Lingo

getting the picture
City Gallery, Brisbane

The exhibition, Lingo, explored various aspects of language. Its curator, Lucienne Fontannaz, chose both writers and visual artists, an indication that here verbal and visual languages were to be compared. The subtitle of this exhibition was getting the picture which means both seeing, and reaching an understanding. These need not be two distinct propositions but can be one and the same. There is a Western philosophical tradition which links thought not to that which we speak or write but to that which we see—our word 'idea' comes from the Greek £t8w which means 'to see' or 'to be face to face.1

A fundamental way in which the image differs from the text is that written and spoken texts are decidedly less encoded by their own materiality than are visual images.2 However, the relationship between word and image becomes complex when we consider those instances in which the word operates as image—as in the cases of calligraphy, written languages consisting of pictograms, and the colophon or textual inscription which is traditionally incorporated into Chinese paintings. In one of three large ink drawings by Irene Chou which were included in Lingo, a symbol which appeared to be a written character or alphabet letter dominated the image and took on ambiguous three-dimensional spatial characteristics which we associate more often with an image than with a text. It served to problematise the relationship between the two. The governing concern of the artists and writers in this exhibition was linguistic relativity, the notion that language both conveys and contains one's world view. The majority of the participants in Lingo engaged with the idea that we see, experience, and understand things differently within different linguistic frameworks.

Edite Vidins work addressed the indivisibility of word and image, with a particular Latvian word, paldies, being the trigger of visual memory and family history. With her drawings of flowers on timber, Katarina Vesterberg sought to foreground discrepancies between a personal visual language and the language of scientific classification. The title and subject of Ron Hurley's painting, White Lady, was ironic for it sounds like the brand name of a luxury good, but in the context that he presented it, it derived from Aboriginal English and referred to a drink made of milk and methylated spirits.3 Linguistic relativity was also a prominent theme in the writing which accompanied the exhibition. For instance, Michael Sariban's written piece investigated what are, for him, some significant differences in the immediacy and profundity of a person's first and second languages while Sangye's playful essay pointed out some of the difficulties and challenges of translating a text.

However, not all participants in the exhibition supported the notion that languages are incommensurable with one another and that translation is at best imprecise, and at worst, impossible. Gordon Bennett's paintings, along with Heather lnglis' work, were the strongest pieces in an exhibition which varied greatly in quality. In his paintings, Bennett attempted to peel back language in a sense, so as to allow the essence of an object to emerge. Three of the works, The Circle, The Water, and The Sky, featured what appeared to be small pebbles painted a rich cobalt blue adhered to their surface. They formed the shapes of a filled circle, a vertical column, and a hollow ring, respectively. These arrangements of the blue pebbles had such a compelling physicality that they seemed not to be mediated representations of concepts. Instead, they appeared to embody those things to which they referred. 'Verbal language is random, contingent and interchangeable', these paintings seemed to be saying, 'but in or behind or through the image resides the thing in itself, ready to burst forth'.

In another painting by Bennett, Relative/Absolute (Man and Woman), a picture-book illustration of a man and woman was accompanied by six different words for 'man' and 'woman' in various languages. Here, the differences between languages seemed to be overshadowed by the overwhelming fact of gender. Psychoanalytic theory holds that in order to acquire language, a child must first grasp sexual difference, and that it is this understanding which determines the child's engagement with the symbolic. Bennett's painting operated so as to position language difference such that it is explained by, subordinate to, and preceded by sexual difference.

While Bennett attempted to strip back language to reveal what lay behind it, lnglis created her subjects out of language. The Electra theme seemed to be one factor in the structure of her sculptural work, The Hangman's Daughters, which centred around four girls who were implicitly defined in terms of their relationship to their father. Each daughter was represented by identical upholstered metal boxes resembling reliquaries. The boxes contained the girls' hair, made of stranded copper wire hanging in a single long braid. A braid of hair that is separate from the body can be either a troth or an aid to the rituals of mourning.4 This braided hair was both a symbol of sexual attraction, and a sinister reference to the father's trade, resembling as it did the means for fashioning a noose, with the copper wire also suggestive of a garrotte.

Small rectangles of glass attached to each metal box were etched with the girls names: Surprise, Pleasure, Sorrow and Heather. The words pleasure and sorrow reinforced the work's associations with sex and death. The emphasis on cadence and rhyme made it clear that the names operated as spoken rather than written words and evoked oral storytelling traditions. The first three daughters had abstract nouns for names which is a convention for legendary and fairytale characters. The names served to simultaneously describe and prescribe the girls' natures and destinies. In contrast, the fourth daughter, Heather, was named with a concrete noun and existed as an individual, an enigma, someone whose destiny had yet to be decided.

In his catalogue essay, Con Castan described the way in which a person named in one language and living in another experiences a schism between name and self. In contrast, lnglis investigated the possibility that a person can fully inhabit her name. While several of the participants in the exhibition Lingo failed to deal with the subject of language at all, and others did so only in a didactic and laboured manner, in The Hangman's Daughters and in previous works of hers which take her name as their motif, lnglis demonstrated with great subtlety the abundance which a single word can evoke.

notes: 

1 . Heidegger, Martin, What is Called Thinking? New York: Harper

and Row, 1968 p. 41.

2 Bryson, Norman, Word and Image. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 1981 p. 3

3. Fontannaz, Lucienne, Lingo (ex. cat.), 1995. p. 4.

4. Warner Marina, From the Beast to the Blonde: on fairy tales and their tellers. London: Vintage, 1995. p. 373.

5. Bettleheim, Bruno, The Uses of Enchantment. London: Penguin, 1991. p. 40.