their dual identity that contemporary artists have had fun; from Maurizio Cattelan who, in an almost life-size photoshop, “limited” himself to singling out just that word and transferred it to a garbage dump in Bellolampo, in Palermo (2001); to the German Julius Popp who creates iridescent writings stroboscopically illuminating the fall of a myriad of drops of water; up to Jack Pierson, who produces sculptural assemblages using huge letters from advertising signs. And this brings us to the project implemented by Paolo Parisi in collaboration with his students at the Academy of Fine Arts. They have three-dimensionally recreated the word MUSEO, precisely by extrapolating each of the letters from the work of other artists present in the Museo Novecento – in a kind of mise en abîme of the institution’s didactic function with its own content of visual works.
In this way the imaginative perceptions of a young (at the time) Futurist, such as Michele Leskovic (who chose the irreverent pseudonym Escodamé), turned out to be truly prophetic: his hope that “we await for our poems to be written on the blue pages of the sky from the smoking tails of the airplanes…” written in 193313, seemed to foresee the future. In fact, in 1978 Maurizio Nannucci, a great Conceptual artist, culturally and artistically rooted in Florence, used the sky as a blue page, writing on it with a transparent banner carried by a plane, the words Image du ciel: the most poetic of tautologies.
1-Cf. Jean-François Lyotard, Discourse, Figure, Klinksiek, Paris 1971.
2-Stephen Kern, The Culture of Time and Space 1880-1918, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, London 1983.
3-André Lang, L’art cinématographique, Alcan, Paris 1927, cit. in Laurent Guido, L’age du rythme, Payot, Lausanne 2007, p. 20.
4-Naturally the reference is to Gilles Deleuze, Cinéma I. L’image-mouvement, Minuit, Paris 1983; and to Cinéma II. L’image-temps, Minuit, Paris 1985.
5-Ferdinand Léger, Les origines de la peinture contemporaine et sa valeur représentative (1913), and Les réalisations picturales actuelles (1914), in Fonctions de la peinture, Gallimard, Paris 2004, p. 36 and pp. 40 and 42.
6-In his On the Witness Stand, New York, Doubleday, Page & Co., 1909, the psychologist Hugo Münsterberg summarises in a few lines the 20 years of work carried out in psychological laboratories in Germany and at Harvard, and explains the use of electrical instruments calibrated to the millisecond, capable of measuring the mental connections between the hearing of one word and another; cf. p. 80 and ff.
7-The reference is to Henry Bergson, Croissance de la vérité. Mouvément rétrograde du vrai, in La pensée et le mouvant, Alcan, Paris 1934, p. 189. Cf. J.K. Foster, Memory, Oxford U.P., 2008.
8-Bergson distinguishes two types of memory, one active and the other passive in Matière et mémoire. Essai sur la relation du corps à l’esprit, Alcan, Paris 1896, p. 92.
9-Bergson, ibid., p. 122.
10-This is the title of a paragraph from Marinetti’s manifesto, Distruzion della sintassi, in Id., Poesia e invenzione futurista, Mondadori, Milano 1996, p. 77.
11-I refer to this point in my paper Cine Ready-made. Marcel Duchamp et l’image en mouvement, Mimesis France, Paris 2018 (soon to be released).
12-I refer her to my paper on the relationship between contemporary art and the television medium, M. Senaldi, Cathode Art. From Painting to Screen, e Television & Art, both in C. Perrella, TV70: Francesco Vezzoli guarda la RAI, Exhibit. Cat., Fondazione Prada, Milano 2017, pp. 185-197; pp. 263-268 ; in part derived from the preceding M. Senaldi, Arte e Televisione. Da Andy Warhol a Grande Fratello, Postmediabooks, Milano 2009.
13-Cit. in R. Borraccini, Il libro futurista, in Il libro in antico regime tipografico, online edition, http://docenti.unimc.it/rosa.borraccini/teaching/2017/17542/files/storia-del-libro-e-delleditoria-2017-2018/libro-in-antico-regime-tipografico.
© 2019 The author, Carlo Cambi Publisher, Museo Novecento, Florence. Sergio Risaliti, curated by, Paolo Parisi, MUSEO, with texts by Sergio Risaliti, Giacinto Di Pietrantonio, Helga Marsala, Marco Senaldi, Paolo Parisi, Stefania Rispoli, Poggibonsi, 2019.