Patricia Bickers, Editor of Art Monthly

The artists whose work I have selected would always have figured on any wish list of mine, but given the rubric of this exhibition, I thought it might be illuminating to focus on aspects of their work that resonate with the practice of writing about visual art and on mediation. In doing so, I don't mean to tie down the selected works to a particular 'reading'. On the contrary, it is precisely the ability of works as arresting and complex as these to elude easy categorisation that renders the practice of criticism so exciting and, ultimately, so frustrating. And though I have focused on works that use words, their impact remains essentially visual, unlike criticism.

All the works included have been inscribed rather than merely written, in that the marks carry meaning as words do, but they also constitute the work - as do brushstrokes on a canvas.

In the case of Fiona Banner, even in an apparently representational image such as Kurtz, 1995, a gigantic 9.5 x 11ft 'portrait' drawing of Marlon Brando in Coppola's 1979 epic, Apocalypse Now! the dense network of vertical hatchings that coalesce to form the image occupies a territory somewhere between word and mark. Conversely in the equally epic Apocalypse Now!, 1996, Banner's compulsive, 50,000-word, written account of the eponymous movie, is both a drawing and a text in which the words merge into a single, continuous visual image. Ironically, this seminal work about war, which is in a private collection in Switzerland, is too fragile to travel. Even more ironically, perhaps, The Nam Suite, completed the following year and comprising seven digital prints - five single prints and one diptych - of her own transcriptions of six Viet Nam war movies: Apocalypse Now!The Deer HunterHamburger HillPlatoonFull Metal JacketBorn on the Fourth of July, was destroyed in Oporto where it was originally exhibited, and has been remade by FACT for this exhibition. Finally, also in 1997, Banner published The Nam, an obsessive 500 page account of the same six movies which has the volume, the bulky presence of sculpture, while Trance, 1997, an audio version of the book narrated by the artist herself, is Banner's own soundtrack for the movies that she has rendered her own.

In the double video projection Drift/Wealth, 2003, Joonho Jeon has literally inscribed himself into history: refused permission to use a real Bank of Korea banknote, he painstakingly copied one, line by engraved line, projecting the resulting image on the wall over which he has superimposed a video of himself wandering seemingly at will within the forbidden precincts of a royal palace - a virtual trespasser. The money is not real, only an image; the palace, too, is a copy of the original that was pulled down before its cultural significance and tourist potential were realised. Korea, like South Viet Nam before it, is a capitalist beachhead, poised between East and West, and in his video, This is IT, a pun on new technology and advertising, Joonho Jeon deftly touches on the resulting clash of cultures and perceptions whilst also playing on the relationship between word and sign, logos and logo. The short looped action is set in a classical interior where an artist/scribe clad in traditional dress enters, sits at his table, picks up his brush and, with one practiced flick of the wrist, inscribes a single black mark on a white sheet of paper before sitting back to reveal his work: a perfect rendition of the Nike trademark 'swoosh'.

Xu Bing, who was born in mainland China but who now resides in New York, has made the issue of cultural misunderstanding and misperception a core subject of his art. Using words and signs Xu Bing has devised his own language through which he invites us to look beyond our preconceptions, sometimes literally requiring a doubletake: a red and gold banner hanging above the entrance to the Museum of Modern Art, New York, in 1999, apparently carrying a text printed in Chinese characters, revealed itself on closer inspection to be written in English: 'Art for the people'- a quotation from Chairman Mao. Working with a Japanese software company Xu Bing has since produced a computer software programme that generates a font for his Square Word Calligraphy that converts English, or latinised script, into 'Chinese'. As Xu Bing himself has said: 'To change the written word is to strike at the very foundation of culture'.

Beyond Words ©Patricia Bickers


Image credits:

Fiona Banner, The Nam Suite, 1997

Joonho Jeon, Drift/Wealth, 2003, 6'45'', computer animation. Exhibition view at Seoul Museum of Art. This Is It, 2004, 54'', fim.

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