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Text Me presented artworks on the theme of messaging. Curator, Glen Walls, assembled a group that included himself, four artists who regularly work with text—Rose Nolan, Sanné Mestrom, Gabrielle de Vietri and Danielle Freakley—together with the design duo Pandarosa.
The works incorporated the motif of text, or oblique references to it, across various technologies of expression not restricted to the typographic form. Although the artists showed an awareness of the history of concrete poetry, conceptual art and particularly the Art & Language movement, they avoided rehashing any of the old concerns of structural linguistics about the systematic features inherent in language’s operation.
The exhibition did not focus on the structures of language per se but its instrumentality in building relationships or communities. By foregrounding the social functions of language and privileging individual utterances, the exhibition closely examined various intimacies created by speech and writing. Certain of the artists achieved this by inserting themselves into the work, or by using first-person to second-person speech, as if to whisper to the viewer, this is about you and me. Others created this intimacy by expressing personal vulnerability. These various strategies seemed to run the spectrum bounded by the two extremes of what the imperative Text me can signify: on the one hand a breezy sign off meaning let’s talk and on the other a neediness of the you never write, you never call…variety.
Sanné Mestrom has become known for large-scale painted wall texts of quasi biblical messages rendered with dizzying spatial illusions. By contrast, in Text Me she presented a series of large black and white images that were so degraded they appeared to be copies of copies. They depicted a performance by the artist that involved smearing her painted body along a wall. There was no typographic text in this work; instead Mestrom presented the evidence of using her body as a writing instrument to create what could be seen as a kind of graffiti tag, based on the body leaving behind its own indexical signature on the wall. However, the immediacy of effect the work sought to create was undone by its presentation as documentation rather than as the original performance or as the smeared wall.
Pandarosa presented a wall-painting framed by two freestanding cardboard forms painted with ink drawings of each of the two members of the collective. The painted wall featured their signature style of silhouette shapes overlaid with organic-looking spidery drawing. It appeared to spell out Pandarosa. It too functioned as a graffiti tag, but in a more literal way than did Mestrom’s work. The work’s main content was a representation of its own authors who signed it thrice over: once by creating it in their signature style, a second time by writing their name large within it and a third time by presenting images of each of the two of them framing the work like bookends. As we might expect from graphic designers, there was an overt concern with the way text’s typographical features mediate its signification. But in this instance, the duo achieved a kind of anti-typography, for there was a partial breakdown of legibility in the individual letters and their sequencing.
Glen Walls presented an installation that featured a crumbling wall supporting a puzzling assortment of images. These functioned like conceptual clues needing interpretation. This work was also a kind of graffiti tag, or signature writ large, but a very subtle one. By exhibiting a wall, the artist invoked his own surname, Walls, in the form of a rebus. The wall was papered with a repeated pattern of symbols reminiscent of a personal coat-of-arms based on an assortment of mementi mori: including a modernist building, a retro car, three skulls and an urn. An image of the artist appeared separately in each of the framed photographs displayed on the wall, but in them he was not really himself. Instead he functioned as a kind of blank person on whom to hang messages and monograms. The entire effect was to generate a slippage between logos, the plural of logo (or logotype), and logos, the word. This wall appeared to simultaneously break down and reconstitute itself; through its self-referential play, it absorbed the signature, transformed and diffused it.
Of the several works Rose Nolan displayed, the most compelling took the form of a double row of pennants. Ordinarily we might associate the pennant with a kind of triumphalism, but the message spelled out across the flags was one of neediness and self-doubt. Help me to do things better and, below this, help me to do better things. A reading informed by structuralism might focus on the banal observation that shifting the word order results in varying the meaning. Instead, the work offered richer insights about language when the viewer focused on its social message. A kind of prayer for help, as well as a public broadcast of personal inadequacy and personal striving, it highlighted the demands that utterances place on the listener and the social, emotional and ethical obligations that ensnare two parties when they are engaged in conversation.
Nolan’s work found a resonance in the self-help theme of Gabrielle de Vietri. Vietri’s works operated like coaching tools designed to help the viewer overcome some kind of autism or interpretative blockage and spur them on to minuscule achievements of an occupational-therapy variety. In a joke about the ritual aspects of viewing artworks, one work comprised printed and framed instructions that coached the spectator, step by step, through the challenge of viewing the art work at hand, although it was only through viewing the work he or she could assimilate the instructions. Beside it was a workbook that operated like a brain-gym for someone with learning difficulties; it featured elementary and monotonous symbolic tasks for an individual to work through, such as practicing to input their pin number on a printed autoteller key pad. Then on their way out of the exhibition, viewers could help themselves to a balloon printed with a cryptic—but nevertheless inspirational—message such as Awaken the brain of spirit. The function of Vietri’s work was symbolically to hold the viewer’s hand through the entire experience and whisper reassuringly it’s going to be okay.
Danielle Freakley’s contribution was a scroll printed with a transcript of various things Freakley’s mother said to her over the telephone during a three-year period. It came across as a harping and critical monologue, each sentence one of numerous tiny but devastating blows of the cruel type that only one’s loved ones can inflict. It expressed the mother’s dissatisfaction that her daughter chose to work in an artistic idiom that made no distinction between performances and daily life, frustrations at the intrusions that it created, and anger at the way Danielle’s art practice subjects the artist and her family to ridicule among their relatives and the wider public. And it went on and on relentlessly. Perhaps the proof that Freakley’s work successfully integrates her art and her life is that we couldn’t distinguish between the mother’s rejection of Freakley-the-artist and her rejection of Freakley-the-daughter.
There was a raw honesty in the work and viewing it induced the level of discomfort such as we are told we are meant to feel when viewing the work of an artist such as Richard Billingham, for example. Like Billingham, by displaying this work, Freakley may be accused of exposing her mother to such judgement and derision as to bear out those very objections to her work that the mother raises in the transcript. But Freakley’s manipulation of the situation by editing the statements and presenting the transcription in an art gallery reminds us that she is not a victim of the mother’s monologue but a participant in two dialogues: one that takes place between Freakley and her mother, the other between Freakley and the viewer.
Freakley’s was the last work that a viewer would have encountered when moving clockwise around the two rooms of the gallery. And it was a work in which the exhibition’s themes crystallized. The show was not really about new technologies of communication but old ones: billboards, graffiti, flags, printed balloons, the telephone, the book and the scroll. And if there was one insight the exhibition encouraged viewers to take away, it seemed to return us to the program of the structuralists after all; Text Me reminded us that all language is a form of co-dependency.