Blog Arts

Art and Text - Narrative, Language and Understanding?

 By El Ratón Automático-The 3Nines Arts

Everyday of our lives we use language to communicate, to exchange ideas and messages. We create descriptions of the world, and what we understand as 'reality' via theories written in language, usually deposited in books or magazines or online.

We are constantly taking in information. It comes at us like an on rushing bull we find impossible to avoid. It seeks us out through the books we read, whether they be fiction or factual.

This information, however, can be visual as well as textual. We find it on the internet, on television, in magazines and when we meet people on the street and speak with them.

At the same time as our minds are being bombarded by information and ideas, we are constantly collecting visual cues. We can tell our friend is unhappy just by their demeanour or body language, they don't always need to spell it out to us that they are miserable.

In one Sunday magazine I find countless photographs of attractive, happy young ladies and young men. I can see that these photographs have been set up as advertisements. The textual references that accompany the glossy photographs - and the words are often banded across the main photo - make it clear that they are ads for perfume, or after shave, or cars, or tight fitting jeans...

We might, of course, be able to understand the ad without the text. But, the visual clues alone might not quite be enough to make us fully aware of the meaning, or, of course, subliminal meaning of the advertisement.

Pull on these jeans and you will look a stone to two stone lighter...really? Will I? Well no...but...

In photographs we find clues as to what is happening. If a person looks unhappy visually they are likely to be unhappy. Alternatively, they might otherwise be perfectly happy but just unhappy about having their photograph taken. So meaning taken from photographs can be unstable.

We often 'read' photographs by creating a narrative from the clues in the framed image. But it can be helpful to have textual information.

Artist and photographer Gillian Wearing, Turner Prize winner in 1997, combined the textual and the visual when she combined language with photography for her project : 'Signs that say what you want them to say and not signs that say what someone else wants you to say'.

In her series of photographs Wearing approached total strangers in the street and asked them to write what they were thinking in their heads on a white square of board.

My favourite is the police officer holding a board that says : 'Help!' It runs counter to his outward appearance of courage and confidence, though many of the photographs fit neatly with what the subject has chosen to write. A man with a snake-like tattoo on his forehead and tattoos on the left side of his face states : 'I have been certified mildly insane'.

Wearing gives us the constructed borderlines between the use of art and text, to strengthen context and offer greater meaning and to get us thinking.

Many photographers can and do find text to accompany their visual representations of the world. They do it candidly and find a new edge to their creations.

Joshua Jackson's ​​'Payphone' ​is an excellent example.

©Joshua Jackson : Payphone

Scrawled on the red wall beside a nondescript payphone is a powerful, though poignant, message : 'Your cocaine is killing me'. A simple narrative.

An anonymous person, who seems desperate, is sending out a message to someone, or maybe even something more omnipotent, to end their suffering. Drug taking, it would appear, is killing this unseen person and we wonder if this is a very visual cry for help.

The payphone at the centre of the photograph hinting at the possible communication with 'A' dealer, while the fact that the surrounding is steeped in red is also significant. Red being the colour for danger and for...'stop'.

Does the addict use the phone and buy after scrawling his poignant message on the wall? Or does he or she walk away...?

Pittsburgh photographer Jaime Bird quotes Margaret Atwood on her website : 'In the end we all become stories.' It resonates.

©Jaime Bird : No Direction Home

In one black and white photograph Ms Bird draws our attention to a young bespectacled man holding a placard with the legendary 'N​​o Direction Home' written on it. The photograph is of a young man trying to sell his wares - handmade quartz, amethyst, keychains, - by the side of the road. But his plea of 'No Direction Home', is taken from the iconic Bob Dylan hit Like A Rolling Stone.

Jaime's photograph of the lost looking young man echoes with pop culture.

As well as being lyrics taken from a Dylan song, it also resonates with the Martin Scorcese 'No Direction Home ' documentary of Dylan, and the singer's rise to prominence between 1961 and his motorcycle accident of 1966.

Bird has used this effectively in her frame. The young man looks weary and is holding his head as if anguished, but the textual reference tells its own story : No direction home. Lost? Confused? Drifting?

We are visual creatures, we see, we read and the two are not always mutually exclusive. They work together to build experiences.

Both Joshua Jackson and Jaime Bird know this as they tell stories from the fragments of people's lives. We see the photographs, we seek context and narrative with all the clues we can gather.

Text can often help the narrative of the visual, though, as we have seen, we can never be 100 per cent certain of meaning.

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