When an artist reaches for text you know there is more on their mind than simply an interesting arrangement of the alphabet. There is a ‘plan’ – a desire to make you think.
Katy Bowman writes that she enjoys ‘interpreting signs’. Her method is to take the ready-made expression, situate and wonder at it, to the point of its becoming a philosophical question in the context she creates.
WAR IS OVER – if you want it (1971) – a giant multi-panel billboard, on Times Square by John Lennon and Yoko Ono – seems to have opened the floodgates on signage, art and provocation.
Lennon and Ono, WAR IS OVER, (1971)
American Barbara Kruger has been curious about text for decades. Her work is more didactive, than Lennon/Ono, and she renown for her conjunctions of found photographs and captions. Her (Untitled) I shop therefore I am, (1987), ironically became a self-fulfilling merchandizing ‘aid’, somewhat defeating her critical intent, but nonetheless drawing attention to how modern consumers represent themselves – via their purchases.
Barbara Kruger, Your body is a battleground, (1989)
Your body is a battleground, (1989), amplified women’s issues in the 1980s, and sadly remains starkly relevant today. Perhaps in an effort to reach the nascent source of cultural forces, Kruger’s recent work reaches out to youth in skate parks, Extended Play, (2018), reminding skaters and incidental viewers ‘how culture constructs and contains us’ https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_U3hyPEb2OU
Back in Australia in the 1990s, the work of Constanze Zikos indicates a similar desire to instruct, his prescient Fake Flag (1994) signals problems with cultural identity – eschewing words/text, he employs symbols, old and new – visual elements that defeat language barriers/borders at least. His use of the word ‘fake’ in the title heralds a wave that was to come.
It seems tax departments prefer to chase artists rather than the multinational companies that draw artists’ ire and comment.
By cogently repurposing 'signage' Bowman’s work is a part of this urgent urge to have us ‘wake up’ or at least think about the graphic commands that surround us.__________________
Text is crucial to contemporary life in a way it was not previously – the oldest living culture in the world, Australia’s indigenous First People, did not feel the need to resort to text in the sixty thousand odd years of their development.
Reading and writing are relatively new and privileged activities; now across the world the hegemony of ‘English’, driven by the digital revolution, is creating cultural angst, colonizing thought and lexicon.
The issues around text are raw. It is soothing therefore to muse upon Bowman’s banners.
Bowman writes: ‘In ‘Final Curtain’ I use a phrase normally emblazoned on a shop window to promote a clearance sale; ‘Everything Must Go’ as a Memento Mori (Latin for ‘remember that you will die’) to reflect on mortality and the brevity of life. …
I have chosen to use a range of materials that I had at hand … the material and the method each point to the impermanent nature of things.’
The mesmeric influence of Bowman's work was evidenced in her earlier installation, (Shifting Contingencies, WINDOWSPACE, 2016), which included elements of the installation above.