15.06.08 Sam Messenger in 'You Silently (Two): Image-Object-Text' at The Courtauld Institute of Art, curated by Dawn Ades and Marina Warner

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Sam Messenger’s work is included in a new exhibition at The Courtauld Institute of Art: ‘You Silently (Two): Image-Object-Text’ has been curated by Marina Warner and Dawn Ades.

You Silently (Two) – Image-Object-Text
Courtauld Library

Viewing, Readings, and Discussion with the artists and others.
Courtauld Institute Research Forum
23 June 2008, 6.00-8.30
Wine will be served.

Words can be windows – transparencies through which meanings are glimpsed. But they can also become images, objects, things – things that have shape and heft, light and dark, and are made up of letters that possess their own ways on the page, their own creep or swing, eddies or purposes. Ancient scripts’ pictograms such as Mayan glyphs keep their formal, image qualities in evidence; Islamic calligraphy, Kabbalistic symbols, and magic signs also shift attention to the quiddity of words and letters in themselves, not to their referents. They convey meanings through visual signs, rather than semantic chains or sentences.

At the same time every revolution in writing media has inspired a corresponding graphic art form, and in the last hundred years, following the experiments of the Russian constructivists and the Bauhaus designers, artists and poets discovered in the new portable typewriter a visual instrument with inherent expressive potential. In the Fifties and Sixties, the era that wished to make the picture plane visible by slicing through its surface and turn the slump and drip and thickness of paint and fabric into the subject of the work, when artists were calling for a closer engagement with materials, concrete poetry emerged as an international field of experiment; it combined image, object, and text to form a new kind of artifact – a thing in the world.

This exhibition began with a sequence of love poems, written in l962-3 by Nikos Stangos (l936-2004), and found after his death in a folder bearing the pencilled note in Greek Kopsotia, a made-up word combining ‘off cuts’ or ‘clippings’ with a metaphorical overtone of severance and loss. Nikos was already a published poet in Greek (his mother tongue), and he reveals in these works in English the inspiration of his friends’ and contemporaries (Ian Hamilton Finlay; Dom Sylvester Houédard; Lee includes a reproduction of the drawing which Jasper Johns made specially for ‘Pure Reason’ (Thames & Hudson, 2007). This magnificent volume, comprising Nikos Stangos’s formal poems in English, reveals how interwoven his imagination was with the visual arts and with the poets who derive inspiration from them – including Mallarmé and Wallace Stevens; Lee Harwood; Stephen Bann) and their experiments in visual poetry.

The poet and artist Patricia Scanlan of Artery Editions began to work with the poems, reconstructing how Nikos had returned to them in the Seventies, layering and turning the sheets on a photocopier.
She analyzed the permutations of the originals and, responding to the imagery of light in the poems, decided to print them on suspended, luminous sheets of Perspex, a material with strong associations to Sixties design. ‘These love poems are so vulnerable and delicate in their content,’ she writes, ‘and are so directed to the beloved, that it is rather extraordinary then to combine them with the intense juggling, positioning, and repositioning of the typed words on the page.’ Scanlan has made several mobiles (one on show in the Courtauld Library) as well as wall-mounted panels. She has also produced two A3 limited editions of the visual poems: 10 deluxe ones that are boxed and crafted in Perspex, and 100 paper ones. There is also a screen-printed A2 edition of 30 which includes a reproduction of the drawing which Jasper Johns made specially for ‘Pure Reason’ (Thames & Hudson, 2007). This magnificent volume, comprising Nikos Stangos’s formal poems in English, reveals how interwoven his imagination was with the visual arts and with the poets who derive inspiration from them – including Mallarmé and Wallace Stevens.

When Nikos Stangos arrived in London in the Sixties from his native Greece via the US, the city was a new agora for experiment in the arts, and concrete poetry was one of the new forms adding to the ferment of activity. This was a literature that leapt beyond language barriers, and created a kind of Esperanto across cultural borders. Stangos was key to this dynamic, since in l967 he began the crucially influential series of Penguin Modern Poets and Penguin Modern European Poets, which brought contemporary poetry within the reach of people’s pockets. The decade of the Sixties was also an era that was supremely hospitable to dynamic border-crossings – to migrations between languages and cultures, between art and literature, pictures and book-works; the first premises of the Institute of Contemporary Art in Dover Street, London, welcomed many Latin American artists, for example, who played a part in the movement (Augusto de Campos and Haroldo de Campos), and in l965 Jasia Reichardt curated for the ICA in the Mall the first international show of concrete poetry.

Leaving Penguin to become an editor at Thames & Hudson, Stangos then founded The World of Art series, for which he commissioned the standard works on modern and contemporary movements
and artists (Dawn Ades wrote the volumes on Duchamp and Dalí) and again made a lasting mark on the aesthetic education of this country, thereby greatly helping its unexpected emergence today as a hive of artistic creativity.

But it is the experimental concrete poems of Nikos Stangos that have provided the catalyst for this show. ‘You Silently (Two): Image-Object-Text’ spans 40 years of artistic development, travelling an arc from some works that are chiefly texts to others that are chiefly objects, from the use of signs as ciphers to their presence as graphisms. Dom Sylvester Houédard invented the typikon, and made
portraits in this form of the inventive Themersons – Stefan and Franciszka, a writer-illustrator-film-maker partnership – who began the innovative Gaberbocchus Press. Dirk Krecker continues the concrete poets’ use of the typewriter to create shadow drawings which materialize forms in letters.
Ian Hamilton Finlay made many books of images and texts, and was fascinated by all forms of signs and symbols, encryption and camouflage; Richard Wentworth interleaves dictionary pages with the stuff that words denote, a little like the inhabitants of Laputa who have forsworn words and transport
objects to communicate with one another.

Sam Winston has transformed the complete Oxford English Dictionary in 21 volumes into a serpentine origami sculpture of organic fan-like clusters, word-blind and beautiful: language changed into visual music. He has also created a sequence of works from Shakespeare’s plays: filleting Romeo and Juliet for all the passages invoking Passion, then Anger, followed by all the rest, he has then reassembled these siftings to make three relief collage drawings. Another set of tracings unfolds the emerging pronoun ‘I’ from a delicate weft of threads as if the word were taking form through sound waves made visible. The artist’s work enhances the numen of language in the same way as elaborated religious inscriptions, disappearing from legibility, magnify the names of God – or of the Virgin.

Graham Parker also re-inscribes meaning in the overlooked. In the digital age, the computer and its characteristic languages and signs have replaced the typewriter and its marks, and opened a new field for composers of e-poetry, with three dimensional depth, colour, and movement. He explores the potential of the internet, and unearths found poetry through his analysis of its dialects and signs; he captures the skewed, paranoid humour in ‘SPAM’, by identifying phrases that have been grabbed at random from books chosen to match the messages’ cryptic content – titles such asPersuasion by Jane Austen and The Master Key by L. Frank Baum, the author of The Wizard of Oz. As Lewis Carroll wrote one of the earliest concrvete poems when he told ‘a long tale’ curling down the page in the shape of a mouse’s tail, it is only appropriate that his smile should linger over the most recent nonsense language, which turns a word into a graphic presence in its own right – or write, as another player in this zone, John Lennon, once put it.

Marina Warner


The show began at the University Gallery, Essex (Jan 14- February 16, 2008). We are profoundly
grateful to Jessica Kenny and the staff there for their enthusiasm and support throughout, as well as Philip Terry and Nigel Cochrane. We would also especially like to thank all the artists, and particularly Patricia Scanlan; the friends and collectors who have lent to the exhibition: Ron and Willow King, Stephen Bann, Jasia Reichardt and Nicholas Wadley, Richard Hollis, Roger Malbert. Nicolas Dubois, from the Courtauld, and Sam Winston, the artist, were prime movers of the show’s new incarnation in London, and we are very grateful to Antony Hopkins, the Courtauld librarian. The Camberwell School of Art has most generously helped make this exhibition possible, and we are grateful to Oriana Baddeley for her interest. Our deep thanks above all to David Plante, Nikos Stangos’s lifelong partner, for his support of the publication of Nikos Stangos’s poems.