Ecstatic Alphabets/Heaps of Language brings together historical and contemporary works of art that treat language not merely as a system of communication governed by grammatical rules and assigned meanings, but as a material that can be manipulated with creative freedom, like paint, clay, or any other artistic medium. The exhibition is divided into two sections. The first is a historical overview of 20th-century art that experiments with the graphic, sonic, and kinetic possibilities of letters and words. With a few notable exceptions, these works are confined to the two-dimensional parameters of a page. The second section presents an installation of contemporary works, most of which do away with the page; some do away with writing altogether.
The artist and poet Emmett Williams observed that “the poem as picture is as old as the hills,” citing its beginnings in hieroglyphics, Babylonian pattern poetry, the anagrams of early Christian monks, and the permutational poems of medieval Cabalists. A fascination with language as something to be looked at rather than read flowered in Europe in the 20th century, and from its first decade, poets and artists explored language’s ability to transmute into sounds, shapes, and even actions. Inspired by these earlier forays into the merging of art and language, in the 1950s poets and artists in Latin America and Europe created Concrete poetry, a hybrid of visual art and poetry in which the physical form of the poem directly reflects its content. In the 1960s and 1970s, artists continued to work with language as something to be arranged, built, or performed rather than written, taking advantage of new mediums like magnetic tape and telephonic technology to propel language off the wall and into the environment.
In the contemporary works on view, language is boldly cut off from literature, received meanings, and, in some cases, the duties of communication altogether. Moving freely among disciplines and mediums, artists have transformed letters, words, and phrases into patterns, sounds, moving images, and objects, celebrating the synesthetic qualities of language without reducing it to pure form. Animated, broken down into phonemes, blown up to enormous proportions, reduced to abstract marks and body movements, or repurposed from the flotsam of everyday life, the language in this recent work complicates, even frustrates, reading. In its antic, irreverent, poetic, ecstatic impracticality, it advocates for freedom from the strictures obeyed by language of the more practical sort, which defines, orders, and controls the world we live in.
Shannon Ebner (American, b. 1971). AGITATE. 2010. Four Chromogenic color prints, 63 x 192" (160 x 487.7 cm) overall, 63 x 48" (160 x 121.9 cm) each. Collection Shane Akeroyd. © Shannon Ebner