HERE IN THE UNDERGROWTH
A LOCAL SHOWCASE FOR SYNTHETICA | GIPPSLAND ART GALLERY
10 July to 20 September 2015
A BLINDSIDE / NETS Victoria Exhibition
Curator | Claire Anna Watson
During its regional tour Synthetica is supported by a local exhibition series – Here in the Undergrowth – a showcase of new work by artists with a strong relationship to the venue’s surrounding area. Here in the Undergrowth is a means of creating a conversation – a knowledge
exchange, an initiative intended to promote regional artists as well as to link Synthetica to each location in a new and unique way. In 2016, at the conclusion of the Synthetica tour, a curated selection of works by artists from Here in the Undergrowth will be presented at BLINDSIDE.
Image: Claire Marston, Neon 80’s font, 2015, Cement, spray paint, Courtesy the artist. Photographer: Neale Stratford
WHAT’S IN A WORD?
Claire Marston has an inquisitive fixation with language. We connected over the notion of negative definition: that everything can be defined by what it is not. The positive recognition of a thing can come from not being the other, by the absence of the other. In other words, the exclusion of one thing implies the existence of the opposite. For some reason, this is a comforting thought for both of us, an idea that provides relief from the complexities of language, of signs and of words. This fact, as simple as it appears, is central to Marston’s practice, which playfully interrogates words and text and her personal relationship with them.
80s neon font (2015) is an alluring invitation into the mind of the artist, someone who is both curious about and challenged by how language functions. Through her sculptural text based work, Marston prompts a conceptual conversation about linguistics, a disruptive exploration of that which governs our understanding of the world. Beguiling and unexpected, the work is a kind of vortex, which coaxes us into a territory where definitions become unfixed, words are released from restraints, and signs and signifiers are deconstructed. Across the work, the artist aims to arrest, destabilise, and challenge the viewer, inciting us to explore not only the complexity and ambiguity of language, but also our relationship with it.
The work describes itself. Forty-two concrete cast letters in a friendly, slightly rounded font form the phrase ‘a group of strategically placed lines coloured pink’. It is exactly what it says it is: a composition of curved, straight, and intersecting arcs and lines. The maximally saturated tone of shocking pink reminds us of neon tubing, eighties-fluoro: it is both whimsical and seductive. The hyper real colour is immediately arresting, and in its artificiality it points to the nature of the system of language.
Marston’s approach to language is likened to the thinking of many European philosophers: she is primarily concerned with what it means to ‘mean’ something. In Saussurean thought, language is a formal system of differential elements, of linguistic signs that are composed of both signified and signifier.[i] They refer to the concept (the material thing) and the sound-image (the word or symbol attributed to it), and the bond between them is completely arbitrary.[ii] In this case however, the words ‘a group of strategically placed lines coloured pink’ describe only themselves—a physical manifestation of metalanguage—that which Roland Barthes described as the use of language about language.[iii] The idea of text representing something else is confronted. Through this self-reflexivity Marston interrogates the ambiguous nature of the structure language and reveals it as a construction.
It is a construction that exists as a collective product of social interaction, a constitution of rules by which we obey in order to use it as an instrument to articulate our world. While hollow in nature, we abide to it automatically and without question. Stanley Milgram’s Obedience to Authority theory hypothesises that obedience to authority is ingrained in us from our upbringing, and is revealed through our willingness to obey an authority figure.[iv] For the artist, language and text is that figure of authority to which we abide—a system to which we are totally dependent. This is a troubling thought for her, an anxiety that comes from the awareness of the power of language and our ready acceptance of it. By confusing the meaning, the relationship between signifier and signified, the blind obedience that pervades our relationship to text is disrupted and we realise our dependence to that system. Feelings of anxiety and frustration with words and text are juxtaposed with the convivial pink, creating a tension that is as much a critique of our connection to language as it is a technique to encourage the viewer to feel what she does. The tools of language—words, text—are used here to critique words, text and language itself. As a result we call text’s authority into question- its function here is unexpected.
Marston’s work is a playful interrogation; curiosity and humour is embedded in the work. The words are an ironic exploration into the relationship between text and the visual. Her approach is more subtractive than the text artists of the 1960s. Joseph Kosuth explored this relationship in One and three chairs, (1965) three representations of the same concept which revealed the tension between words, the image, and reality. Marston’s work however, is all three at once.
Power is important to Marston too. Like Barbara Kruger, she aims to address how power circulates through culture. Aesthetically, the work is informed by advertising, referencing the speed by which messages can be communicated en masse through text-words that inundate us with dizzying effects. It is a Foucaldian investigation into how our society can be shaped and structured by language. Typically flat, the letters have the addition of a third dimension, triggering a physical engagement with the work, and therefore text itself. The instant reading of the words is disrupted through the scale of the work; its enlarged scale produces an extended duration of looking—we are given time for our thoughts.
Marston has created a glitch in the system—a moment of interruption as we become aware that these words are describing only themselves. The process of signification, of semiosis, is internalised and interrupted, a self-reflexivity that confuses the habitual and automatic function of text and words. Instead she creates a continual loop where the sign refers only to itself. From this the myth of words and text is exposed, the text has been recontextualised.
There is a sense of dislocation that emerges with this interrogation into this all-encompassing system—the unsettling notion that language is not as concrete as we believe it to be. But despite all of this, red can always be understood in opposition to blue, yellow or any other colour; a square can always be understood in opposition to a circle, triangle or any other shape. And therein is perpetual comfort for Claire Marston.
[i] Ferdinand de Saussure, Course in General Linguistics, 1983, Columbia University Press: New York
[iii] Michael Moriarty, Roland Barthes, 1991, Stanford University Press: California
[iv] Stanley Milgram, Obedience to Authority: An Experimental View, 1974, Tavistock: London
This exhibition has received development assistance from NETS Victoria’s Exhibition Development Fund Grant, supported by the Victorian Government through Creative Victoria, a division of the Department of Premier and Cabinet.