Art that has a way with words

Were it not for the written evidence left behind by some of the 20th century’s most avant-garde artists, our knowledge of their art would have been no more then a mass of second-hand, fragmentary information. This is particularly true of most avant-garde movements of the 1960s, when an artwork was often an extended performance or a transient event aimed to oppose object-based art. Manifestos and written texts were, of course, not intended as documentation for posterity but were part of a lively process, a claim to being an art that was accessible, democratic, interdisciplinary, opposed to the idea of art as a commodity, and finally, revolutionary. In many cases, language and the written word were not subordinate to the artwork but were actually the work themselves. The Fluxus publications in the 1960s capture this forceful connection of art with the written word. Broadsides and irregularly published editions often printed in innovative type, correspondence art and concrete poetry were all part of Fluxus’s artistic activity, and George Maciunas, whose brainchild the movement was, actually spent much time publishing them. Apart from Fluxus, there were also many other artistic groups that used language, texts and words as a fundamental tool for art. Beginning as early as the mid-1950s, artists began experimenting with the relationship between text and image. There was Konkrete Poesie in Germany, Poesie Sonore and Lettrisme in France, Poesia Visiva in Italy, Concrete Poetry in England and Mail Art in the USA, all related but distinct movements in art. These were just a few of the various, similar artistic activities that spread throughout the world, bringing together visual artists, poets, authors and people of all sorts of artistic backgrounds together. In Greece, there was no organized, parallel movement. But several Greek artists who studied and lived abroad were influenced by this kind of art and brought it to Greece upon their return. Bound by this general interest, a number of these artists joined to form a loosely connected group in the early 1980s and made their presence felt through an exhibition which they called «Visual Poetry.» By then, the art form’s radical aspects had waned and its heyday was well in the past. This is perhaps why, although all of this was new to Greece, the Visual Poetry group produced no manifestos and had no systematic agenda. Their background was diverse (some were visual artists, others were writers or poets) and so their work was linked, as it were, by a broadly shared interest in the written word and visual communication through language. After three more exhibitions, the group broke up. (There were many isolated cases of Greek artists who worked with language and poetry, Kontos, Caniaris and Xenakis being among them). But its work had brought something new to the Greek art scene of the time. «IconoGraphs, The Greek Group of Visual Poetry 1981,» which is the title of an exhibition currently on at both the Hellenic American Union and the To Milo Gallery, pays tribute to the group by bringing the members of this group together more than 20 years after their first exhibition. The show is curated by art historian Manos Stefanidis, who has dealt with the subject of language and art through other curatorial work in the past. The 12 artists in the group are Dimosthenis Agrafiotis, Ioulia Gazetopoulou, Alexandra Katsiani, Sophia Martinou, Michail Mitras, Kyrillos Sarris, Ersi Sotiropoulou, Costis Triandafyllou, Natassa Hadzidaki, Thanassis Hondros, Stathis Chrysikopoulos and Telemachos Hytiris (currently press and mass media deputy minister). Throughout the years, some of these artists have built an archive of documents on text-based art. These include letters they have exchanged with other artists (often in the context of mail art), catalogs of exhibitions, posters and pamphlets. Selections from the artists’ collection of documents make up one section of the exhibition at the Hellenic American Union. The works on display are varied and evoke the international scope and broad-ranging application of language in the visual arts or the visual arts in language. In this section, the exhibition takes a retrospective and historical approach. But because of the lack of supplementary information (explanatory panels for example), the viewer misses out on the complexities woven into this text-derived art. Indeed, apart from the play with typography which imparts to many of those works a visual interest, most of the works have a cerebral quality that cannot be fully grasped when seen out of the context in which they were produced. Moreover, because many of the documents on display are intended as texts, their display as visual objects conceals their content. An example is the catalog of a large exhibition on art held in Mantua in 1988. The rest of the exhibition presents works that the 12 artists of Visual Poetry made. They are too varied to fit into a category; in some of them, the connection between word and image even seems unclear. One question that the exhibition raises is the pertinence of this art to our days. Clearly, what was once thought as avant-garde and innovative no longer is. In this sense, the exhibition serves mainly to document a broad movement in art history in which visual representation and language, art history and literary theory, display and discourse, the seeable and the sayable were brought together. At the same time, however, it reminds the viewer that this kind of art, though largely made of written texts, is hard to document, for it emerged as part of a lively process of interaction and exchange. Not all of it can be experienced in a different time frame. That said, it is also true that the relationship between language and image continues to our days. The image may not be based on print and the language is not the spoken language but the digital language used by technology instead, nevertheless, the relationship is still there. This success in art is another point that the exhibition makes. «IconoGraphs, The Greek Group of Visual Poetry 1981» at the To Milo Gallery (11 Aminta, tel 210.725.4897) to Thursday and the Hellenic American Union (22 Massalias, tel 210.368.0000) to October 29.