Write For The Job?

Artists and Writing: The Artist’s Statement

On occasion a poet’s work incorporates, or is accompanied by, visuals; film is an integral part of Tony Harrison practice, in the book ‘For Years Now’ W.G Sebald’s poems alternate with prints by Tess Jaray, and Stevie Smith drew illustrations to accompany many of her poems. Whether or not to work with visual imagery is at the discretion of the poet; there is no obligation here. This is not the case with contemporary artists and writing.

All artists are familiar with the obligatory ‘artist’s statement’, a piece of text written by the artist, that must accompany any exhibition application, website, and frequently, exhibited work. These 300-1,000 word  texts are intended to summarise the artists practice, their influences and their motivation. But what do they add to, or take away from the work, and are we artists the best people to write them? I asked myself these questions as I looked round The East Sussex Open at The Towner Gallery in Eastbourne, where each of the 39 exhibited works (including work of my own) were accompanied by an artist’s statement. Of particular interest to me was ‘Limb‘ (pictured above) by Vanessa Knott.

Like many people, I like to make up my own mind about an artwork before I read its accompanying text. Limb, consisting of sweet-smelling, bright red, strawberry shoelace sweets covering a tree branch laid on the floor, seemed instantly sinister to me. The fallen, vein-like branch of Limb, weighed down by the sickly sweets of childhood looked abandoned, and considered along with its title, wounded or dismembered. But, I found, my interpretation of the work sat in stark contrast to Knott’s statement, that reads –

…Knott is interested in the labored, disposable, sculpted object, where small, repetitive actions result in  larger scale sculptural drawings. Despite having a systematic element to the work, the process is rather organic; two materials are cut or torn ‘repaired’, tied together, strung up and pulled into place using thread or chords. The process is both repetitive and compulsive, fluctuating between a formalistic approach and quirky sensibility…

Knott is clearly interested in the formal aspects of sculpture and material, whereas I tend to look for the cultural and the poetic, and long for a work to tell me a story, or impart some meaning. So, what’s the problem? After all, there are no rules against the subjective interpretation of an artwork. What irked me was, that taken as a whole, the statements accompanying the works on show seemed to address a specialist audience, and spoke in a specialist language. There were references to ‘apparent illusory space’, ‘deconstruction through methods of cutting’, ‘questioning time through the constructed image’, ‘speculative play around visible and invisible history’ and ‘notions of perception’, the kind of ‘art speak’ that artists have become accustomed to using in order to be taken seriously by curators, gallerists and art writers. Often, an artist’s ability to place their work within art history is taken as an indication of their validity as an artist, context is all. I’m not suggesting that it’s wrong to expect an artist to know their subject, nor to acknowledge and be aware of their influence, nor that it’s uninteresting or irrelevant for the viewer. What concerns me is that the language of artists’ statements has become standardised; that we have begun to rely on stock phrases, phrases that speak of our work in it’s professional context, in the context solely of the Art World. Could it be that we’ve lost our individual voices for fear of being dismissed by peers and patrons?

Perhaps poets could help us get our voices back? I’m not proposing that every exhibition should include accompanying Ekphastic poetry; rather that perhaps it’s sometimes more interesting when someone other than the artist or an ‘arts professional’ writes the text that accompanies an artwork, and that this text might be more likely to encourage surprising conversations and more individual interpretations, rather than seeking to define a works ‘true’ meaning and assert its historical lineage.

Posted by Anika Carpenter

Projects of interest, exploring  the relationship between art and its accompanying text –

Bank: FaxBak
The Nillumbik Ekphrasis Poetry Award
Whitechapel Gallery’s Writer In Residence Programme
Poet Maria Jastrzebska in residence at Fabrica Gallery



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