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'Here, O Sariputra, form is emptiness and the very emptiness is form; emptiness does not differ from form, form does not differ from emptiness; whatever is form, that is emptiness, whatever is emptiness, that is form, the same is true of feelings, perceptions, impulses and consciousness.
—The Heart Sutra, (Conze, 162-3)
The starting point for my exhibition, MESSAGERIE (the French word used for a delivery service, answerphone service, computer bulletin board and text messaging), which was held at the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Dijon during 2010, was my encounter with the museum's collection of paintings including depictions of swirling banderols with text inscribed on them. These are mostly by Flemish or Flemish-influenced artists, dating from the fourteenth to the early sixteenth century. I thought that the way the graceful serpentine dancing in space of the banderols appears to be frozen in an eternal present to be very beautiful. But the more I looked at the banderols the more incongruous they became. The convention within which a visual representation includes such things is essentially medieval, a time when a painting was conceived of as a two-dimensional surface upon which words and images were deployed to communicate mostly a religious message. Any texts incorporated into the field of the painting functioned as important ancillary devices that were meant to aid communication, and in the case of these banderols, they are also meant to represent speech. Their function is to bind the painting more tightly to the antecedent text the painting is meant to illustrate, as if the silence of a visual image made it an inadequate vessel for communicating sophisticated spiritual truths. Thus the banderols give voice to the dumb muteness of the picture.
Anonymous Burgundian Artist, 'The Annunciation', Sixteenth century, oil on panel (detail of the Angel). Copyright Musée des Beauux-Arts, Dijon
But in Italy in the fourteenth century the way in which the painting space was conceived began to change, and it gradually becomes a window through which we see something, or a stage upon which events take place, with all the elements within marshalled under the control of fixed-point perspective. Meanwhile, in northern Europe in the first quarter of the fifteenth century, there was a parallel transition from the International Gothic style towards a new kind of highly detailed realism made in oil paints, exemplified by Robert Campin and the Van Eyck brothers and their followers, a style that Erwin Panofsky calls 'microscopic-telescopic vision'. Any writing that was to be included in such new-style paintings could no longer be inscribed convincingly upon the work's surface – which is now supposed to be transparent – and instead had to appear as if written on some depicted surface that exists within the same illusionistic three-dimensional space projected by the rest of the painting. But anyway, within this new visual language images alone would come to play a far greater role in communicating a painting's message, and as a consequence, written words henceforth take an increasingly subordinate position within the visual arts in general.
But before the artists of the new optical realism successfully mastered the pictorial skills necessary for visually depicting emotion, and a code was established of expressive poses that could be easily comprehended, it was still necessary to employ some older kinds of pictorial sign-systems in order to guarantee a work's purpose and clarity of meaning. In other words, concern over the possible inadequacy of a purely optically-real kind of imagery to clearly communicate the religious message resulted in the inclusion of texts and other discursive signs to keep the semantic relay open.
To some extent, then, the banderols in the museum are of the same order as the halos we see in the works of the early Renaissance – in Masaccio or Piero della Francesca – which are also no longer painted flatly on the surface of the painting, as they would have been in medieval works, but are instead depicted as if seen in perspective. Unlike halos and the like, however, these banderols are also meant to incorporate speech into the painting's frame, using a convention drawn from mediaeval heraldry. The result is a strange fusion of realism and fantasy. They give the impression of existing within the same 'microscopic-macroscopic' space as the rest of the realistic presentation, and we see the banderols held aloft by angels or other personages, or simply floating freely and miraculously in space.
Then I got thinking about the meaning of the writing on the banderols. It struck me that they are the curious ancestors to the speech-bubbles of present-day comic-books. But was difficult to decipher what they said because they are written in Latin, and also painted in an archaic letterhead, though I knew enough to interpret the words as being messages that come from 'on high', announcing miraculous events or passing divine judgement. I began wondering about the seemingly perpetual human compulsion to believe in these kinds of messages, which are relayed, or so it is believed, from some higher transcendent dimension, and also about how we have relied on real or imagined messengers who bring us these consoling and often admonishing words, telling us what to be and what to do.
It struck me that ultimately these 'messengers' bring messages of two kinds. On the one hand, there are those that tell us to believe in the authority of the mighty Words that are spoken or written down, saying, in essence, that we must be guided or led by a clearly articulated doctrine or code. In this sense, these messages represent a powerful affirmation of the magic of language. On the other hand, meanwhile, there are also very different kinds of messages; these are the ones that remind us that the Word must be challenged and undermined. Their messengers communicate a vision of a deeper reality that in its very essence is indeterminate and excessive, and one that cannot be contained within any articulated doctrine, or caught within any discursive net. These great visionary and often mystic teachers manipulate the nameable – the signs, the codes and languages we use - in order to remind us of an unconditioned and more direct kind of experience that cannot be named. They remind us that if we are truly to become enlightened we must bring to mind an unbounded and radically impermanent level of essential reality. Perhaps, I concluded, it is more accurate to say that all the great messengers are truly in this latter category, and that it is only those who follow them, those who seek to turn what the visionaries have said into some kind of orthodox and controlling social system, who make great claims for language's ability to speak of the divine.
I wondered what the banderols might have to say about this. At first, I imagined an enormous serpentine form gyrating in space containing all the messages that had ever been relayed from 'on high'. And then, as if in repulsion from this grandiose picture, I wondered what this summa of wisdom might say if it could be condensed down to the abbreviated form of our modern-day text messages. Then, thinking more, and also rather more soberly, it struck me that the texts that are inscribed on the banderol's surfaces have inadvertently slipped out of the secure realm of the semantically comprehensible and authoritatively discursive world of code and into the incoherent and expansive zone of what Jean-François Lyotard calls the 'figural'. They have migrated from 'letter' into 'line', from discourse into bodily trace, and from graphic space into figural space.
The discursive means the essentially linguistic aspect of a visual representation – all those elements that bring an image within the controlling orbit of a semantically legible meaning grounded in the socially constructed linguistic code. As a result of the controlling power of the discursive, a painting will appear as a collection of symbols, and it will read like a text. The figural (from 'fingere', to form), on the other hand, is what Lyotard defines as the non-semantic aspect of an artwork, or those features that belong to the image as a visual experience independent of language – 'its 'being-as-image', as the art historian Norman Bryson puts it (Bryson, 1981, 6). This is a dimension that is not restrained within the order of language, and it is present in those aspects of visual display which do not in any clear or coherent way serve the purpose of symbolizing a message or furthering a narrative meaning, including the spatial organisation of a composition, the manner in which drapery and other details are depicted, those aspects of the visual composition organised in relation to effects of light and dark, the decorative application of colour and line, as well as the brushstrokes themselves. These all seem in excess to a purely discursive task. They are a surfeit.
While the figural challenges the discursivity of the visual representation, it also presses on writing at two levels. At the level of the signifier figurality is there in the visual appearance of the graphic marks that are used to inscribe letters in space. But this is in fact a dimension to writing that we tend to forget because we are so often confronted with printed text in where the actual physical form of letters do not draw attention to themselves and, indeed, are supposed to be more or less transparent. The result is that we proceed to the words' meanings unhindered by any obstacle of visual forms. But before the era of printing all writing was done by hand, and was therefore related to the body through gestures made to inscribe a mark on a surface. It is here that the figural makes itself felt, as its energy irrupts into discursive language as a stridently sensual dimension which, as in the traditions of calligraphy, can often impede the clarity of writing's goals as a purely discursive tool.
But figurality also intervenes in writing at the level of the signified. It unstitches the tight weave of the discursive whenever the discursive and semantic function of language is undermined by the ambiguity and evocativeness of some kind of 'poetic' writing, or by the elliptical and abstract use of semantics. Consequently, we are distanced from a text's meaning, and instead are made aware of both its conventional and arbitrarily-agreed upon relationship to the world that words describes, and the essentially 'unnameable' or unrepresentable nature of the reality that is being evoked.
At one visual extreme, then, there are glyphs or hieroglyphics – or those purely discursive signs that imply the containment of the image within a strictly determined code. At the other, are figural traces or gestural marks laid down on a surface, or those elements in excess of any code and driven by the movement of the body, which from the point of view of discursive language are an unnecessary addition, an apparent irrelevance, or even a threat.
For, as Lyotard emphasises, while the figural may breathe life into the sterile semantic field established by any codified sign-system, it is often regarded in a negative light. This is because the energy of figurality undermines the stability of the world of discourse, and so it constitutes a menace to the ordered systems mapped out by the discursive. The figural is the body's challenge to discourse, Dionysian excessiveness undermining Apollonian order. As such, the figural addresses the problem of limits, of what lies beyond the consoling but artificial boundary line established by cultural codes. Consequently, in addressing the energy released by the figural we are also thinking about structure and anti-structure. The figural challenges not only the sufficiency of the sign-systems we habitually use but also how we understand the self – the cogito – as something firmly established at the centre of its world and in control of the signs it deploys. Figurality points towards the unnameable and the unrepresentable. In experiencing figurality we are led into a liminal zone – a place that is 'betwixt and between', as the social anthropologist Victor Turner puts it, where reality appears as something fundamentally uncoded.
Is it an inadvertent kind of liminality that I sensed sweetly scenting the air around the swirling banderols in the Museum's paintings? For, as a result of my problem in deciphering the texts on the banderols I ended up looking at the letters' shapes, and speculating about many possible meanings. The inscriptions became a kind of incoherent 'effect of writing', which, while implying discursivity is not any longer actually discursive. It is, rather, a kind of 'asemic' writing, for it no longer has semantic content. But actually, this lack of legibility in some ways turns out to be a boon, because it made me attend to the visual aspect of the banderols and to the shape of the letters themselves. And, furthermore, into the vacuum created by the lack of any clear meaning could now flow my own interpretations. I was able to enjoy the sheer beauty of the letters' shapes, rather than taking in what they say linguistically. Indeed, I might even want to conclude that being robbed of the comfort of the discursive served to emancipate, allowing me to experience something that cannot be contained within language, something liminal and fundamentally indeterminate.
The result of my musings was a series of artworks in which I explored both the form of the banderols in the museum's paintings and the messages written upon them.
At one extreme, I made a work in which a chronological list of great spiritual 'messengers' from Abraham to the Dalai Lama is inscribed on a long scroll of linen - imitating a banderol. It starts high up on the gallery wall and rolls down along the floor, perhaps as if the greater the amount of wordy wisdom that accumulates over the ages the heavier and more earthbound we get. I tried to be deliberately ecumenical, spanning all cultures, and there are no doubt some names on the list that may be a little surprising (see below for the list; the original was in French). At the other extreme was a work consisting of seven scrolls suspended from the ceiling in a circle. Each carried a different tiny letter repeated over and over and evenly distributed across the scrolls' surface. Together, the seven scrolls spell the word S-I-L-E-N-C-E. Between these two poles were several others works; a two-part scroll hung in front of two battle scenes - one scroll carrying the words for LOVE in all the major European languages, the other, the word for HATE; a digital animation playing on a flat-screen, showing a banderol furling and unfurling in dark infinite space and twined with mysterious sounds from outer space that had been recorded by sensitive auditory devices placed on various satellites and spacecraft by a team of scientists at the University of Iowa; a video of a delicate linen curtain hanging in a bedroom window gently swaying in the summer breeze (a readymade banderol, of sorts); and finally, four gold-coloured paintings depicting fragments of texts from four banderols in the museum's collection of paintings(not included here). My word-fragments no longer have any real discursive value, but nevertheless they still beguile through their visual beauty, and perhaps even point towards some unnameable experience of transcendence.