Sign systems

Bob and Roberta Smith, Make Art Not War, 1997

There is of course a very long tradition of text painting. It’s just that it’s not an art tradition but a commercial one: signwriting. Though shop signs are seldom painted now it’s still a form we recognise. This is an approach to painting that is about immediate communication of a message. And it’s an approach Bob and Roberta Smith uses very effectively as art.

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Dystopian dreams

Paul Noble, Nobson Central, 1998-9

The world of Paul Noble is a strange one. His imagined city, Nobson Newtown, which he started constructing in the form of monumental drawings in the late 1990s, is a complex space. The houses are modernist boxes; the city includes open spaces and evidence of a degree of urban planning reminiscent of the utopian ideals of the garden cities and new towns of the early to mid twentieth century. Everything, surely, should be perfect?

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The whole story

Fiona Banner, Apocalypse Now, 1997

Stories can be told in many different ways, words on the page and images on a cinema screen being two of the most common. It’s when the means of story-telling becomes words on a cinema screen that things start to get confusing. I’m not sure how easy it’d be to try to follow the story of Apocalypse Now from Banner’s piece of the same name, but the narrative is all there. It’s just that it’s there as a hand-written text on a page the size and shape of a cinema screen. And only yesterday there I was claiming Sean Landers choice of line length seemed excessive!

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Hiding in plain sight

Sean Landers, Navel Gaze, 1995

If a picture paints a thousand words then what happens when the picture is words? Sean Landers uses painting as a way to tell stories but it’s not the picture part of the equation – when there is one, and more often than not there isn’t – that does the talking. It’s all those words.

I saw Landers’s work first in Young Americans at the Saatchi Gallery in, I think*, 1996. I remember being mesmerised by it. I made a very good attempt at reading the paintings but I think I failed. By the time you’re about three or four lines in it’s hard to get from the end of one line to the start of the next without skipping or re-reading so hoolding on to the thread of the narrative becomes troublesome.

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It’s only words

John Baldessari, Everything is Purged from this Painting, 1968

Thinking about books becoming art yesterday made me ponder the use of text – one of the raw materials of books – as art. Language is key to the conceptual art of the 1960s, with the idea taking precedence over aesthetics. Inevitably the resulting work could be rather dry and hard to engage with, but this is far from universally true. John Baldessari’s text paintings work on several levels for me. Firstly, Baldessari confuses matters by rendering his text in paint on canvas. Secondly, the text is often funny, especially in the context of painting.

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Book art and other structures

Liu Wei, Untitled, 2011Untitled, 2011

The idea of books as art is hardly new. The concept of the artist’s book is a familiar one; indeed, there are artists’ book fairs all over the place. It’s just that when books become art is usually in the form of a book work: a book by an artist that functions as a work in its own right rather than as documentation. In Liu Wei’s exhibition at White Cube, Bermondsey at the moment, books have become sculpture and taken on the form of a city seemingly teetering on a rock with skyscrapers leaning at alarming angles.

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The sound of melting ice

Katie Paterson, Vatnajökull, 2007

Vatnajökull in Iceland is the largest glacier in Europe. But it’s melting into a lagoon, thanks, one assumes, to climate change. For a week in June 2007, artist Katie Paterson submerged a microphone, attached to a mobile phone, into the freezing waters of the ever expanding Jökulsárlón lagoon making it possible to listen to the sound of the ice melting.

For the work Vatnajökull (the sound of), Paterson displayed the phone number – in the form of a neon sign – at the Slade School of Fine Art in London as part of her MFA degree show.

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Deformities and pregnant pauses

Nina Saunders, The Age of Reason, 1995

If rice can be art – and clearly it can be, and good art at that – then so can all sorts of everyday objects and materials. Like chairs. Admittedly chairs might more usually be expected to count as, say, furniture design, but attempts to categorise things can so easily go wrong and sometimes a chair just isn’t a chair. Such as when it’s afflicted by a large spherical tumour. Or when it starts to collapse in on itself. Or, well, any number of things really…

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The stuff of art (and life)

Vong Phaophanit Neon Rice Field 1993

Vong Phaophanit, Neon Rice Field, 1993

Rice is a staple. It’s a foodstuff a large portion of the world’s population depends on. For those of us with the luxury of choice whose diet has become mixed as a result of the movement of people, goods and traditions, it has less cultural significance but is nonetheless something we take for granted, while knowing we could survive without it. For us it could perhaps be argued that art is something akin to a staple. We could perhaps find a substitute if push came to shove but in its own way it nourishes us. Mix the two and you have Vong Phaophanit’s Neon Rice Field an extraordinary installation for which Phaophanit was nominated for the Turner Prize in 1994.

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Everything and nothing at all

the whole world + the work = the whole worldMartin Creed, Work No. 232: the whole world + the work = the whole world, 2000

There are two ways to see this. Clearly if A + B = A then B = 0, so in Martin Creed’s equation the work can definitely be read as nothing at all. But is art really a big fat zero? And if it is, is the outside of a major art museum the place to say it? Well, let’s try again…

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