Monday, 13 December 2010

Integrated Theory and Practice: Images and Words

In Magritte's pièce 'Les Mots et Les Images, based on children learning to read books, he painted pictures of object and labelled them with no relating words; a shoe labelled la lune (moon), an egg labelled l'acacia (a type of tree or shrub) a hat labelled la neige (snow), a glass labelled l'Orage (storm), a candle labelled le plafond (ceiling), and a hammer with the label la desert (desert). He notes that ‘everything tends to make us think that there is very little connection between an object and what represents it’ and that ‘an object never fulfils the same function’. He was influenced by the Surrealist movement and his art began to play with ideas linking language, representation and art. Most infamous is his painting of a pipe with the caption 'this is not a pipe'. This emphasises that the painting is not actually a real pipe but merely a representation of one, breaking the connection between language and objects. 
Magritte’s word-pictures provide a commentary on language and art; just as words are symbols, so are pictures and they need not necessarily resemble what they represent. Representation can be random  and anything can be used as a sign. 

"We usually attribute resemblance to things which may or may not have a common nature. We say ‘as alike as two peas in a pod’ and we say, just as easily, that the fake resembles the authentic. This so-called resemblance consists of relations of comparison, whose similarities are perceived by the mind when it examines, evaluates and composes. Likeness is not concerned with ‘common sense’ or with defying it, but only with spontaneously assembling shapes from the world of appearance in an order given by inspiration." – René Magritte 

Magritte suggests here that an image may look like an object, but in art it is not necessarily meant to be represent it or even have anything to do with it, but instead be a symbol for something, perhaps an emotion, memory or comparison based on metaphors or similarities it may have connected with it. 
In magritte's work, the strangeness and the startling effect of juxtaposing random words with images, is linked with the play of 'undecidability in representation', in that to put a word and an image together can lead us to question their connection and wether there really is one at all. 
The language barrier of the text being in french seems to add even more mystery as those who do not understand french will not have the immediate reaction of those who do. They may simply assume that the words are the french for those which match the image. This puts into question, again, how text can be non-representative of an image just as much as we believe it is the only one which matches it. 
This could mean, essentially, that words are merely labels we give to things for communication purposes, but representation is all in the mind of the artist, and the connection can then be made by anyone else, meaning we could represent anything with any object or word through any connection through metaphor or simile. 

This idea reminded me of an installation piece I once saw in the Tate gallery by Michael Craig-Martin; An Oak tree from 1973.

The display caption from April 2005:
"While this appears to be a glass of water on a shelf, the artist states that it is in fact an oak tree. Craig-Martin;s assertion addresses fundamental questions about what we understand to be art and our faith in the power of the artist. The work can be seen as an exploration of Marcel Duchamp's declaration that any existing object can be declared a work of art. In his accompanying text, Craig-Martin provides the questions as well as the answers, allowing the simultaneous expression of scepticism and the belief regarding the transformative power of art."
It is this 'transformative power of art' which draws on the same idea of the relationship between language and object as in Magritte's piece. 

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