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The Word is Art: Text in the Age of Textspeak

Posted on 30 Nov 2018

From Ancient Greek sculptures to Islamic calligraphy, written language has been an element of artistic. We turn to 'The Word is Art' to ask how artists use words in the age of Twitter and textspeak?

Across cultures and millennia, words have found their way into art. In Ancient Greece, sculptural works were often inscribed to identify the represented figures. In the Islamic world, sophisticated calligraphy made the written word into its own art form, transmitting an intricate intricate aesthetic code as much as a text. In the Dutch Golden Age, the artist’s signature became a staple element of most paintings, advancing the proclivity towards single authorship, and establishing that authorship as a commercial asset.

Juan Gris, 'Still Live with Checked Tablecloth', Paris, spring 1915. Oil and graphite on canvas. 116.5 x 89.2 cm (45.875 x 33.125 in.)

Come the turn of the 20th century, the shattering perspectives of Cubism introduced several verbal elements into the pictorial frame, whether cut-outs from Le Figaro or graphite inscriptions directly onto a collaged surface. For the Dadaists and Surrealists who followed, language became a subversive playground to enact their defiance of reason. Works such as Duchamp’s L.H.O.O.Q or Magritte’s Ceci n’est pas une pipeunspooled the tight structures of syntax and the logic it presumed to create instead an associative verbal pool of sound, suggestion, and unconscious desires.

In the 1960s, Pop art’s soup cans and comic strips brought the signage of modern urban life and the particular language of celebrity and pop culture into the fine art realm. Later that decade and into the early 1970s, artists including Bruce Nauman extended the repertoire of commercial language with neon art installations that both visually and verbally echoed advertising.  The following decade, Jenny Holzer’s wry Truisms imbued language with a new spatial dimension while reckoning with the structures of power, oppression and violence that animated that same public arena. As the HIV-AIDS crisis hit — with a notably lethargic response from the Reagan administration, Gran Fury were one of many agitprop exponents who also took up language as an essential tool of political commentary and critique.

Charles Demuth 'I Saw the Figures 5 in Gold', 1928. Oil Graphite, ink and gold leaf on paperboard (Upson board) 90.2 x 76.2cm (35.5 x 30 in.)

In the 21st century, our relationship to language has undergone radical shifts through digital communication and media. We write, or type, more than ever. We have evolved entirely new vocabularies and found new means of combining or compressing words together. We experience many more words on a screen than on a page. And we recognise the democratisation of words, whereby many more people who have something to say can be heard (or seen).

As language morphs beneath our twitching fingertips, words remain a vital, critical, and powerful element of artistic practice. Our new book The Word in Art charts the 21st century development of text-based artworks, exploring eight major categories of word art: installed, 3D, light, new media, conceptual, social comment, the drawn word, and books.

Image: pp-26-27. Caption: eL Seed. Perception, 2016. Anamorphic painting over 56 facades, Cairo.


One of the most ambitious word-based installation works of recent years,Perceptionby Tunisian-French artist eL Seed was painted across 56 different buildings in Cairo in 2016. The work was both challenging and risky, created without the consent of the Egyptian government, which has censored artists across multiple media, including a de facto ban on street art.

The work is installed in the Manshiyat Naser neighborhood, whose inhabitants are Coptic Christians known pejoratively as zabaleen, or “garbage people”. For decades, the community has made a living by collecting and sorting through the city’s rubbish, selling any salvaged material. eL Seed’s chosen text is from the 4th century bishop of Alexandria, St Athanasius and translates as “Anyone who wants to see the sunlight clearly first needs to wipe his eye”.

Image: p.62 Caption: Deborah Kass. OY/YO, 2015.


Echoing the vibrant graphics of Robert Indiana’s LOVE (1965), Deborah Kass’ OY/YOis a public sculpture situated between the Manhattan and Brooklyn bridges in New York. In bright canary yellow, the sculpture commands attention from both sides of the East River and nods to the different and developing communities of New York’s neighbourhoods. Seen from Brooklyn, the sculpture proclaims the Yiddish word “OY”, gesturing to the many Jewish residents over in Manhattan. Viewed from Manhattan, it hollers back a hipster “YO”.

Image: p.180 Caption: Zhang Huan, Family Tree, 2000


Zhang Huan’s Family Treedraws on the rich traditions of calligraphy and tattoo to explore a new iteration of “body language”. Created after Zhang moved to New York, the work consists of nine photographs taken over one day, in which calligraphers wrote Chinese characters across Zhang’s face.

The characters refer in particular to China, its culture, and the names of people Zhang knew. Many also derive from physiognomy, the ancient Chinese art of judging personality based on facial characteristics. Yet rather than being illuminated, Zhang’s identity is increasingly obscured. Over the course of the day, the artist’s face and the heritage he has inscribed are subsumed into one indistinguishable surface of ink.

The Word is Art is available now, featuring some of the most impressive and important text-based artowkrs since the year 200, including works by Bruce Nauman, Julien Breton, Jeremy Deller, Tracey Emin, Shirin Neshat and many more.


Words by Eliza Apperly.