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Language, Image & Contemporary Art

At this point in time writing about the pains of image making, crafting a text that has a clear beginning and a clear ending, a piece in which words within a sentence and sentences within the text have undissolveable organic connections seems very difficult. I must confess at the very beginning that I want to make a contract with the reader for the impossibility of such an attempt. Giacometti also makes such a contract in Etricts. (1) Perhaps the text will become of flesh and blood, and will create its own rhytm and laws.

Goya, “Great Deeds! Against the Dead”, 1810-20,
Sensation Exhibit Catalog (London, 1999).

Bilge Karasu once said that we are devoted to our images (2). Any “attack”, or anything that we might perceive as an attack on those images, would put us into a very defensive mode. These attacks which are very subtle, most frequently happen in visual arts, particularly in contemporary art practices. As in Kant’s inner critique of the mind, I will put ourselves through such a process without a defensive posture to show how we have become stuck in this difficult terrain. I will put some effort to understand our limits in image making and I will simply try to accept our fate.

I want to start with the literary claims over visual ones. W.J.T. Mitchell (3) compares painting and sculpture to poetry which can speak. He suggests that these two art forms have similar limitations and lackings which are products of their manipulation of the material for the sake of expression. Bilge Karasu sees novel as worthy of first place in creating images since novels can construct history or future within the current context through today’s eyes. He perceieves history not as an ordinary story of the future but as a canvas where countless image strands ranging from individual to cultural-historical frameworks parade. “Novel is a manifold image creater. Descriptions [in a novel] and limitations of the act of describing brings us to other images”(4). Cultural history is in a sense the history of conflict, a struggle for the upper hand between pictorial and linguistic images. There is a word for every suggestion and a natural image for each word. “Word” is an expressive image. Was the literary always superior to visual? For example, for Diderot the important thing in a painting is to find the text in its root. Consequently to write a critique of a painting (which simultaneously means image-reading) is a very normal act since painting in general is a critique of a text (5).

Jake and Dinos Chapman, “Great Deeds! Against the Dead”, 1994, mixed media with plinth, 277x244x152 cm. Sensation Exhibit Catalog (London, 1999).

On the other hand, indicators within a text can turn into images, can become meaningful structures, can connect to cause-effect relationships and at the end the text may become something that we perceive as a story. “Word” is the ‘Other’ of the image and therefore conceptual art is inclined towards text. We see attempts at making visual representations of the literary, or visual and literary presented together in some examples of current art practices. Freud, for example, talks about earlier paintings with labels and description of places over figures by the painter. This, Freud suggests, happened when the painter lost hope of presenting his/her ideas through image, through painting. The reason is the closeness of indicators in a literary text with the concept of “image.” Gregory Markopoulos interrupts voice as he appends it to the visual in his discussion of the clash between “word” and “image,” our inability to realize the poetic connection between “voice” and “image.” Consequently current art is mostly figurative. It is figurative in order to enable a semantic connection between objects and the real world.

However not all aspects of language are reflected within visual arts. Images can deviate. ”For example, in music or in painting, a meaningful relationship among elements of the communication order is not a necessity as it is in the literary arts” (6).

Another competitor, aside from literature, is cinema. From the most commercial to the most artistic, image in plastic arts, both in terms of its surprise and shock elements, has this misfortune. Images are packets of stimulus that aim to evoke understanding in an audience. Effect is the outcome of experiences of the audience with the visual image (which stems from the presumed belief in the meaningfulness of the message). Art that seeks informing however desires to reach out to “time” surpassing intellectualism and it must extend since surprise and shock elements inevitably will position image against ultra technological games (video, CD-Rom games, and visual effects in video clips, science fiction and fantastical cinema)

Contemporary art prefers to free itself of rigid systems, to blend in with the prosaic, and to bring its contradictions to our life experiences through its use of daily language. The use of image in contemporary art, the informing and deviating effect it poses on us inevitably forces us to face with the old examples of the past, because contemporary art perceives image to be the starting point for the process of comprehension that allows for the discovery of ties between humans and life.

Gillian Wearing, “I’m Desperate”, 1995, photo-performance, (Art-ist Güncel Sanat Seckisi, No. 2, Ístanbul, 1999.)

Contemporary art wants to affect but this effect is beyond informing and inviting us to think. When Gillian Wearing gave blank cardboards to people on the street and requested them to write about themselves, his photo-performance was limited to invention and the momentary effect of such event.

Another area contemporary art scene is close to is the language of advertising. Advertising uses a language in which the indicators are transmitted directly without diversion to create a more satisfactory result in quick read of the message. Art on the other hand believes in going further than the product but in reality this seems impossible because the necessity of the notion of a mind that operates as a utility (that takes us further) is not what it used to be anymore.

Can art, after all, become an object of knowledge? Or to what extend can it be transformed into an object of knowledge? Knowledge has lost its old mystery since it has become easily accessible with ultra-technology. The chess the image has fallen into in contemporary art stems from the extinction of rich metaphors that would require iconographic readings. Contemporary art now seeks to find the path to reach such images with metaphorical richness in re-using „the used images.“ It is, at this point, no coincidence that the text is becoming a shelter. A familiar kind of soultion, from time to time, is to ask for the help of the great images of the old times.

The conclusion a contemporary artwork reaches does not make us say, „well, this is the Truth.“ Indeed, there is no Truth it chases. Instead of the Truth, such artistic creations are being pulled into a paradigm in which humans define themselves. Because of the opinion that the Truth, itself, is a weak ideal more like a veiled egoism or because of a subjective approach that sees moral judgements as sole reflections that cannot be altered by reasoning regardless of the structure of contemporary ideals, this paradigm can be considered as a dead-end. For approximatley two centuries there has been a tendency to heroize the artist, to see in his/her life as the essence of being human, and to respect him/her as an oracle, a creator of the cultural values. Yet, there is a point at which the old and the new coincides: art is still defined as essentially an imitation toward the Truth „mimesis“ ... (yet) discovering oneself requires something more than mimicry: imagination. We think of people who obtain originality in life as „creative.“ Here, the way we define the lifes of non-artists in terms of art is in tune with our tendency of seeing artists as paradigmatic individuals that can define themselves (7).

Baltazar Torres, “Landscape in Progress”, 2000, mixed media, 78x145x70 cm
(Catalog, Christian Marinotti Edition, Fine Arts Unternehmen Books, Milano, 2002)

Since the readability of images will diminish when their clarity is increased, the metaphoric propositions seem like the only solution (or should we get rid of all images completely?). Perhaps, what I really want to say is that images might re-own their attraction when deprived of their aims such as surprising and shocking, because shocking and surprising are temporary and momentory.

Wittgenstein says, „formalistic concepts cannot be expressed through functions like essential concepts, because their signifiers (the formalistic properties) cannot be verbilized through functions. The verbalization of formalistic qualities is a line of particular symbols“ (8). Contemporary art has given up chasing „beauty,“ because beauty inevitably leaves us face to face with the concept of „art piece“ which belongs to aesthetics. On the other hand, since contemporary art did not put aesthetic solely in its center, it directly appropriated the concept of „ art work.“

At times our mental phase gets so exhausted that our intellect, tired of decoding, can really not find in itself the energy necessary to get surprised. Today this is the only danger that faces the video-art with complex plots: „fatigue of the mind.“

Why do we surprise when we see odd things? Do we really believe that the creations of Bosch, Goya, or Arcimboldo do not surprise anymore? Can this be a careless belief? There is something we forget: the fact that the shocking effect they awoke at the time they were made was peculiar to that time and that we cannot perceive that time with the indicators of now. This point has always been a difficult topic to mention in art history. Conclusion, with an authoritative tone, is that surprise can become very normal tomorrow. Then we should in advance accept that contemporary art does not have an aim to reach out to the future. In our day, all the ways of art making have came to the sour recipe of postmodernizm: old and new, they are both legitamate. Who can claim that a 16th century painting technique or modeling clay contradict with the practice of contemporary art anymore? Are these true evidences to draw a portrait of our fate? “No,” for now. Like the times we live in, our fate will also change and others will try drawing other portraits.


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(3) Mitchell, J. T. ““Image and Word” and “Mute Poetry and Blind Painting”” in Art in Theory: 1900-1990, Charles Harrison & Paul Wood (eds).Blackwell Publishers.1997
(4) Karasu, Bilge. Ne Kitapsız Ne Kedisiz. Metis Yayınları, İstanbul, 1994.
(5) Butor, Michel. Michel Butor Üzerine Dogaçlamalar, translated by İsmail Yergüz. Yapı Kredi Yayınları, İstanbul, 1996.
(6) Göktürk, Aksit. Okuma Ugrası. İnkılap Kitabevi, İstanbul, 1988).
(7) Taylor, Charles. Modernliğin Sıkıntıları, P. 51. Ayrıntı Yayınları, İstanbul, 1995.
(8) Wittgenstein, Ludwig. Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, translated by Oruç Aruoba. Yapı Kredi Yayınları, İstanbul, 1996.

Ferhat Özgür


Translated By Zeynep Kılıç & Özgür Soğancı

This article has been adapted and translated from a piece published earlier in Turkish. For the original text published in Turkish please see Art-Íst Guncel Sanat Seçkisi, Issue 3, Ístanbul, December 1999.