Language art, lettrisme, concrete poems, pattern poems, and visual poetry are all names for art about language; language provides both the form and the content for this mode of art production. Although I spoke a language before I ever made art, I studied the history, sociology, and techniques of art before I made any comparable studies of language. Language was just something I used and never thought much about.
Ten years ago Karl Kempton sent me an issue of his publication, Kaldron. I found its pages of visual poetry totally incomprehensible. Tentatively, I sent him some photographs of petroglyphs, to which he responded with interest. But several years and issues of Kaldron had to pass before visual poetry became comprehensible to me, and I began to create my own language art.
My home in the Mojave desert provided the foundation for my visual poetry. Here the past permeates the present. The walls and floors of the cabins in town were lined with yellowed newspapers from the mining heyday of the 1920s. My pantry drawers were old dynamite crates covered with black stenciled letters. In the nearby desert canyons, Indians had left indecipherable pictographs and petroglyphs on the boulders. The combination in my prints of contemporary visual symbols with the rock art of the past is a reflection of my environment as well as my philosophical belief in the theories of relativity and simultaneity.
I had gained an appreciation of the beauty inherent- in the forms of letters and recognized the decorative potential of language m pattern and design during the seventies when I saw the magnificent Islamic calligraphy adorning, the mosques Of Turkey and Iran. In the same decade the study of meditation with a Tibetan Buddhist teacher and the resultant exposure to mantras introduced me to the link between language and metaphysical truths. Eventually I realized that a letter of the alphabet, for example the letter "A", could be as potent a symbol as a circle or a cross. I began collecting symbols - sacred symbols - from art and anthropology books, from newspapers, magazines, catalogs, and junk mail, to use in the collages I call "Hierograms".
Life without symbols is inconceivable. It is the act of symbolizing that distinguishes us from other animals. Without symbols there can be no thought. We think in a particular language, and our language consists of symbols. "Since we constantly think we really dwell within language." (James Powell)
Spoken words are symbols of objects and thoughts; written words are symbols of our speech, or symbols of symbols. Language is all-pervasive; every dealing we have with others involves language. We use language as a tool of communication; it is the repository of our knowledge, of the cultures of those who lived before us, and the means by which our accumulated experience will be passed on to the generations that follow. The history, culture, and traditions of a people are contained in their language. The study of a language reveals a people's characteristics, how they regard life, what is important to them.
Language is important not only because it conveys our thoughts, but also because it shapes them. Our view of the universe is inherent in the structure of our language. Our grammar and vocabulary determine whether phenomena are seen as continuous events or as objects. The rigid sense of time intrinsic to Western culture is directly related to and enforced by the structure of our verbs. Naming a thing gives it a birth certificate; without a name there is no existence. Language sets the boundaries of our lives. We are duped by our symbols.
Now we are, bombarded daily with symbols, not only from the printed page but from radio, television, and computers. Mass media present us with forceful new languages that should be studied to understand how they work to affect our perceptions. We must become aware of the tremendous influence that language has on us, and also understand the relation between words and what they stand for.
The role of today's visual poet is to carry on in the tradition of the Indian vedic poets, the zen buddhists, poets Chuang Tzu and William Blake, and the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, who each attempted to explode our familiar language patterns so we can see clearly and directly. Only then can we recognize the limits imposed by language. We artists must expose the falsity of the analytical, linear worldview that our language enforces. Visual poetry can provide the jolt necessary for us to cut through the conceptualizations of language and to experience the transcendence of The Word.
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Copyright 1991 and 1999 by Carol Stetser
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