Just as we cannot help but notice a human form anywhere, we cannot ignore written words either. Our attention is naturally drawn to and focuses on letters. For this reason, language can be used as a powerful tool by visual artists.
In context, words create boundaries around concepts, whereas out of context, they open up to different interpretations – they make us stop and wonder. Unlike adverts that bombard us with snappy slogans and clichés anchored in a materialistic, predictable reality, art can use language in the most abstract forms. Rather than defining concepts and restricting our thoughts, words become concepts themselves. As in Magritte’s The Treachery of Images (1928), language becomes a key part of the art work and challenges us to look at things differently.
Artists may also play with words to poke our imagination and push us out of our mental rut. For instance, the connection between the words in La Brea/Art Tips/Rat Spit/Tar Pits (1972) by Bruce Nauman may not be immediately apparent, but as we notice that three pairs of words are anagrams of each other and learn that ‘La Brea’ is the Spanish for tar pit, we start to appreciate the linguistic fun of the work. In the case of The Final End (1992) by Edward Ruscha, the shy words “The End”, blurred and hidden behind tall grass, lack the assertiveness of the double assertion of the title, the tautology of which is in itself enigmatic: how many ends can there be?
Language as abstract material leaves us wondering, offering no answers, encouraging us to go beyond our usual mental boundaries.