Beyond basic materials

Courtesy Photo Visual poems can be both beautiful and grotesque.

The Prague Post, Posted: August 25, 2010

By Stephan Delbos – Staff Writer

Jorgensen’s visual poetry enhances the power of words

Alexander Jorgensen’s ongoing exhibition of visual poems at the (art)SPACE of Anglo-American University provides an insightful introduction to the possibilities and limits of visual poetry, an inventive hybrid genre whose long history does not invalidate its essentially avant-garde nature.

Visual poetry has come a long way from George Herbert’s 17th-century experiments with typeface in religious poems such as “The Altar,” which Herbert laid out in the shape of its subject. French poet and art critic Guillaume Apollinaire’s pre-World War I concrete poems took the style a few steps further, but the largest leap in the history of visual poetry took place in the 1960s with the Fluxus group of writers, composers and visual artists, many of whom sought to combine all three disciplines.

Contemporary visual poets combine visual, often digitally manipulated images with letters, words or phrases to create a multilayered viewing and reading experience which – ideally – goes beyond the limits of both the image and the written word.

Jorgensen’s 12 prints on display at (Art)Space can be roughly divided into three types: collages of several phrases and images, stark illustrations of single letters, and single images coupled with single words or phrases.

Love Ends and Begins Here:
The Visual Poems of Alexander Jorgensen
at (art)SPACE
Ends Sept. 7.
Lázeňská 2, Prague 1-Malá Strana.
Open Mon.-Fri. 10 a.m.- 5 p.m.

Kalachakra: Ritual of a Dying Nation is a palimpsest of English and Sanskrit phrases, including the title, and the phrase “hurt the feelings of the Chinese people,” a phrase often heard from Chinese officials, especially after foreign criticism of China’s occupation of Tibet. Included in the piece are several pained Asian faces revolving around a central spot of light that seems to represent an energy point, or chakra. The Sanskrit word Kalachakra translates literally as “time-wheel” and represents a system of Tantric Buddhism.

The piece considers a contentious issue, calling attention to the cyclical nature of tensions between Tibet and China.

Not all of the pieces in the exhibition are steeped in politics, however. Much of Jorgensen’s work is strikingly austere, drawing viewers in for contemplation rather than bombarding them with phrases and images which carry a multiplicity of meanings. Maternity Ward at Wessen Women’s is stark yet voluptuous: three lowercase A’s with their centers filled, set against a pistachio green background. The letters do indeed look pregnant – as much as letters can. The titles of works such as this one are indispensible in creating a frame of reference.

Jorgensen’s work with single letters, such as Maternity Ward at Wessen Women’s and Tall Ships, in which three lowercase T’s evoke ships at sea, illustrate one of visual poetry’s main tools: the manipulation of language to the point where letters become both visual and conceptual objects.

In his artist’s statement, Jorgensen makes clear that he sees visual poetry as an outgrowth of poetry and visual art, rather than a replacement for either. He writes: “I began experimenting with visual poetry in order to augment more traditional forms of poetry I found constraining; for example, there have been instances where a poem required more than what words on a page seemed able to readily provide.”

The belief that some subjects go beyond words is eminently arguable, of course, but it raises a pressing question about visual poetry: whether combining visual art and poetry achieves something that neither genre alone can.

Poem of Discharming is evidence that the combination of language and visual images can indeed go beyond the scope of simple words and pictures. The piece shows an open hand, palm up. The thumb and forefinger are disproportionately swollen, as if stricken by elephantiasis. The phrase “Love ends & begins here” sits in the open palm, cut from different magazines like a ransom note.

The image alone is simply grotesque. The phrase alone is quaint and rather meaningless. In combination, however, the visual poem evokes both irony and pity and a sense that the statement is unquestionably true. The words endow the random image with an emotional sensibility that adds depth and empathy, while the image adds a shockingly physical frame of reference for the five-word phrase.

Many contemporary critics have rightly begun to question how the classic, visual image and the poem will remain relevant in a world that is increasingly digitized and twittered. Visual poetry’s combination of both offers one way forward. Alexander Jorgensen’s visual poems show the artist’s talent for manipulating both words and images, and evince his ability to affect emotion that transcends his basic materials.



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