The Art of Text

Go East
Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney; Sherman Contemporary Art Foundation, Sydney
14 May - 26 July 2015

When is text art? Art and text command their own jealous domains. When one becomes subject for the other, different meanings are animated.

A showing of the Sherman collection of contemporary Asian art, that was spread across the Art Gallery of New South Wales (AGNSW) and the Sherman’s Paddington gallery, included several works built on text motifs by leading artists from the region, among them Ai Weiwei, Yang Zhichao and Jitish Kallat.

The art of text resonated in Ai Weiwei’s Archive; a blog printed on 8,000 sheets of traditional printmakers’ paper using traditional methods. It engaged the physicality of paper and sign, as well as its symbolic space. Being displayed in a box the size of the viewer, it addressed the volume of internet communication, comparing it to the spare practice of calligraphy. This work rendered the art of text in its contemporary context as a visual and tactile proposition.

It also resonated, as Ai Weiwei’s work does, with the political climate of text, especially in China where he was, until recently, ‘confined’, as authorities had impounded his passport. The internet and the blog as powerful sites for galvanising political action, and China’s habit of closing down bloggers and blocking internet access for its citizens, made a significant context for Archive

The art of text was differently held in an array of texts in Yang Zhichao’s Chinese Bible, an installation of 3000 collected diaries dating over five decades from 1949. During this period, private writing and individual opinion were discouraged, as part of the prevailing control of discourse in the ‘People’s Republic’.

The diaries were exemplars of conflicting political currents; each a compact cipher of the citizen whose writing attested to his individual pursuits in the revolutionary mass project. Their visual uniformity—all roughly the same size, predominantly red—provided variations on a theme of conformity, that seemed poignantly to express a population who must engage the dictates of the collective but each in his or her own way.

The diaries were also tokens of a mass production engaging with the recent economic history of ‘Made in China’. Their qualities varied from silk coverings to plastic lining, but none were individual or ‘hand made’. The ubiquity of their style, available from any stationery shop, yoked the production line to a totalitarian image of the population. Some diaries recorded expenditure, some outlined timetables of work activity, and some copied down ‘inspirational texts’ of their leaders, including lines taken from the iconic Little Red Book of Chairman Mao. Few were personal.

Chinese Bible resonates with the art of text in several ways; the book taken as a portal to thought; as the interface between public and individual discourse; as a social form of knowledge; and of authority, subjectively imbibed. 

But a diary is also representative of the one who writes in it, while rendering its reader enigmatic. The array of unopened diaries in Chinese Bible gestured mutely to darker themes of surveillance and the loss of privacy that trouble the contemporary period. The impromptu expressive freedom of a diary space is compromised by the knowledge that these diaries were read by work committees on a regular basis. Private writing could trigger political consequences.

Muteness is evocative; text is not safe in a repressive polity. ‘When mainstream ideology comes to dominate the core psychology of the majority, private writing that deviates from public discourse is not only highly dangerous, it is virtually impossible …’ The publication, in the accompanying catalogue, of a captivating story by Nicholas Jose, ‘Ha-ha-ha’, dwelt on this muteness, while underlining the vivid difference between the word used as a visual icon, and the function of words as makers of poetic meaning. 

In Public Notice #2 Jitish Kallat spread a famous speech of Mahatma Gandhi’s as a portico down the length of the AGNSW foyer. The installation used 4,479 bone-shaped letters to spell out Gandhi’s world-renowned speech of 1930, protesting the British-imposed tax on salt. The scandal of an imperial levy on an essential human nutrient made Gandhi’s text a potent political gesture, one that became famous in a history of civil disobedience. 

Jitish Kallat’s installation was, compared with the art of text in Archive and Chinese Bible, oddly flat. The visual qualities of its grand presentation of Gandhi’s speech were perhaps suitably polemical—a font of Disney-style bones against a massive turmeric-yellow background. But what did this artistic repetition ‘realise’ about the text and its context that went beyond the fact of it being canonical? 

The work re-invoked the speech within a context of violence between Hindu and Muslim communities; the artist wrote, ‘Within the Indian context … we have the worst instance of subversion of Gandhi’s words in the year 2002 … the speech was delivered not far from the site where India saw one of the worst communal riots and bloodshed since the Indian Independence’.

The AGNSW installation demonstrated something else about the staging of text as art; the work in the Australian context evoked a possibly unintended reference, as words taken out of context will. The sense of the flatness came from the vacuity of political speech in our contemporary public discourse, where we live with a surfeit of speech dominated by the cynicism of spin. It is a far cry from the danger of text in a totalitarian state—in a twenty first century democracy, the challenge is to give text its import, to retain its truthfulness.

Jitish Kallat has a significant reputation for treating other canonical speeches as installations (the first Public Notice was from a speech of Jawaharlal Nehru’s; Public Notice #3 was of Swami Vivekananda’s words). 

Public Notice #2 did not necessarily refer in the monumental way anticipated by the text. Instead, it served to evacuate meaning, and provoke despair for political speech in our time. Perhaps the work intended this irony?

Jitish Kallat, Public Notice 2, 2007. Installation view. Resin, 4,479 sculptural units. Edition 2/3. Dimensions variable. Courtesy the Gene & Brian Sherman Collection, and Sherman Contemporary Art Foundation, Sydney. Photograph Hangar Biocca, Milan. 

Ai Weiwei, An archive, 2015. Detail. Huali wood, Xuan paper. The Gene & Brian Sherman Collection, and Sherman Contemporary Art Foundation, Sydney. © the artist. 

Yang Zhichao, Chinese Bible, 2009. Details. 3,000 found books. Dimensions variable. Courtesy the Gene & Brian Sherman Collection, and Sherman Contemporary Art Foundation, Sydney. Photograph Jenni Carter, AGNSW. 

Yang Zhichao, Chinese Bible, 2009. Details. 3,000 found books. Dimensions variable. Courtesy the Gene & Brian Sherman Collection, and Sherman Contemporary Art Foundation, Sydney. Photograph Jenni Carter, AGNSW.