Few of the 50-plus works in ‘Postscript: Writing after Conceptual Art’ could be described as writing in a traditional sense. The artists do not generate arguments, narratives or series of couplets; instead they apply strategies of transcription, translation, redaction, constraint and appropriation to other texts. The exhibition’s ambition is signalled in an introductory wall text, which identifies it as the first to examine the ‘movement’ of ‘Conceptual Writing’ (with capital letters), that is: ‘works of appropriated text in which literature appears as art and art as literature.’ Since the first generation of Conceptual art, the curators suggest, writing has been a productive site for dispensing with disciplinary boundaries.
The artists of the 1960s and ’70s pioneered a practice of ‘selection and arrangement rather than producing art as self-expression’; the exhibition’s larger purpose is to show how their strategies inform artists’ responses to the conditions of language and art-making today. A series of galleries are headed, like chapters, to identify Conceptual artists’ approaches – transcription, translation, redaction, constraint and appropriation. In each space, a single work from one of the early greats – Andy Warhol, Sol LeWitt, Marcel Broodthaers, Carl Andre, Dan Graham – heads a grouping of recent works. These works in ‘traditional codex form’, as co-curator Andrea Andersson writes in a gallery guide, appear like ciphers underneath definitions of the terms.
LeWitt’s The Location of Lines (1974) represents translation, by turning words into lines. Jonathan Monk enacts a similar gesture, with some humour, in What is Seen is Described, What is Described is Seen, Version IX (2010). He asked Art & Language, an artist group central to any history of Conceptual Writing, to translate a painting into text. Monk translated this back into a painting – a sandwich of pillows and paint that makes the subjectivity of such a process evident, but also brings in a satisfying bit of mess where most of the works are, unsurprisingly, rather cleaner and cooler.
Monica de la Torre, a poet and translator, sticks more closely to words in Like in Valencia (2012). She uses eight different methods to translate her poem Equivalences, from Spanish to English. The line ‘Tres libros abiertos, tres granos de sal’ becomes ‘three open books, three grains of salt’ in Google Translate, and ‘Three books that have beards. Look grand in the sun’ in a homophonic translation by a non-Spanish speaker. The work recalls Mel Bochner’s contribution to the Chicago Museum of Contemporary Art’s 1969 exhibition ‘Art by Telephone’, where, playing on a joke about new art in the ’60s being made-to-order, artists were asked to literally phone in a work. Bochner had a paragraph of criticism about his work translated by phone from English through four languages and back again to English. He presented the original and final texts as the work.
For Bochner and other artists of his generation, medium was no longer an end in itself, as it was in the Modernism they worked against. Instead, as he has said recently, media were ‘always contextual, based in actual situations and immediate needs’, that is, ‘they were oppositional, intended as an attack on the dominant aesthetic and critical hierarchy’. At a time when the art-critical establishment was at the height of its powers, writing – criticism’s own medium – would have had a particular oppositional quality.
Now there are plenty of newer media for artists to co-opt and turn back on themselves, and this is an important theme of ‘Postscript’. Kenneth Goldsmith’s Soliloquy, one of the first works encountered in the show, is a transcription of every single word he said for a week onto A4 sheets covering the gallery floor to ceiling. Originally made in 1996, just as the Internet was becoming pervasive, today it recalls the babble of tweets and status updates that over-share the minutia of life. Lending portent to Goldsmith’s jabbering, the high-pitched synthesized piano melody of James Hoff’s Stuxnet (2012) is audible in the same space. Its score transcribes the computer virus allegedly set loose on Iranian nuclear facilities by US and Israeli intelligence agencies.
After Conceptual art, it seems, writing is an expanded field of activity unified by a concern for the plastic qualities of language and the circumstances of its use more than its signification. To start from things that looked, in the 1960s, like writing but were called art works, and end with things that look, today, like art works but are called writing, is to clarify the significance of the Conceptualists’ formative gestures. However, presenting those artists’ works as definitive progenitors of the diverse array of works identified in ‘Postscript’ as ‘Conceptual Writing’ begs questions about precedents in other practices – literature itself, for instance. We leave wondering if and how today’s practitioners, in our cultural and technological environment, might make their own new and lasting contextual and oppositional gestures.
First published in Issue 154