THE LANGUAGE LABYRINTH

Julia Friedman



Language Works is an exhibition by Chicago artist Eduardo Kac that investigates alternative ways of perceiving and experiencing language. Kac's language art and visual poetry, it's origin in experimental poetry, conceptual art and literature, explore the nature of language through a variety of media. This exhibition, comprised of iris prints, holography, video, and digital works pushes the viewer beyond the fixed typography of words into the active paradigm in which language exists.

Through mass media and ordinary discourse we are constantly bombarded by rigid sentence structures, words confined to traditional linear syntax, and a culture that completes our thoughts for us. Words, enslaved by the static realm of the conventional use of language, are condemned to being finite. However, Kac suggests that language can be boundless, liberated and no longer dominated by the author. The artwork in Language Works challenges the unilateral system of language in which words are used to dictate, define, and reduce by demonstrating the multi-directionality of language and it's all encompassing nature.

Kac's interest in language as an open system of communication traces back to his earlier experimentation with performance, body art, and oral poetry on Ipanema beach and other public spaces. Brazilian born Kac is part of the '80s generation of artists whose call for freedom was a reaction against the military dictatorship, censorship, and repression in Brazil during the '70s. In the '80s Kac's fascination with the impact of language moved from verbal poetry to the transcription of verbal signs to billboards, graffiti, electronic signboards, sticker-art, mail art, videotex (a precursor to the Internet) and holography. In contrast to the work of other language artists, such as Jenny Holtzer and Barbara Kruger, for example, Kac's interest is not to disseminate ideas in a direct way, but to share the process of ideas within a living communication system.

Works such as Amalgam and the prints in the Erratum series address the nature of language and perception while demonstrating the issue of the instability of language on a two dimensional surface. Amalgam, a holopoem as Kac describes it, is a hologram containing a pair of two words "Flower-Void" and "Vortex-Flow" which merge as the viewer follows one or the other word-pairs while striving for clarity and cognition. The distinct words escape from the viewer as they flow back and forth, shifting in a non-linear way. Amalgam's slippery syntax combined with it's temporal existence challenges the viewer to search for meaning between the words.

Kac's iris prints, hand painted on the computer, are the most intuitive works in this show. From afar the artwork appears to be a mosaic of vibrant colors. However, under closer inspection the viewer discovers two words enmeshed in a symphony of digital patchwork. Each print contains near homophones, such as "knife" and "night", which suggest the push and pull of language. These words, embedded into the texture of the whole image, allude to the integral role words play--even when camouflaged--in the fabric of existence.

The six digital pieces in Language Works invite the viewer to engage with the work directly on the computer. This work challenges the notion of art as object making. Through these digital works, Kac causes the viewer to negotiate the medium through which he or she is experiencing the work and with that the condition of art as intercommunication. Kac acknowledges that: "Without the active participation of the so called viewer, many of my works don't exist." These six digital works include runtime animations, a hypertext, and a VRML piece. Kac states: "The videos and animations explore verbal rhythms that can only be created once language is removed from stable surfaces and is immersed in a malleable electronic space." Secret, from 1996, is a navigational text in which the viewer "flies" into a three-dimensional black abyss. As the participant approaches the ostensibly still silhouette of a skyline and a moon, three dimensional letters are revealed. By moving the mouse too close, the letters move out of control, flying across the screen, eventually swooning to a minute speck somewhere in the semantic void.

The title Language Works, with its inherent multiplicity of meaning, exemplifies the ambiguity and play of language that Kac addresses. When Language is followed by the noun Works, we grasp that something has been accomplished or produced by the expenditure of Kac's creative effort. As a verb, the word Works affirms the word Language, suggesting that the problem of language has been solved or achieved, by reasoning. The possibility that the language labyrinth has been fully explored and mastered is precisely the issue Kac questions. Language Works?


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