Academic journal article Visible Language

After the Grave: Language and Materiality in Contemporary Art

Academic journal article Visible Language

After the Grave: Language and Materiality in Contemporary Art

Article excerpt


The introductory essay highlights a double sense of the word grave which is brought together in this issue as a means of getting at an aesthetic and a material zeitgeist: the prevalent feeling is that our current cultural moment harbors material and virtual means of artistic and written iteration that are in profound states of transition. The introduction to this issue focuses on intersections between written language and material sign, text and image, and on the links between the histories of specific art medias that speak to notions of passage and a passage-beyond. Commenting on the major essays in the issue and their respective engagements with art and text in light of shifting materialities, the introduction also situates a series of "artist's projects" in relation to the themes of the project.

Beginning with the Grave

The word grave in the title of this issue proposes a double sense. It reminds us of the idea of death, a place for human remains, and by implication, of a marker of death. The word invokes another form of marking, one historically associated with print technology: the grave, or gravure, an incised or carved out mark in a printing matrix. Thus the term, most readily associated with our mortal passing, also infers notions of reproducibility.

The double sense of the word grave is brought together in this issue as a means of getting at an aesthetic and a materialist Zeitgeist: the prevalent feeling that our current cultural moment, which appears defined by inescapable states of transition, harbors material and virtual means of iteration that are also profoundly transitory. Technologically, culturally and artistically we exist within a cultural frame where reproducibility is our inheritance and also an albatross: it weighs us down and nudges us, both when its relevant technologies are in use and when they are in decline. Arguably, the concept of reproducibility itself is a reminder of the interest in our age in looking back and looking forward simultaneously - again and again and again.

From art to the grave. ..and after: this is like a riddle or the beginning of a ghost story. With a list of relevant obituaries too long to announce (. ..of art, of the book, of print: at the hand of mass media, the internet, the digital...), it is difficult not to argue that we are, indeed, working as artists, designers and thinkers in the context of an "afterlife." But: from art to the grave...and after? The order of our aforementioned trajectory may be incorrect. Perhaps art does not end in the grave but proceeds from it, rising phoenix-like; Christ-like; vampire-like to live again.

The Persistence of Art

Contemporary art and design are, in an era of mass culture and digital ascendancy, undergoing an explosion with respect to conventional boundaries and traditional parameters. In light of this, Gianni Vattimo sees our current relationship with the ostensible "death of art" as not leading merely to dissolution into forms of mass media, kitsch or ultimate silence, but rather toward that which is to be healed (in the Heideggerian sense of Verwindung). Thus, art in the digital age has, in a strange way, been returned to us. But a question may be posed based on an implied reversal of this idea which asks why, in an all-pervasive and competitive mass visual culture, we keep returning to art - not as witnesses to its death but in an awareness of its persistent life. In doing so, we find art ready, as Vattimo tells us, not to be discarded like an "old, worn-out garment" but to be exhibited, "... bear[ing] on its face the traces and passage of time."1

The lines of the visage we admire or contemplate are, we know, the result of time and insist on the necessity that we consider in tandem the materiality of art itself and the tangle of language. Material, for our purposes, is a fundamentally temporal thing. Marked by degrees of solidity and fluidity, sensorally embodied, functioning as a commodity or a resource - or 'standing in reserve' - the materiality of art begs scrutiny. …

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