Upon first encountering León Ferrari's “Arboles,” a large amorphous sculpture constructed of polyeurethane foam and small green polymer trees, I was reminded of three of spring’s small, but essential, pleasures: mixed drink ornaments, bath foam, and the opening passage of Harold Brodkey’s story “Spring Fugue:”
“April is the duallests’ month. Tacitly flirting with my wife, I carry two packets of Kleenex in my pockets - one for her, because of her allergies: she makes a small nifty nasal piccolo announcements of the annual change of life … First impulse of active live: A sloppy kiss while my wife is putting on her shoes. She gazes at me. “Oh, it’s spring,” she says.”
Standing in the quiet fourth floor gallery amidst the “Tangled Alphabets” exhibit now on view at the MOMA, scribbling copious notes on linguistic transcription, hieroglyphics and the lives of featured artists León Ferrari and Mira Schendel, this struck me as on odd reaction to an otherwise rigorously intellectual show.
“Oh, it’s spring,” I said to myself.
An exhibit largely engaged with post-structuralism, semiology and the relationship of linguistic signs to the cultural symbols they represent, I had come to the show seeking an understanding of these artist’s engagement with text as figurative gesture. It has always struck me as curious, and somewhat irritating, that to this day traditional discussions of writing have remained largely outside the discussion of the visual idiom. Writing is, after all, a craft like any other. Though its employment of materials is little, that is exactly what makes it inherently a visual art form. It relies on nothing but mark making. Writing is akin to giving every painter a brush and a bucket of black paint and saying, “Go ahead. Design something original.” Really good writers, like Brodkey, work on the same sort of bottom-up level. Their sentences are architecturally their own.
An enthusiast of writing in all forms, digital, experimental and otherwise, I am an advocate of this idea of word as mark. This is perhaps why I have trouble writing anything long. As writer Samuel Delany once said in his fantastic essay, “The Semiology of Science:”
“Word or “logos” – is better considered a later, critical tool to analyze, understand and master some of the rich and dazzling things that go on through life and make up so much of it … what we called the “real world” seems to be nothing but codes, codic systems and complexes, and the codic terms used to designate on part of one system, complex or another.” He went on to warn, “As you articulate those codes more and more, you soon find, if you’re honest with yourself, you’re at a much more dangerous and uncertain place. You notice for example, the convention of white spaces between groups of letters that separate out words is, itself, just a code.”
The León Ferrari and Mira Schendel exhibit seemed to exist in conversation with Delany’s remarks: What is the smallest codic unit through which meaning, dangerous or otherwise, can be represented? Their works exhibited a painstaking analyzation of the basic processes of generating codic structures and seemed intent to test how that process could be recreated, distorted and, on a more figurative level, even satirized. I was particularly struck by Maria Schendel’s series of Untitled “written drawings,” a series of linguistic transcriptions on thin Japanese paper. The drawings themselves were created through a process of negative transcription which Maria termed “base-relief.” The table below the paper was stained with black oil paint, the patterns of which she then traced on the paper itself using her fingernail or a sharp object which transcribed one surface to the other. The result was an oddly recognizable though non-literate language. Poetic. Natural. And yet oddly transgressive.
Part of the emotion generated by these works, and the show at large, was the feeling that they belonged to some larger philosophical, and perhaps even political, conversation regarding issues of received order and totalitarianism and on the flip side, egalitarianism and the transparency of gesture. Schendel herself once said of the ethics of her texts, “The characters simulate the time passed, but do not seize the irretrievable living experience that characterizes this time. Anyone can read and reread my scribbles on paper, but no one can read time.”
Perhaps this explains my strange series of associations triggered by Ferrari’s “Arboles” sculpture. If the purpose of the exhibit was to engage with the ethics of artmaking as a “radical possible expression of the human condition,” maybe I wasn’t totally off base.