Language is the miraculous human invention that allows us to transmit our thoughts through space and time. One origin myth, the Old Testament account of the Tower of Babel, seeks to explain how humans might be united by language, then divided by language: it is a story of the power of communication and of communication frustrated. During our recent enforced physical separation we have clung to the messages that keep us connected, the news bulletins that keep us informed, and we’ve struggled with silence, lapses and static.
The artworks assembled here are all concerned with language and communication, and in our current circumstances, their messages can take on new, unintended meaning. Imagine a babel of whispers, shouts, mutters, sounds and signals sent across the gap between artwork and viewer, some fated to incomprehensibility, some hitting home with renewed weight and resonance. In a multitude of languages, certain messages are clear and urgent, others encoded or obscured, breaking down into stuttering single syllables or onomatopoeic sounds.
Artists: Mel Bochner, Tracey Emin, Cerith Wyn Evans, Theaster Gates, Gilbert & George, Douglas Gordon, Wade Guyton, Al Held, Ibrahim Mahama, Christian Marclay, Harland Miller, Sarah Morris, Damián Ortega, Park Seo-Bo, Eddie Peake, Jessica Rankin, Gary Simmons, Danh Vo ‘Babel’ is curated by Susanna Greeves, Director, Museum Liaison, White Cube.
‘Language tethers us to the world; without it we spin like atoms.’
Loud and Clear
Borrowing the graphic style of hoardings, headlines or street signs delivers a message with force and clarity.
Pioneering conceptual artist Mel Bochner is known for the mordant humour of his text works: his colourful fire-sale slogans seem particularly dark at present.
Profile heads composed of colourful psychedelic lettering recall both the mind-expanding, cultural movements of the 1960s and the pseudo-scientific diagrams of phrenology and early psychoanalysis, but Eddie Peake’s heartfelt appeal for soul-searching could not be more timely.
Sarah Morris’s single words punch home with an uncompromising nihilism. Influenced in particular by New York Post and Daily News headlines, the text paintings were made in her Times Square studio and are ‘portraits of noise and adrenaline derived from the city’.
We may have temporarily retreated from the streets, but while Morris delivers New York City, Gilbert & George bring us London, offering a Dickensian sweep of urban drama in the form of lurid headlines lifted from newsvendors’ stands.
My head in a Fire, 2006
Here I am
Even when broadcast in the form of a neon sign, Tracey Emin’s writings are intimate, candid and heartfelt. In her familiar handwriting, her thoughts, fears and most private moments seem directed as personal messages to each of us.
SUMAYA ABUKARI OBUASI, 2019
Ibrahim Mahama’s photograph shows the forearm of an itinerant Ghanaian worker, tattooed with their name and birthplace. This declaration of identity is a message in the event of a future calamity: it will allow for their body to be returned to his family should they die far from home. There are over 70 different ethnic groups throughout Ghana, each with their own language, dialects and traditions. Many of the men and women who have collaborated with Mahama bear these markings, and have migrated across great distances from their remote villages in search of often-hazardous work in marketplaces and ports.
Everything is Still There, 2005
I have measured out my life
Jessica Rankin might be measuring out a term of confinement in the painstaking medium of embroidery, her needle tallying passing time (THREE YEARS… FIVE YEARS) and debating ‘IT’S ALL GONE’… ‘EVERYTHING IS STILL THERE’.
By way of counterpoint, the repetitive action of calligraphy in Park Seo-Bo’s ‘Ecriture’ painting is a meditative exercise in the Buddhist tradition, compared by the artist to ‘a Buddhist monk’s chanting of a prayer, which is repeated to reach a state of nirvana.’ Just as a chanted mantra loses connection to meaning, the illegibility of its looping calligraphy is unimportant.
Ecriture No. 66-74, 1974
‘And the Lord said ‘Look, they are one people, and they have all one language: and this is only the beginning of what they will do: nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. Come, let us go down, and confuse their language there, so they will not understand one another’s speech’.
Mortacci Nostra, 2014
Lost in Translation
Artists love to explore the cracks in language, the places where meaning can slip and re-form.
Eddie Peake’s acid-coloured spray paintings are inflected with a street ‘language’, graffiti. The near-untranslatable text he chooses here, ‘Mortacci Nostra’, is in Romesco, Roman street slang, meaning roughly ‘to our despicable dead ancestors!’. The words shaped from negative space, revealing the polished steel ground, are a metaphor for gaps in language – and it is in this space that the viewer finds themselves reflected.
The Danish-Vietnamese artist, Danh Vo, in gilded German gothic script, offers the goriest, toe-slicing scene from the Grimms' Cinderella story as a parable of the lengths to which one might go to fit into an alien culture.
Taking a passage from Proust already translated into English, Cerith Wyn Evans submits it to further transformations: into Japanese Kanji characters and then to folded glass forms, testing the very limits of language and meaning.
Coded and Cryptic
Translating language into light, the cadence of a text spoken by the artist becomes a ‘lighttrack’, brightening and dimming the candles of Cerith Wyn Evans’ chandelier.
Your Words Become Mine [Sound Graph], 2018
Sarah Morris’ ‘Sound Graph’ paintings also encode language as visual information. A phrase quoted in one of her films, ‘your words become mine’, is rendered as a hard-edged abstraction drawn from the digital display of sound equipment.
On a visit to primatologists in Nigeria, Damián Ortega was fascinated to observe sign-language communication between apes and humans. To render this coded system of gestures as sculpture he has chosen a form reminiscent of milagros, the votive charms often found in Mexican shrines and churches.
‘With the sound of gusting wind in the branches of the language trees of Babel, the words gave way like leaves.’
The "I", 1965
I – U – WE
Since Dada’s dismantling of language, artists have been taking words apart like so many scrabble tiles, stripping language down to its component parts and liberating it from meaning.
In his early 1960s paintings, such as The “I” (1965), Al Held reached for letters as geometric, clear and ‘acceptable’ formal devices with which he could ‘make something very concrete’.
U Sculpture, 2004
Wade Guyton has made the single keystrokes ‘X’ and ‘U’ a repeated trope of his digital paintings, and here ‘U’ is extruded into a gleaming minimal sculpture. By employing the same fabricators who produced much of Donald Judd’s works, Guyton makes explicit his dialogue with and deconstruction of minimalist art history. Formally, the U’s act to amplify and mimic themselves, reflecting mirror images of their elegant, highly polished surface while also opening this site of displacement to the viewer’s own image.
Harland Miller has in mind the illuminated capitals of manuscripts, the very earliest manifestation of text in art, which he revisits with a pop sensibility in his letter paintings.
Whilst they too riff on modernist sculpture, Theaster Gates’ neon signs are an homage both to Japanese nightlife – the bright lights of an urban drinking oasis – and to the iconic colour palette taken from the Johnson Publishing Company offices
‘I don’t want words that other people have invented. […] I want my own stuff, my own rhythm, and vowels and consonants too, matching the rhythm and all my own.’
Actions: Plaf Pla-doosh Whump (No.1), 2012
Comic-book sound effects lend Christian Marclay’s ‘Action’ paintings and drawings an air of silent slapstick, though this goofy humour encodes a clever art-historical mashup, Pop colliding with Abstract Expressionism. Each sampled onomatopoeic word communicates an action, a graphic score for Marclay’s application of paint.
In his woodcut, Scream (Night Echoes) (2019), the visual sampling of manga images creates a reverberating scream, an homage to Munch’s iconic image of existential trauma: a silent, wordless howl.
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