In the context of growing anxieties over social and political fragmentation and ecological collapse, humanity tends towards expressions and explorations of permanence seen as escape; perpetuity as salvation; the everlasting as a comfortable haven. But how do we visualise permanence?
The spectacle of the never-ending is reproduced in daily snippets of visual or conceptual production: the expansion of a digital inexhaustible space, the endless collection of data, the advance of virtual reality and artificial forms of intelligence to transcend the broken, the human, and the earthly. Scaled down, one form of visual production that addresses permanence by exploring its inversion is the written word mounted or displayed in public places. Either as established practice of renowned artists or as anonymous form activism, the display of text in a public area plays with the idea of permanence: the apparent durability of the written word is paralleled by the fragility of material (neon signs or other light installation) and borrows from the short-lived existence of advertising productions (temporary billboards).
In the works of British artist Nathan Coley, language is used as ready-made. The phrase exists both as content and medium, expanded and stretched beyond typical understanding of “text” to become its own icon. This short-circuited form of semiotic construction lends itself to the realm of the visual: the declaration weighs more as it impacts the viewer at an affective level, sure to overlap the memory of the phrase with the emotional response to its physical display. One of Coley´s recent works – “The Same for Everyone” – has been commissioned for the 2017 European Capital of Culture in Aarhus, Denmark. The text, mounted on ten metal scaffolds and installed in different locations in Denmark, contains subtle political connotations, as well as more direct interactions with space and time. Location, repetition, and duration become essential to decoding this work: the durability of the metal scaffolding is contrasted by the fragility of light; the apparent intransigence of an all-capital, sans letterform is countered by the transience of the installation itself and by the very semantic content – clearly temporary, evidently doubtful.
A similar type of interruption of the urban (and suburban) landscape is seen in Jenny Holzer´s LED installations and projections, also commissioned by Aarhus 2017 (“For Aarhus”). Holzer´s works engage with the city more directly, by using facades as projection surface, thus coming closer to a more distinct sense of protest and contestation. Architecture plays a clear role in Holzer´s creations, with emphasis on the double nature of the wall as a political symbol: the inside and the outside; the exterior – politics, history, narrative, and the interior – ideas of class, access, control, institutions.
It´s particularly interesting that this genre of visual production has played a significant role in the year-long celebration of European culture, in a year of essential shifts in international politics, migration patterns, and social turmoil. At the height of innovation in communication technology, the world seems to grow deaf: dialogue is replaced by a culturally blind noise that carries the form but obscures the content. The use of text as interruption of visual repetitions in landscapes and urban routines challenges the blockage of critical thinking and social engagement at the heart of many European societies today. One could draw a parallel here with the acclaimed 2017 film by director Martin McDonagh “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri,” isolating the language and intention of protest mounted on a scaffold in public space as a product similar to Holzer´s and Coley´s works. Larger than life, the billboards employ visibility as a tool for protest at the edge of silence and powerlessness.
Used both by Holzer and Coley, light is a medium with the capacity of an artistic gesture in its own right. Light adds immediacy to the works, announcing their temporariness, and creating a sense of serendipity of the viewer encounter: people “happen upon” these works, in the dark Northern evenings, on their walks around their city. In this sense, the installations encode this encounter in their structure, attempting to predict and sneak into the personal and collective trajectories in the urban space. In “Three Billboards…”, light, through fire, engulfs the text – once more an inversion of permanence.
These text works are relevant and timely, especially in the context of reflecting upon European culture and citizenship today: they layer politically loaded messages over gestures of creative engagement with the public space, recalling a form of democratic living the continent might be straying from. The use of light and language seams together medium and content, calling for a revisiting of routines of communication and levels of interpersonal and collective understanding. More subtly – they produce visual embodiments of impermanence, clearing a path for a healthier, more sustainable relationship with our own ephemerality.
Words: Elena Stanciu