Gill Hedleyback

Curator & Contemporary Art Consultant

Use of Text in Sculpture

Gill Hedley speaking at Site Gallery, Sheffield, in 2006

Writing on the Wall

Essay on the use of text in the work of Douglas Gordon, Simon Patterson and Langlands & Bell for the Sculpture Journal 

photo of A-Muse-um by Langlands & Bell
A-Muse-um by Langlands & Bell

A baited banker thus desponds,
From his own hand foresees his fall,
They have his soul, who have his bonds;
'Tis like the writing on the wall.

Jonathan Swift, 1720

The original writing on the wall appeared, from the hand of God, at Belshazzar's Feast. The phrase re-occurred during the events in Paris, May 1968, in which students declared we are the writing on the wall. It means a warning but it also a literal description of a practice of contemporary sculpture.

From Lord Elgin's plan to remove some pieces of stone with inscriptions and figures from the Parthenon and the ubiquity of the incised legend SPQR throughout ancient Rome and her empire, we know that sculpture and architecture have long incorporated text.

Text has played a role in the plastic arts to invoke awe, to inform and identify. This was adapted powerfully by the architects, literal and metaphorical, of the United States of America, especially in the monuments and memorials of Washington, DC. Text can also add verisimilitude and a sense of a voice outside the work of art. In painting, the depiction of inscriptions in stone (such as Poussin's Arcadian Shepherds in the Louvre) can also serve to emphasise the substance and sculptural quality of the material in question. As the shepherd traces the inscription In Arcadia Ego with a fingertip not only the message but the texture is underlined.

Much later, synthetic cubism incorporated found texts and fragments from newspapers, bottle labels or musical scores - to add a quotidian and contemporary element. This elides into the imagery of Pop art in which words acknowledge the power and ubiquity of packaging and advertising. Universality, at least in its literate and western aspect, is addressed.

Douglas Gordon began to send a series of Letters in about 1991 to figures in the art world. Each consisted of one of a group of selected phrases including I forgive you and I am aware of who you are & what you do. Each text had a carefully chosen font and ink colour; each was signed by the artist.

I wanted the letters to be read, not necessarily hung on the wall, or safely kept for 'posterity' (whatever that might be) ... I liked the fact that 95% of people might throw them away.

In 1990, in his degree show at The Slade School of Art, University of London, Gordon installed a text into rim of the aperture under the dome of University College's library. The college was founded by Jeremy Bentham on liberal, utilitarian principles and was built without a chapel. Gordon's Meaning and Location used a text from the New Testament Luke 23:43: Truly I say unto you today you will be with me in Paradise.

The text was painted directly on to the wall and ran twice in a circle, unpunctuated and uninterrupted. The line was chosen because of its ambivalence; a comma on either side of the word today shifts emphasis and meaning. The final power of the work lies in its siting: to see it the viewer had to look upwards and then the gaze was directed beyond the aperture in to the library.

This was a library of philosophy, science and art, it is a repository of hundreds of different belief systems; each one of them mediated through books, in which, like the Biblical text, there exists the potential for hundreds and thousands of errors.

Ambivalence between the classical and the contemporary worlds often exists in Gordon's work and dichotomies of good and evil, black and white, lightness and darkness, are amongst his major themes. Moving away from classical texts in appropriate settings, his work Empire, 1998, was commissioned for the Merchant City Civic Society in Glasgow. It is a green neon sign with the letters edged in white on a black background. These spell the word EMPIRE but this is reflected in a strip of mirrored steel and so reads in reverse. The light behind one letter appears to be faulty and its flicker attracts attention from the nearby main thoroughfare. Passers-by might not regard it as anything more than a normal part of street furniture. However, its out of date Americanised appearance and unlikely position on Brunswick St in Glasgow's mercantile district raises ideas of a lament for a lost empire or the loss of Glasgow's Empire Theatre. To an art or cineaste audience it will refer to Andy Warhol's film Empire, 1964, which shows a single shot of the Empire State Building from dusk to dawn. Precisely, though, the word and its form can act as an open sesame to scenes from Alfred Hitchcock's 1958 film Vertigo. In this, James Stewart follows Kim Novak along a street until she disappears into a building. An establishing shot reveals that the building is an hotel, the Empire, and the shot is followed by a re-run of the original scene in which Stewart appears to walk down the street from the opposite direction. Gordon's work makes a subtle contribution to the field of public art, allusive and knowing. It sidles into the urban landscape with enough oddness to provoke curiosity yet enough attention to local detail to be both unassuming and to make strong, clear references to a shared image of the contemporary world. In this regard it is an heir to Pop art.

Text and word became an element of the movements, including both performance art and land art in the 1960s, that led sculpture off the plinth. The generation of artists that emerged in the late 1980s rejected walks in the landscape in favour of the vocabulary of the street, the city and the cinema.

One maverick who maintained a sterner approach to landscape was Ian Hamilton Finlay who took his early work as a concrete poet to an ultimate level in his garden, Little Sparta, at Stonypath in Scotland, begun in 1967. Here the landscape is defined through sculptures and inscriptions which embrace references to war and nature, classical Greece and revolutionary France. A parallel set of references to worlds beyond this Lanark garden can be found in his large series of works that derive from boats and sailing. Many evoke journeys and mapping through use of boats' call signs, the letter and number combination that identify a vessel's port of origin.

Simon Patterson has appropriated the vocabulary and metaphors of travel in several works. Untitled (Sails), 1996, takes three sets of sails away from their craft and identifies them as Raymond Chandler 1888-1925; Currer Bell 1816-1855; Laurence Sterne 1713-1768.

The identifications, names and life span, are all those of novelists, very well-known for the creation of fictional landscapes (all land-locked). Chandler;s Philip Marlowe walks the mean streets of 1930s LA; Charlotte Bronte (Currer Bell was her nom de plume) is associated with the landscapes and houses she creates for the gothick adventures of Jane Eyre; Sterne's Tristram Shandy is both a picaresque journey and a text that deconstructs narrative and language.

The use of names and dates here appears like a memorial and Patterson uses the device to trigger our own memories and references. A careful choice of font and a combination of unlikely characters from Patterson's pantheon act as a mnemonic for the viewer but without any easy route.

In Patterson's work J.P233 in c.so. Blue, 1992, one of his personal constellations is mapped out for us. A wide cerulean blue background is inscribed with sweeping white arcs in the diagrammatic form of an airline route map. Each hub or destination has been re-named and Indira Gandhi is linked directly to Mick Jagger and John Wayne while the best way to get from Errol Flynn to Franco seems to be via Julius Caesar. It is a work of its moment a frozen shot of 1992 so that while Hilary Clinton's star is more or less in the ascendant today in 2009, not everyone will be as familiar today with Tipper Gore as back in the day.

This work links, of course, to Patterson's famous work of the same year, The Great Bear, in which the London tube map, designed by Harry Bick, is recreated in every detail apart from the basic textual information. The artist states that he is interested in things getting away from meaning. Each station becomes a stellar character in worlds that include those of philosophy, French royalty, Christian saints, comedy, British football and newsreaders. The routes and interchanges are prescribed for us but the journeys that they offer into the imagination or memory are ours to define. The successful use of words might seem to be dependent on experience of living in late twentieth century Britain with at least a partial set of shared references. It is however generous in its range of allusions (from Max Wall to Louis I) and again, as a work of public art, (originally Patterson planned to hand these out in tube stations) its use of words offers an explicit route to understanding with warm humour but without rhetoric.

Ben Langlands and Nikki Bell, working together as Langlands & Bell, say that they explore the complex web of relationships linking people and architecture and the coded systems of circulation and exchange which surround us.

A work of 1994, Millbank Penitentiary, is a fine example of this and refers us back to Jeremy Bentham. He designed the panopticon form of the prison, a flower-shaped plan in which the centre is a space from where the six petal-like blocks can be observed. The site is now occupied by Tate Britain.

Langlands & Bell use letters rather than words, employing them as signifiers in the way that they have also represented the meaning of buildings through diagrammatic forms.

Commissioned by the Trustees of the Imperial War Museum to work in Afghanistan, Langlands & Bell created a visual vocabulary of the signage that advertised the plethora of donor agencies based there. There were approximately 120 international NGOs (Non-Governmental Organisations), UN agencies and 160 local Afghan NGOs based in Kabul. The artists created a series of prints and flags based on their assorted acronyms. More recently a series of works has used the increasingly similar brand initials that museums of contemporary art employ. The original MOMA has spawned many witty and memorable derivatives such as SMAK and MAXXI and their link with consumer brands and logos is plain.

Like Patterson, transport systems have been a rich source for Langlands & Bell and they have made a particular personal vocabulary from the call signs of international airports. These letter codes are part of the global system for delivering passengers, planes (and sometimes their luggage) to world-wide cities that have an equal value when reduced to the simplicity of their letter codes. The use and repetition of these letters alludes to remembered and imagined journeys as well as the coded communication systems air traffic control or internet domain names that link us all.

Most apposite of all settings of Langlands & Bell's public works is Moving World (Night & Day), 2008, at Terminal 5, Heathrow Airport (LHR). Two arcs of blue neon letters face each other at either end of a 300 metre long plaza, with grass and trees between. Day is set against an opaque white glass background while Night has its twin in black. Each half of the work has a low plinth of highly polished black granite beneath. The sequence of lights is computer-driven, sometimes in tandem, sometimes randomly. Each semi-circle of light and letters is reflected in its plinth so that the metaphor of the setting or rising sun becomes clear and as the light leaves, say, LHR, it arrives in another hemisphere at SYD. The blueness of the neon shares the colour of the sky above the clouds and also that of the control panel of the instruments on the flight deck of each plane whose journey is recalled by the moving arcs of light. Each pulse resembles the movement of hands on a clock, watched by travellers or those wait to meet them and also soothes in its assured repetition.

The incorporation or celebration of the word by artists is often a device to avoid either abstraction or the figurative. More positively, it is frequently a method of involving both by association. Patterns and diagrams, allusions to words and their alternative meanings, can evoke human presence without the human form and all its encumbrances of gender, age or type. The use of the word can be a direct route to wittiness and an explicit invitation to enjoy and understand a work of art. In the public realm, where Empire, The Great Bear and Moving World reside, this is a rare pleasure.