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  • More than words: text art since conceptualism

Dhillon, Kim, 2017, Thesis, More than words: text art since conceptualism PhD thesis, Royal College of Art.

Abstract or Description:

Since 2009, there has been an increased presence of group exhibitions in public institutions
in the UK and the US which address the ways contemporary artists in the past two decades
have used text as a material, a subject, and a conceptual device. Significant amongst these
exhibitions are Poor. Old. Tired. Horse. held at the Institute of Contemporary Art in London in 2009, and Ecstatic Alphabets/Heaps of Language held at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 2012. Within their curatorial strategies, and independently from one another, both
exhibitions draw a binary of the genealogy of text in art practice as emerging either from the
international movement of concrete poetry of the mid-1950s to 1971 (including the work of
Décio Pignatari, or Haraldo de Campos), or from conceptual art of the mid-1960s-early 1970s
(including the work of Joseph Kosuth, Art & Language, Robert Smithson, or Mel Bochner).
Such group exhibitions have overlooked how feminist, second generation conceptual artists
embraced language as material. Artists of this second generation of conceptual art were
critiquing conceptualism by introducing subject matter which looked outward from art and
which demanded the audience to engage with language as a material through their use of
the printed word, typography, written language, and methods of printing. For these artists,
such as Mary Kelly, language was not presumed natural, and the materiality of text was
necessary in order to engage an art audience in questions of power, representation, gender,
and socialisation.
With the rise of the digital age, the materiality of the linguistic signifier offers artists today
something different than it did in the 1960s. Since the late 1990s, there has been a
proliferation of works by contemporary artists in the UK and US that I refer to as text art,
made by artists such as Fiona Banner, Janice Kerbel, Shannon Ebner, Pavel Büchler, or Paul
Elliman. Part of my original contribution to knowledge is to explore the ways contemporary
artists use text, to interrogate how this is different from work seen before, and to question
the demands it places on the audience who reads it, as well as the challenges it places on the
act of reading an artwork made of words. The literature emphasises a turn away from looking
or the visual to a turn towards reading which occurred in conceptualism (Kotz, 2007;
Blacksell, 2013). I explore the binary of this turn in the conceptual art period of 1966-1973
and I suggest that artists are engaging with text today not only to challenge how an audience
encounters written language as art, but the very act of reading text in a digital world.
The first three chapters explore the materiality of text in a historical genealogy of conceptual
art, conceptual art in relationship to concrete poetry, and the feminist critique in second
generation of conceptual art. The latter three chapters explore the materiality of text in
contemporary art practices. This is the focus of the thesis, which builds on the foundation for
materiality of text argued in chapters one, two, and three. I argue not for a cohesive
movement of contemporary text artists, but rather, that diverse, contemporary artists’
practices are making similar investigations across text in art, and that this warrants attention
to explore how we consider text as a medium today.

Qualification Name: PhD
Subjects: Creative Arts and Design > W100 Fine Art > W190 Fine Art not elsewhere classified
School or Centre: School of Fine Art
Date Deposited: 22 Mar 2017 12:40
Last Modified: 22 Mar 2017 12:40
URI: http://researchonline.rca.ac.uk/id/eprint/2765

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