I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
“I don’t believe in progress in art. Prehistoric art can’t be beat! Sophistication isn’t progress. It’s just that now there’s a realization and an analysis on our part.”
Discover MFA Programs in Art and Writing
Problematic as it is fascinating, verbal art creates a vexed domain of textual and graphic interaction. As the Russian Futurists showed us 100 years ago, it aggressively redefines the icon, exploding sentences and imploding words and floating them across a page to put the concrete nature of the morpheme at the disposal of verbal music. We really have not outflanked these and other avant-garde visual experiments pursued a century ago. Nor have we improved upon the early contributions to agitprop, in which communication rather than pure expression drives verbal art toward a political purpose. Yet the ongoing interest in the arts of intermedia, together with a newly sociological construal of art, has brought about a revival. Three veterans of the practice who continue to produce verbal art though the cultural mood swings of the fickle art world—and art market—and who distinguish themselves from the wannabes by actually possessing a grasp of the verbal dimension are Robert Barry, Martha Rosler, and Nancy Spero.
Though the term makes him uncomfortable, Robert Barry has been linked with conceptual art for 20 years because the perceptual nature of his art puts language at our disposal in such a way as to raise questions of knowledge. Certainly, seeing faint or cut-off words on canvas puts us at the threshold of perception, where legibility and intelligibility are inextricably linked. Meanwhile, the poetic sensibility of his word paintings has been overlooked.
Robert Barry I’m not exactly sure I’m happy with the term, “conceptual art,” or even the term, “language.” I don’t work with language. I work with words. I certainly don’t use text. I’m not a text artist.
Marjorie Welish Why not?
RB In most of that art, the text is usually so banal. For the most part, it’s text you have to read to get the meaning. And my work’s not about that at all. I started using language as text to try and describe some situation that wasn’t really visible and draw the viewer or the perceiver into the work. When I began to look at single words projected on the wall—just the word and the light against the darkness—I began to focus my work on the individual word or phrase. Instead of trying to use text to convey an idea or meaning, I became interested in the individual power of the word to convey emotions or feelings.
MW Then why did you, in the ’80s, turn to the medium of painting?
RB I had been working with color for several years. The best way of using color is to paint it. There’s also a perverse streak in me. The idea of making painting, which was such a taboo in the ’70s within the so-called conceptual art community, really intrigued me. I wouldn’t have done it if I didn’t think I could bring to painting something personal, something different.
MW What I mean is, because painting, in the ’60s, had come to represent almost a purely retinal domain, construing itself as a color field, your return to painting courted that danger.
RB I’m certainly interested in the physical aspect of art.
MW Your paintings in the ’60s were committed to being optical, and materialist….
RB Spatial, also.
MW … embodying visual information, not mental, theoretical, or conceptual information.
RB I had moved to a point with the paintings where there was a very strong physical component to them, a situational component. Where they were and when they were hung was as important as what was in them. So I became very concerned with elements of space and time.
MW If you were interested in color, how did you see your work moving or changing as a result of implementing color fields that featured verbal elements?
RB The color was the context, or the place, for the words. Instead of having printed words on white paper, or spoken, or shown in a gallery situation, the color represented another kind of space in which the words could function. And so I saw this—if you want to call it a return to painting—as a very legitimate practical direction to take. I hadn’t made paintings for 20 years, and when I started using color again I was still very hesitant to make paintings. I had been painting on walls, and painting on paper, using colored gels for projections…. Making paintings seemed a logical step.
MW It is a logical, practical step. But because your work assumed the format of painting, but was decidedly verbal, I’ve often wondered whether you were aware of the development of concrete poetry, and the performance practice of Jackson Maclow, or Alan Kaprow?
RB Yes, I was aware of them, and I have to say I made a very conscious effort not to get too involved in that. I certainly have a great respect for poetry, but I’m not a poet. And I don’t really know very much about the history of poetry.
MW The antecedents for combining words and their spatiality go back, at least in our time, to the Russian Futurists and their visualization of words on the page with, as you know, an asyntactic order.
RB I know what you mean.
MW I wonder whether you’ve avoided expressive language in order to distinguish yourself not only from the precedent set by the Abstract Expressionists, but also from certain historical uses of language.
RB Yes, certainly. One of the motivations for making art, at least for me, is to try and equal in some way the feeling of the intensity you get from artists whose work you like a lot. Who made you want to be an artist. Not to imitate them, but to convey something as profound or powerful that you feel from their work.
MW To what purpose did you shape the visual aspect of your verbal art? You have been defining your art by the boundaries of what it is not.
RB Well, in the beginning I left the look of the words up to the people who were printing them. If they appeared in a magazine or on a mailer, I would use the standard text that was being used in the magazine. The only thing I would supply would be a typed/handwritten note as to what words I wanted used. So the decision was out of my hands. But that really isn’t enough. Then I tried to develop a style, a look, that was not too obtrusive, but personal. When I speak the words, I have my own voice and inflections. When I use other people’s voices to speak the words in sound pieces, they have their own quality. So now I have certain procedures and certain looks which I find useful for me. It’s intuitive, it’s not calculated, it’s just what I think works well within an architectural setting or within the frame of a painting.
MW How can these words conjure a kind of affective space, without your having committed yourself to an expressive language?
RB How can I do that without committing myself to an expressive language?
MW By your elimination of gesture, by regimenting the stuff of language so that it is visually uniform…
RB I tried that early on and it worked pretty successfully, but I wanted to move on to other things. I said before, there is this physical component to things and instead of fighting it, I went with it and used it in my work. I’m basically an intuitive artist, and I work with what feels right to me. Any analysis is always after the fact. I do look for words that speak to me, words that are usable in a context. In these sometimes grand situations, or when I sometimes use very dramatic colors, I may include words with which I want to capture the viewer’s attention. I want them to speak to the viewer. And by the way, they’ve been reduced to a rather small selection, I find myself using the same words over and over again. Less and less do I see new words coming onto my list. It’s become a signature group of words that one can see repeated in different contexts, which is an idea that I worked with back in the late ’60s and early ’70s. Whether the words were on a mailer or on a magazine or drawn on a wall, context would determine, ultimately, the meaning of the work.
MW You say that you add fewer and fewer words or phrases to your list.
MW And do you work with those as fixed constellations? Or, do you work with them as individual elements to which you add one and from which you subtract another?
RB Both. For instance, I just recently did a piece for a collector’s entranceway, staircase, and vestibule in his home. He sent me some photographs of the space. I had seen the apartment before it was finished so I had some idea what the space was. I compiled a list of about 35 words that I thought might be usable based on the situation, his family, and the kind of people who live there.
MW Useful in their neutrality or useful in their associations?
RB Both, but mostly in their associations. So I brought this list with me and we worked from it. I didn’t make any additions and there were more words than I really needed, so we eliminated about 10. I think we ended up with about 27 words. Sometime before that, I did a chapel in Amsterdam which was a completely different situation. The priest who was in charge of this chapel had some ideas, and submitted about four or five words which I thought were very strange, words I would never think of using. I was very careful about this because I didn’t want to let my ideas about religion and being an old ex-Catholic get in the way. I really wanted to make a space that was very reverential. And the priest came up with some words that I would never think of using….
MW May I ask what?
RB One I used was “crucial.” Some I didn’t use. Also, the words had to be translated into Dutch. Lately, I’ve been working in French, and German, and Dutch, and having an interesting time working with translations. I mean, in your own mind the words are always translated into what you want them to mean anyway. Actually, the next couple of installations are going to be in languages which are not my own, French and German.
MW If that’s the case, and you work intuitively, what sense will you have of the words and their referential overtones if you’re going to be manipulating a language foreign to you?
RB I have to work with a translator who becomes a collaborator. Sometimes it takes more than one translator to get some idea of the possible meanings that might be usable. I present a list of words that I think might be appropriate and then what I get back are either statements saying that a word is untranslatable or has no single equivalent. Or they come up with three or four other possibilities and we get together and discuss them. Sometimes the ideas submitted are much more interesting than what I originally had in mind. And so it’s a give and take. I work with the people who are associated with the situation. I like working with the local craftsmen who paint the words, mix the colors, things like that.
MW Anyone looking at your art cannot help but note—and this is certainly one thing that initially impressed me—how careful the word selection seems to be even when the words are commonplace. The word “resonant” is old-fashioned, but there is an attuned verbal field that you do arrive at. I do believe some care has gone into either neutralizing over-colorful words, or balancing certain affective language with certain cognitive language. And also placing a word having to do with a psychological state in an unexpected place in a visual field.
RB That’s exactly what it’s about. Your phrase is a good one, creating some state of balance. The juxtaposition of words, the placement, whether they’re right-side up or upside-down, are all very carefully considered, including their color, their size, their length, how to balance short words with long words, some words which are made up of two separate words against those which are not. And the corrected balance of words which might conjure up a similar feeling. I don’t want the piece to come across with some sort of political or overly emotional message. So that sense of balance and care is something I think about. This idea of working in other languages—an installation in Germany went through about four or five different translations, including those of the student helpers who questioned the meanings even as they were painting the words onto the wall. So, even then, it was getting a final interpretation of my original ideas. I found that wonderful, absolutely. As soon as it was translated, it got out of my control a little bit. It opened up a whole other more flexible area.
MW The issue that intrigues me is your manipulation of the actual legibility of words, as opposed to their inferences or implications. In other words, physiological understanding versus psychological understanding.
RB In some ways, I want the perceiver to complete the piece. And occasionally, I may just present a part of a word, the last two or three letters of a word, or even a single letter, so that he doesn’t really know what the word might be, or even if I had a specific word in mind. Also, I need to utilize the architecture or utilize the edge of the painting or the edge of the paper to emphasize this. And I also like this idea that the work really extends out beyond the space that it’s in, not just visually, but also conceptually.
Marjorie Welish In the Place of the Public: Airport Series is provocative fragments of text surrounding photographs of the public space in airports. Relative to the photographs, how is your text deployed in the gallery?
Martha Rosler The text is “over, under, around, and through” but not on the images. I can never bring myself to do that.
MW Is it fair to say we read types of text corresponding to a dialectic of private and public language as it becomes integrated into a cultural perspective?
MR As it’s used to interpret experience.
MW Could you clarify the types of texts you’ve generated? They’re quite distinct from one another.
MR One type is a series of phrases that relate to either experiences in the airport—or non-experiences in the airport. Things that determine what makes up flying. From mergers and acquisitions, which has to do with the nature of the airline industry and what it brings to the flying public, to…
MW To a phrase like white noise hiss.
MR Yes, the experiential phrases like trace odors of stress and hustle have to do with the life-world of the airport itself.
MW And then phrases like mergers and acquisitions appear as commensurate experiences? Why?
MR Why does mergers and acquisitions and capital costs go along with total surveillance and trace odors of stress and hustle?
MW white noise hiss, for instance.
MR Because I think it’s a mistake to suggest that people differentiate between levels of knowledge and experience. Unless you’re a child, people have some notion of this social entity, institution, that they’re becoming a part of when they enter the airline, airport, flight.
MW There seem to be, in that list of phrases, a sense of phenomenological expression that produces…
MR That’s why I borrowed the term “life-world.”
MW That produces a text recalling The Poetics of Space, but as if The Poetics of Space were retrofitted for technological…
MR (laughter) You mean Bachelard’s book? I’ve never been able to read it. It’s lying under my bed and there’s no question I’d love this book. It’s such a wonderful title.
MW Your voice of subjectivity has adopted the discourse of alienation, it seems to presuppose that the individual is necessarily alienated from such a crossing as the airport. Certainly, in your text, the “I” scrutinizes the social sphere. Why does the “I” assume the intention of social control, and not of a merely benign, if botched up, civil negligence?
MR I think that the pressure of all institutions as we pass through modernity and beyond is toward increasing control that requires as totalized a surveillance paradigm as one could impose.
MW But my view of the social sphere is one of monumental incompetence.
MR The airport is not a social sphere, it’s a constructed entity.
MW It’s a constructed entity for practical ends, too. And in that sense, can it be construed as malignant?
MR No. Alienating is the right word. I’m an empiricist, which is so odd, but true. I’ve been working on this project for a long time because it began with the experience of being in airports and comparing them to other modes of travel, and discovering what a different world-view is projected in airports, and how the person is displaced—which is ironic, but the displacement is much less true in other modes of travel. Even ones where surveillance and control are much more powerfully and individually exerted—as in long-distance bus travel, which I compare to a hospital regime or a prison. I call it an incarceral experience.
MW You attribute this to social forces rather than the management of large numbers of people?
MR I don’t see how you can differentiate. This is where the political and other social institutional realms agree: that surveillance and control are the most important factors in modern life. That was a startling thing for me to realize. It was one of those hidden pieces of knowledge that I kept coming to, it must stem from experiences in my own life that I keep repressing. The works I’ve done on the human body are very similar. And, of course, somewhere along I discovered Foucault. I was speaking Foucault’s language before I read Foucault. And when I did read Foucault, he had a powerful effect on my verbalizations.
MW Your textual installation seems to be arguing that understanding is neither merely the sensation nor the idea. You reject the assumption that materialism and idealism are necessarily incompatible. At any rate, your installation intimates an expression of human knowledge that arises from sensory experience, yet subjects the senses to active thoughts. There is a manipulation of sensory impressions to some position of understanding. In view of that thought process, would you discuss the other types of text?
MR First, all these phrases are not united in any coherent picture or narrative, but presuppose certain directions of thought, like blind turns. But then there are descriptions of social institutions that have to do with urbanscape (except for the last one, which is flow transmission, which has to do with information movement). They are institutional frames in which social interactions occur or which we recognize as ways of containing and expressing experience. Others relate to textual organization.
MW A passage: A passageway, a journey, a boundary, a crossing, a milestone…
MR That passage becomes a passage of narrative, as well as a passageway. In some sense, I am comparing the flow of knowledge or understanding to social interaction. All these things are absent from the airport site. Then in the installation there is also a text that is fictional, that is meant to be a parody of a travel narrative, but which is a translation of that schema to an airport. But, of course, the text isn’t really descriptive of an airport. It’s a place not yet seen, black as obsidian. The horizonlessness, the…
MW (Reading) Certainly, there was a glare overhead that made raising the eyes difficult. Thus it was that I could not discern whether I was indoors or out, whether it was truly day or truly night. And whether there were inhabitants about the land. That could be a self-conscious filmic translation of something Wim Wenders has done: a film that runs out of film.
MR How interesting!
MW Revealing the end of the narrative, and what happens when the givens of a narrative are no longer available.
MR That is, of course, a related idea. A narrative, in this case, is an ended form, it’s an obsolete form, and the way it expresses itself is that the content is about a placeless place. So, you are right.
MW Trying to pay attention. (laughter)
MR Finally, the airport installation features a quotation from Henri Lefebvre, who invented the concept of space. Again, a text that I came upon in the middle of working on this piece.
MW When you say he invented space, what do you mean by that?
MR He invented space as a social concept. He completely rethought what spatiality is as a human construct and understood that there were several levels of complexity: physical space, social space, and abstract space. He comes from a surrealist and proto-situationist background and melds that with Marxism, transforms Marx’s critique of the use of land, the concept of land rent. He understands that space is created in several ways.
MW Have you given thought to how in real life these generic passageways and crossings might be modified to reflect the individual, to be more yielding to experience and not a reflection of social control? In other words, have you given thought to the practical application of these texts into modifying a real social space?
MR I am very slow to reach that point. I need a decade or so to work through a problem before I come up with notions of transformation. I seem to be good at describing the cage. I am not very good at describing how to remove the bars.
MW Well, you and every municipal government. If it takes you only 10 years, I think that is pretty snappy.
MR That’s true.
MW Your project, If You Lived Here… is a strenuous attempt to bridge the gap between the theoretical and the practical.
MR But look how many collaborators I had in that.
MW Well, but indeed, unlike most in our profession, you insisted on going to those who work directly with the community. With your long career in art-world agitprop, you’ve depended on the art of persuasion through language more than most people. Heavily researched, your project, If You Lived Here… might be said to have employed the rhetoric of [a] documentary. Could you elaborate on that in any way you wish?
MR Well, of course, that’s exactly right. It strikes me as humorous that I have to defend documentary art. But I feel like documentary art needs to be saved from itself, because it’s always being presented in the most reductive, even stupid, ways—that is, in effect as a beautiful and striking image. But especially now that beautiful and striking images can be made more beautiful and more striking by computers, that is hardly sufficient to persuade or marshall evidence…
MW You somehow seem to be implying that the very artists who argue against documentary expression adopt these retrograde postures of aestheticism.
MR Right. I think the problem is appropriation. If you are working in photography, you are appropriating people’s images just as everyone has always said. People without power are constantly being captured on film and deployed in ways that instantly become highly questionable. This is a cultural dilemma. The problem is that the image becomes transcendent very quickly and becomes a cultural or aesthetic transaction rather than a social one.
MW Central to your verbal art is a conscious utilization of different genres in documentary, gauging their appropriate instrumentality. You understand the semantic calibrations of documentary expression and the modes those assume, whether it’s a wall text, or a book, or a lecture, or a caption, or a supertitle. You seem to brood about the form each of these assume.
MR The airport installation is a meditation on a socially created space and what kind of world it posits and forces. But If You Lived Here… was a work in which I attempted to have a community look at questions of community, directly. It was an activist work. It was about different groups trying to cross-fertilize each other’s ideas on how to explain actual social experience. That was a much more instrumental work than the airport series, In the Place of the Public. But what I tried to do in If You Lived Here… was to cover the register from the theoretical, to the abstract, to the utopian, to the most directly instrumental: collecting cans and bottles and telling people where they could bring them. But in the airport work, I have no such ambition, and I don’t want to be an airport planner.
MW What do you want?
MR I want to remind people that what is casually passed off as the functional really is a microcosm of many other forms of social experience. The ways in which social interactions and social experiences are recast, and the ways in which space does reflect other things about social life.
MW Why do you consider yourself an artist and not an organizer?
MR What am I organizing? An organizer works in close contact with a community on one or a few projects. At the New Museum’s show on transit this year, I did an installation on my neighborhood that had a computer-generated videotape, several large maps, and books hanging on chains that were about pollution and toxicity in this neighborhood. Although several community organizers are trying to re-site this work to Greenpoint in Williamsburg and I may get some help from an Environmental Benefits Grant from the city to also take it to the schools. My character as a human being is that I am a much more theoretical person than an activist—although history has pushed me into activism as well.
Marjorie Welish When did you begin incorporating language into paint?
Nancy Spero As a student at the Art Institute of Chicago in 1948 or ‘49. Lithographs, it wasn’t in paintings. I was in a loosely knit group then, and we were interested in German Expressionism, Insane Art, so-called Primitive Art.
MW Outsider art.
NS Outsider art. But I had this natural expressionist impetus in the work. I did these spastic, dancing, angular, stylized figures. On one lithograph. I might still have it. I wrote “K” for Kafka. And then I scribbled some other stuff. I was careless. Sometimes the letters would come out backwards, but, nevertheless, it was this graffiti-like writing.
MW You felt that the image was incomplete without some sort of verbal utterance?
NS Yes. But I also felt that one was an extension of the other, a natural interaction or continuum.
MW Certainly, calligraphically, what you say is true, that writing would be an extension of drawing…
NS Or vice versa.
MW Or vice versa. In the ‘40s, that notion was widespread throughout Abstract Expressionism. For everyone interested in various modernisms, the ideogram would have been a comfortable concept. And that’s why I was wondering if Pound or other early modernist writers were influential to your work?
NS There were certain French artists who used language, such as Henri Michaux’s automatic writing.
MW As some people say, the origins of poetry begin in the scribble.
NS That’s very nice. And maybe even the image itself.
MW And maybe even the image itself. And the cusp of the unintelligible may be where the image begins.
NS To jump to the ’70s, it was then that I decided the figures were hieroglyphs. I used text along with image, as extensions of each other, at times in opposition, but always in relation to each other, even if contradictory. The figures themselves stand for language, just as in the symbols from ancient calligraphy or Egyptian art.
MW Did you stop using text?
NS Yes, in the ’80s.
MW You stopped under the conviction that the image itself was a hieroglyph, inscribed sufficiently with language?
MW So then, incorporating text was redundant.
NS The image superseded the text. The language of the body, of the female body, its gesture and movement as in dance, or in movement to music, or ritual, took precedence. It all goes together—scribble to gesture, gesture of action, sexual roles. All of this is primal stuff, but taken up to the 20th century in a seemingly sophisticated way. You know, I don’t believe in progress in art. Prehistoric art can’t be beat! Sophistication isn’t progress. It’s just that now there’s a realization and an analysis on our part.
MW This psychic language might be sufficiently encoded in the image itself. But I want to focus on the verbal texts and the reason you have chosen them. I’d like to consider the nature of an expressive language as opposed to a language as chronicle or document. What interests me is that you have utilized both poles: the expressive, and the factual, to the extreme. In The Torture of Woman, you quote from journalists…
NS Primarily Amnesty reports.
MW Amnesty reports. That is to say, evidence, insofar as the evidence is sufficient to express the content, what we might call the scientific mode. On the other hand, you have used text and imagery as language, language as it breaks down into expressive utterance: the poetic mode…
NS Yes, I typed these reports out on an old Bulletin typewriter for the installation. I type badly, and I kept all the messy corrections which revealed my emotion in transcribing these personal accounts of torture and incarceration.
MW Recently, the Jewish Museum organized an exhibition called, From the Inside Out, a group show of installations by eight artists addressing the issues of the Holocaust. You chose poetry for your wall text. Why?
NS The Brecht poem, written during the Holocaust, 1934–6, is a powerful indictment. Finding “Ballad of Marie Sanders, The Jew’s Whore” was relevant in terms of my investigations into the status of women. The image of the bound female figure about to be hung looks, literally, like a porn image. It’s the real thing—it was found on an…
MW SS officer’s person.
NS Yes. Marie Sanders is a woman who slept with a Jew during the time of the Nazis.
MW And was publicly humiliated.
NS Right, and then probably killed, could have been either way. But she was publicly marched down the street and…
NS Humiliated, right. Powerful. Leon [Golub] is always going through magazines for his own work, and he finds stuff for me as well. He found that photo of a disheveled, naked woman bound with a rope around her neck, about to be hung in a French photo magazine. I kept this photo of the Gestapo victim for a couple of years, and then quite inadvertently, I heard the Brecht poem on the radio and thought how fantastic it would be to combine the poem and image of the same era. I subsequently learned that it’s one of Brecht’s more famous poems in Germany. In any case, Susan Goodman came to me for the inaugural reopening show at The Jewish Museum and asked specifically for this piece.
MW What are the faults or flaws with text illustrating image? When things go wrong, what is deficient with the image that results from the added text?
NS Using image with text could become illustrative, academic. It isn’t satisfying for me to try to analyze a situation in a detached way, as a matter of fact I couldn’t. There can be all sorts of interpretations or subversions, but what I am really interested in, is a subversion of the pompous—of a “canonized” space or situation. I realize these intentions get lost with time. What was once quite shocking or unacceptable, gets…
NS Integrated. Then you wonder what in the hell…
MW I don’t know if the following is a law-like principle, but I’ve observed that there is a difference between mere novelty and genuine subversion. People say the avant-garde is dead because these things have been repeated. I would maintain that to this day Les Demoiselles d’Avignon by Picasso, and other works, are never assimilated. There are certain works, shocking works, we know intellectually, but have not assimilated culturally, nor ever fully digested…
MW Culturally, I find that very, very interesting, and I think your constant pursuit, or ability to produce a psychically satisfying, but always agitated and furious, set of terms has a certain wisdom in it. Knowing that, yes, the initial shock may be assimilated, but if the initial recipe for subversion is satisfying in the first place, it will remain. There will be a core that is disturbing.
NS Hopefully. It was a resistance, and it still is, to what I consider mainstream or real power.
MW Let’s get back to that installation at The Jewish Museum, because you, as usual, have given thought to the disposition of the text in space.
MW This is a very simple installation, but nonetheless, tactical. You interrupt the display, the exposition of the Brecht poem creating an intervention of text in text.
NS With the Nelly Sachs poem.
MW “That the Persecuted May Not Become Persecutors.” Did you do this so that the woman’s poem, the woman’s story, interrupts the telling of the woman’s story by the man?
NS Not really, but that’s an interesting thought. I intended an interweaving, or some sort of drastic break in the continuum of the poem. This is the first time I’ve ever used a geometric form on a wall for an installation. It was meant to represent fire and a descent into hell.
MW Your work was intended to fit a three-sided alcove.
NS Which doesn’t have architectural interruptions, doors or arches. I’ve been in all sorts of places and sometimes they’re rangy with unexpected spaces and vistas, and I can cover a vast area, put one image somewhere, and another someplace else, or clump them. It gives me great leeway. The Jewish Museum installation necessitated a more formal, structured approach. Then, too, the language, the poetry, took precedence. There was a third poem, “Death Camp,” by the contemporary poet, Irena Klepfisz which I excerpted.
MW Klepfisz assumes the persona of someone who has, shall I say, been converted to smoke, and finds that as she ascends, the sky is clear. Your positioning of the poem as though it were a residue of that smoke along the baseboard creates a deep laconic irony.
NS But the vapors would be the victims. In the right hand corner of the alcove I had more language: Women protesting in contemporary Israel about violence. They’re quite serious in their marching and picketing, and also I have women peace activists who want peace between the Palestinians and Israelis.
MW The dispersion of verbal and visual elements across a visual field is normative in your work. The decentralization of form is insisted upon to enact modes of power. The marginal female, as Nelly Sachs comes to relate her story, doesn’t interrupt Brecht’s telling of the similar or related atrocity. Along with this is the utilization of the margin by a fragment of lyric poetry told by another woman. The symbolic action of the poetry is borne out in the utilization of the space of the installation site. The architectural field is an enactment of the content of the poetry and of the political acts…
NS Exactly, very much so, and the Nelly Sachs poem is about the footsteps, and I tried to envision her poem as steps on stairs. I spread it out at the bottom but it narrowed to the top like traditional perspective.
MW That stepwise concretization of the meaning of the poem is fortunately not so allegorized that one is forced to see the political message right away.
NS No, no, it’s abstract.
MW Were you aware? Did it interest you on a conscious level that the three poems you chose are quite different from one another?
MW Brecht’s is a ballad with all the implications of the sentimental horrific story being told—the tradition of the popular entertainment of ballads sung on the street. With Brecht, of course, there are always didactic lessons encoded. Then Sachs’ poem, with its constant reiteration of the word “footsteps,” might be considered a march. And then the fragment of the lyric by Klepfisz could be considered a song. You were aware of their affective differences?
NS That’s why the type is so different in all of them, and then the interventions of the image.
MW By appropriating the text of others, speaking for them, you must be aware of the peril whereby a gesture of empathy may be seen to usurp their martyrdom for yourself. It’s a situation that has occurred often in the art world these days. Would you care to speak on that?
NS It’s an extraordinarily delicate problem. In a formal sense, art speaks about art. In particular, in modernism, the art limits itself, and becomes rarified in restricting discourse to abstract qualities, the aesthetic. But there is still this endless discussion about the question of political art: Is it art? In my art, information and imagery are taken from all sorts of sources, including art history, and I re-transcribe them, incorporate them to unsettle original intentions, to jolt if possible. Working in other cultures, even in other neighborhoods, the work can be misread or resisted. I’ve learned first hand, doing a public installation in Northern Ireland, and with the best of intentions, one can be greatly misinterpreted.
NS Misconstrued, very much. But viewers usually take it in good faith.
MW The voices you use are from people who are not witnesses, but participants.
NS Most of the wall works are ephemeral, are painted over after the exhibition.
MW The earlier work, the Artaud paintings, use fragments of a poet’s anguished writings.
NS When I did the Artaud paintings (1969-70 and Codex Artaud, 1971-72), I quoted fragments from his text. I used the screams, the hysteria, the madness. I used it to express my own anger. Here is this man acting in these wild ways usually attributed to women. I made a painting, a letter to Artaud with fragmented images, and wrote that I couldn’t have borne to know him alive, his agonies, or his fears, and I signed it. From then on there was a distancing, even though I still responded to his writings profoundly. I had made that distance, and I used Artaud’s language as a mediation, as an intervention, language mediates fear and pain.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
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