The title of this series is a question. Since the question is addressed to those who see the images, viewers are of necessity asked to confront issues that focus on the place of language and its associated attributes and implications in our world.
All but the religiously challenged will recognize the text as the opening words of the gospel of John. These words, arguably some of the most important in the entire Bible, are an act of genius — or divine inspiration. By positing the “word” (logos in the original Greek) as the basis of all existence, the author links the nascent Christianity to Hellenistic philosophy with its roots in Greek systems of thought, especially that of Plato. Platonism sees abstract ideas or forms as the ultimate reality. Thus spirit (abstraction) takes precedence over matter. By equating the Christian god with the Platonic idea, John has accomplished several tasks. He has linked the new religion with a tradition then hundreds of years old, establishing that it is more than just an upstart dogma; he has given the faith a respectable philosophical foundation, thus increasing its legitimacy; he has also burnished the image of the new faith, transforming it from an unsophisticated cult of illiterate provincials in an obscure corner of the Roman empire to a universal and redemptive doctrine with intellectual rigor. The importance of the word is further emphasized when we recall that creation was a verbal act: e.g., “And God said, Let there be light: and there was light.”
The Magic of Language
We cannot answer the question posed by the work unless we know what it means. Fortunately (or unfortunately, depending on one’s point of view), there are many ways one can speak of the magic of language. In view of the original context of these words, the magic of language can be interpreted as God’s promise of salvation as expressed in the Old and New Testaments. However, while not rejecting such an interpretation, the absence of an upper case “W” in the images preserves the possibility of non-Christian and secular meanings. For example, in the most literal sense language is magic in the form of spells or incantations intended to appease the gods, to ward off evil spirits, to effect transformations from one state to another (from sickness to health, rags to riches, loneliness to love, etc.), or to achieve other desired ends; “open sesame” is a familiar, if trivial, example. Yet another possibility is to speak of the magic of language in a literary sense; we hardly need convincing to acknowledge the magic of Shakespeare, Joyce, and Faulkner. In sum, the meaning of “Has language lost its magic?” is multiple and therefore indeterminate.
Interpreting the Work
Thus one possible meaning of the work is to question the relevance of religion in our culture — in particular, Christianity, but, by implication, all other faiths as well. Do the words of Jesus and of his biographer John speak to us, and if so, do we hear them, or are they sterile anachronisms from a vanished era?
But no approach to art should limit itself to the most obvious interpretation. Perhaps this series of photographs is asking if the Western literary tradition that has been in place for more than 2500 years is crumbling under the impact of irresistible forces in our culture. Or is the issue a possible decline in belief in magic and ritual in the face of Western rationalism?
How does the work answer the questions it poses? Contemporary art rarely is so straightforward as to give clear-cut answers to its questions, and this series is no exception. Whether we answer the question “Has language lost its magic?” with a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ depends on how we choose to read the images. Typically, English text on a page only makes sense when read from top to bottom. But in these images each line of text is complete, which leaves open the possibility of reading from the bottom up as well as in the more conventional top-down fashion. A top-down reading suggests ‘yes’, as the further down the image one goes the more the text becomes debased and corrupted. But a bottom-up reading yields the opposite conclusion, for the text can be seen as emerging from the chaos of incompletion and impairment. Which reading is more appropriate, top-down or bottom-up? Only the viewer can decide.
Anyone answering ‘yes’ is confronted with further questions: What, if anything, can we do? Should we do? Dare we care?
Old versus New
The text for the work is almost two thousand years old. Yet it is presented in a form (or font) that is emblematic of ‘modern’ — that is, the letters are suggestive of computer-generated text (which, in fact, is the case). Implied, therefore, is the conflict between the old and the new, between tradition and modernity. This conflict is often seen as leading to the violation and destruction of established values, an idea that is central to much of modern art and, indeed, to modern thought generally. Unresolved in the work — and answered only in the mind of the viewer (if at all!) — is whether this conflict ends with itself or is the springboard by means of synthesis to a higher form of cultural development in the grand manner of the Hegelian dialectic.
Black versus White
Possible meaning is also implied by the presence in the images only of black and white; there is no gray. This suggests the opposites of good and bad, right and wrong, true and false, etc., without mitigating intermediate conditions. The demand of the viewer, then, is to be fully engaged; the question as to language’s magic requires a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ ; qualified answers are not permitted.
Seven Lines of Text
“In the beginning was the word” appears seven times on each image. Seven is, of course, one of the most sacred numbers of the Bible: think of the seven days of creation, Joseph’s prophecy of seven good and seven lean years, Jacob’s labors of seven years for Leah and then Rachel, the seven last words of Christ on the cross, the seven churches of the Revelations, etc. The number seven is thus a symbol of completeness, consummation, perfection. What does this suggest about the issues? The art?
We also note that the text and the alterations of it are in white against a black background. This reverses the usual convention. Typically, themes such as death, decay and corruption are visualized in Western culture as black, while white signifies light, purity, heaven etc. _ Thus are our expectations confounded, leading to disorientation and psychological discomfort, not at all different from the states we experience when confronted with the most difficult and important choices in our lives.
Comments on Selected Images
# 5 Do these manipulations suggest bubbles, a frequent symbol of fragility and evanescence?
#4 Are the mostly horizontal white lines in this image suggestive of waves? Might they be taken as referring to the deluge?
# 7 What is the large tube-like structure dominating most of the frame? One possibility is to see the object as a primitive life form consuming the word, or god. Since the eating of the god is an often-found way of attempting to acquire the powers of the divinity (the Eucharist, for example, in Christianity), perhaps this primitive being is striving to bootstrap its way to a higher plane of development. Another approach altogether is a phallus, which might be seen as depositing its seed onto the word. Some might think this blasphemy, though a more sympathetic interpretation would see the act as symbolic of the propagation of the Faith. (In other words, blasphemy is in the eye of the beholder.)
# 9 Do the marks in this image suggest sparks? Is this image therefore intended as a companion to # 4, referring to the promised destruction of the world by fire as found in Genesis? Or are they again drops of water, implying that (Biblical?) history repeats itself — although with variations?
A Note on Technique
The images in this series are printed on regular black and white silver gelatin photo paper. However, the means by which the images were created are non-traditional.
No camera was used. Rather, a laser printer was used to write the text onto clear transparency film in the size of a 4″x5″ negative. This negative was used to generate further negatives from which to create finished prints by means of a variety of techniques, including reversing tonalities, scratching and pricking negatives with sharp objects, splattering India ink onto negatives, and applying Band-Aids directly to the surface of the print.
_The succeeding words of the original Biblical text make this clear: “and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”
_Note Christ’s words as reported in John 12:46: “I have come as light into the world, that whoever believes in me may not remain in darkness.”
_Note also Ezekiel’s eating of the word of God as a means of deriving the power necessary to preach to the rebellious Israelites.(Ezekiel 3:1-3)