The trouble with language

Fiona Banner, Every Word Unmade, 2007

Before moving on from text and language – at least temporarily, there’s more I want to write about at some point – it seems like a good idea to go back to the basic building blocks of text: letters and punctuation.  Typography is more usually the domain of designers but given that lots of artists have concerned themselves with language as a sign system, it’s no great surprise that some have also worked with its constituent parts.

In Every Word Unmade, Fiona Banner presents the alphabet as an opportunity for communication; the basic letterforms have the potential to become words.

Every Word Unmade (detail), 2007

In Banner’s alphabet, the glass tubes for the neon letters were hand formed by the artist. Given her lack of expertise with glass, the results are unevenly shaped, slightly wobbly letters. The result is a slightly fragile alphabet that could become any word, but as it stands says nothing.  

The Bastard Word, 2006-7

In The Bastard Word, the drawn letterforms are made up of imagery of war planes found in magazines. The alphabet again has the potential to communicate but this is undermined by the imagery: use of military force being the result of a failure to of other means of communication.

The Bastard Word (detail), 2006-7

Banner has extended this approach (and the neon one) to punctuation, creating symbols that seem both alien and familiar. Through an alphabet is always immediately recognisable, though it gives structure to the written word, punctuation takes on a strangeness when isolated from its intended purpose so the symbols seem quite abstract until we deliberately remind ourselves of their role.

The Bastard Punctuation, 2006-7

Banner has also worked with punctuation in sculptural form, creating sets of full stops from different fonts all in the same 1800pt size. This work has taken the form of polystyrene sculptures as well as painted bronzes, sometimes shown with drawings of the same forms. The results are curious forms, most – but not all – round or at least oval but nonetheless markedly different in size and shape.

Full Stops, 1998

The full stop forms the end point of language. Its role is unique and final; it is also the simplest mark to make: a single dot of pen on page. As we read, a full stop, as a pause, amounts to a breath. It’s the negative space between sentences; as light as air and almost non-existent on the page. Banner’s use of polystyrene – a lightweight packaging material that is often formed into the negative space between packaged object and box.

When rendered in more solid, and more traditional, sculptural materials, the stops seem altogether more robust. Here the mark becomes a firm command to stop.

Century Gothic Full Stop, 2001


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