A heap of Language by Robert Smithson
Art and writing have a long, entwined history: from descriptions of famous ancient Greek artworks by Roman authors, to the invention of ideographic writing systems like Chinese, to the text and image combinations in maps and diagrams. Since conceptual art emerged in the 1960s, however, many artists have used writing as a critical tool for developing and communicating their practice. For over twenty years, “Art Writing” has been taught at universities in the USA and the UK in a way that often crosses the disciplinary boundaries between theory, art criticism, fiction and non-fiction.
In this blog, I try to define broadly Art Writing, and show how multifaceted it can be. I also include an account of the particular writers I have come across that I have particularly enjoyed for their personal approach to talking about art and the institutional contexts art appears in. Keeping in mind our Artist of the Month for May, Neve J Harrington (image below), whose practice is fed by writing and conversation, I encourage readers to take the time to explore her conceptual articulations about space, dialogue and care by listening to her podcasts and reading her online publication Satellising.
Araignée by Guillaume Apollinaire
At its simplest, Art Writing helps us understand the visual arts (predominantly visual or performance- based works), and in particular, what is at stake in an artist’s practice. But Art Writing itself can be understood as a form of art. It is a way to introduce an element of discourse within an artwork. Satelliser: a dance for the gallery by J Neve Harrington
There are countless critical and creative approaches to Art Writing, including: writing on art, writing as art, writing with art, writing for artists, and writing by artists. The same goes for genre, subjects and forms: Art Writing can be academic, performative, speculative, poetry, creative non-fiction, fictions, artist statements, writing for social media.
Installation shot of ‘The three stories are flattened’ by Katrina Palmer at Void Gallery, Derry
For artists like Neve whose work is grounded in complex theoretical ideas – such as identity and relationality – and speaks to other disciplines – like psychology and biology – developing a ‘writing practice’ does necessarily impact how she develops performance-based works.
Not only does writing help generate ideas, artists often need to use writing to ‘speak on behalf of’ their work to fellow artists, curators, gallerists, critics, and publics. The old adage “writing is thinking” can be extremely helpful to artists who might be trying to plan a piece, or to reflect and discover the concepts behind their intuitive art-making.
Last month I attended a talk on Art Writing at the Freelands Foundation as part of their current exhibition In the Same Breath. The leader of the panel discussion, Dr Laura Hayes, defined Art Writing as an ‘inter-disciplinary, multi-modal’ studio practice that utilises ‘co-making across people and forms’ to generate new knowledges. This kind of writing brings together different ways of making and
Installation shot of 'In the Same Breath' thinking, with a particular emphasis on
collaboration. Hayes told the audience that the writing process itself is nurtured and carefully developed, rather than the focus being on the finished or publishable product.
Art Writing is experimental and often pushes the conventions and boundaries of traditional writing forms. For example, Robert Smithson's A heap of Language (see the first blog image) is both a poem and an image of a pile or pyramid at the same time. This makes us tune into the shape of individual words, Smithson's spidery handwriting, and how words can be brought together without conventional grammar, like stones making up a cairn. Art Writing is a practice whose aims and forms are constantly re-assessed: it's up to each writer to establish their own framework or criteria for what they are looking to achieve, rather than the discipline having fixed, established notions of what to do. Letter from Sol LeWitt to Eva Hesse
For example, art history's aim is to link visual artefacts with broader historical phenomenon, and art journalism's aim is to evaluate and rate artworks, curation and institutions. Art Writing has no such prescribed aim. Instead, it embraces writing as a problematisation of the object of art and exposes the conditions of exhibiting and writing. As an art journalist reviewing the Venice Biennale, for example, you would write about the artworks you were most interested in, whereas Art Writing might involve writing from the perspective of the artworks themselves, or only paying attention to aspects of the biennale conventionally deemed unimportant by journalists - like toilet queues, litter or commercial sponsors. If Art Writing generates knowledge, it forgoes disciplinary boundaries maintained by institutions (such as visual arts vs. literature) and seeks to make knowledge more accessible and useful for readers.
Most importantly, Art Writing involves reckoning with the “work” that words are able to do (or not do!). As John Hall reminds us, ‘Writing – writing in general – is unavoidably a material, technological, social practice that does things between people.’ Art Writing’s furthest ambition is to negotiate - or illuminate how art negotiates - increasingly materially abstracted crises like global warming, inequality, trauma, and political violence. The hope is that language can be used by artists writing today, to bring about new ways of thinking and imagine new ways of living and creating. In our era of globalised technology, flow of capital and investment, it might be hard for an artist to convey how such complex economic, biodiverse or social systems operate, but it is nonetheless worthwhile trying to get to grips with the forces that shape our lives.
I find the current shifts in what writing itself means really interesting. AI technologies including Siri, social media bots and Chat GPT, writing itself may be undergoing a huge shift in meaning from signifying human presence to robotic mimesis. Instead of standing in for a human voice or historical presence, now writing and images can be created by computers. Boris Eldgasen AI-generated photograph submitted to the Sony World Photography award shows the extent of the unease. As we grapple with what AI-generated writing means today, artists can help us challenge and re-assess how writing can re-shape notions of the human self from privileged and autonomous to living symbiotically with technology, as well as all kinds of species of animals, plants and bacterium.
The Electrician by Boris Eldagsen
Here are some texts I highly recommend if you want to dip your toe into some Art Writing. Katrina Palmer’s haunting and hilarious tale The Dark Object is written from the point of view of a student within an art school whose Rector has prohibited the making of material artworks. The first couple of essays in Helene Cixous’ collection Stigmata offer breath-taking meditations on Rembrandt’s drawings. And, last but not least, it is well worth reading the Freelands Foundation's UNCHORUS publication, featuring a wide range of artists’ writing practices, each with their own quirky originality.