March 24, 2011  |  Artists, Collection & Exhibitions
Body Language

Two recent acquisitions on view in the exhibition I Am Still Alive: Politics and Everyday Life in Contemporary Drawing, which just opened in the Drawings Galleries, prove that text-based art need not be disembodied. While On Kawara‘s series of telegrams sent to his Dutch gallerist—one of which lent the show its title—used neutral typewriting, modest scale, and the simplest of phrases to attest to a human presence, works by Fiona Banner and Paul Chan assert corporeality through scrawled handwriting, imposing size, and thick, evocative diction. This is art that describes the body at the same time that it re-creates it.

Fiona Banner. Nude Standing. 2006. Pencil on paper. The Museum of Modern Art. Purchase

Throughout her career, British artist Fiona Banner has explored the tension between seeing and saying, probing the gap between images and the words that describe them. Her 1,000-page book The Nam consists of the artist’s subjective narration of the events depicted in six Vietnam War movies; the explicit bodily violence shown in Apocalypse Now or Platoon is transubstantiated into a bomb of text. In Nude Standing, Banner engages with the centuries-old genre of the female nude. For this and related works, the artist brought a live model to her studio, rendering her in language rather than line.  The result is a human-scaled testament to the tactile qualities of the body (“flashing white wet eye,” “palest vein blue,” “mauve bony chest lifting”) combined with Banner’s own frustrations at the difficulty of representation (“it’s hard to divide her,” “disappearing then appearing”). Underlying the text is a shadowy image of an airplane’s fin, which links this series to Banner’s works about war, and implies that a certain amount of violence is always present in the act of spectatorship.

Paul Chan. The body of Oh Marys (truetype font). 2009. Ink on paper with shoes and expanding foam. The Museum of Modern Art. Purchased with funds provided by Maja Oeri and Hans Bodenmann

New York–based artist Paul Chan’s work The body of Oh Marys (truetype font) is one of 21 so-called font drawings created during the development of a 2009 media installation called Sade for Sade’s sake. Inspired by Mary Magdalene’s relationships with the men of the Bible, including God and Jesus Christ, this ink-on-paper drawing proposes a textual key, assigning erotic utterances to letters of the alphabet. A corresponding font can be downloaded from the artist’s website, allowing users to generate limitless recombinations of desire simply by typing. (Spelling out the artist’s last name in the code proposed by this drawing, for example, would give rise to the phrase “don’t ask (C), don’t stop (H), oh jesus (A), don’t wait (N).”) Resting atop a pair of shoes, this person-sized drawing lends a body to its font, bridging the gap between the virtual and the corporeal. By allowing black ink to drip down the paper, Chan gives physical immediacy to the actions (“lick,” “squeeze,” “drink”) he describes.

Confronting either of these monumental works on paper in the gallery creates the sensation of coming up against a very real, material presence. “Does the text have human form, is it a figure, an anagram of the body?” Roland Barthes asks in The Pleasure of the Text. Both Banner and Chan answer, definitively, yes.