A picture & a 1000 words: Artists are increasingly using text in innovative ways to give new form to conventional visual art practices

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Lalthlanchhuaha aka Bazik Thlana, a multidisciplinary art practitioner based in New Delhi, uses text to explore themes like discrimination and ethnic identity. His artistic expressions in the form of text and symbols are part of visuals and objects in his research practices, photo books, blogs and magazines.

While Thlana’s art does not involve comprehensive writing, the point of departure at times can be a word in his native language Mizo, or English, and poetry. An example of multimedia art installation where he uses images, maps with text and codes is Rih Dil Titi, a fictional conversation between family members visiting a lake crossing an ‘international’ border. The artworks serve as a portal for an online archive of essays, websites and other materials and explore the complexities of the ‘Mizo’ identity, its colonial legacy and other stories of human rights abuses and isolation of ethnic groups in Mizoram and Myanmar.

Thlana’suse of text in visual art is an example of the many ways art has expanded to new forms and practices. Artists now use text in innovative ways and occupy spaces around art taking the form of artistic criticism, research and curatorial propositions. “It’s true that writing has expanded to platforms and institutions, but these platforms have been shaped by writers themselves. Be it oral medium, reviews on websites or captions on photo albums and artistic research, writing and its various forms find prominence. However, there is always a requirement of a diverse ecosystem and the fact that such forms of writings have proved the agility within the art space. It shows how more and more spaces are open for writers in the field of art and can result in opening to cross-genre pollination,” says Delhi-based researcher and writer Arushi Vats.

Vats was speaking on art expanding to new forms at the online symposium ‘Staging the Contemporary’, organised by non-profit Ishara Art Foundation, India Art Fair and supported by Shiv Nadar University, earlier this year. The symposium aimed to bring together a generation of artists, curators, collectives and writers born since the late-1980s to deliberate on the urgencies, methodologies and infrastructures that lay new foundations for cultural practices today.

Yet, it is clear that these new forms of writing deviate from what was traditionally regarded as a strict discipline of criticism and history—one that can be authoritative and at times hierarchical in nature. “The multidirectional ways of reading and writing have taken new forms not only through how hyperlink works, but also through an expanded participation in virtual discussions, live streaming, podcasts, blogs, etc,” says Thlana.

Artistic researchWhile new practices involve artistic research as part of the process, there are artists who encourage viewers to read beyond its visual qualities. Mumbai-based Mansha Chhatwal’s works focus on the subject of book-burning, narrating the stories of writers and cultural genocide. As an artist, when Chhatwal works with text, she doesn’t treat herself as a writer,rather a reader of text or books. “It’s in the treatment of the text through gestures such as blurring, cutting, piercing, reorganising, etc, that I communicate. This process naturally includes artistic research because the more intimate one is with the subject, the better it translates into the final work. It’s the research and reading that raise questions on the text,” says Chhatwal.

For example, in her series called ‘Brave Pages’ at Delhi-based gallery Blueprint 12, Chhatwal creates books that have been burnt, banned and censored. The series is inspired by libraries and books attacked and burnt due to religious orthodoxy or political conflicts.

The book’s page is used as a canvas. The act of obscuring, blurring or cutting out the text acts as a metaphor for the silencing of writers, artists, or erasure of a people’s culture and history or rearranging text in ways that point to a writer’s resilience. She uses beeswax as a translucent layer which acts as a metaphor for public candle marches of peaceful solidarity and healing. “I’ve found that it sometimes transforms the page to look like skin, referencing the physical being of the author itself, to whom the persecution is a very personal threat. Burning the pages of a book and working with the ashes are some of the other ways I engage the book and content,” says Chhatwal.

With the use of Mizo script, Thlana believes that the rise of social media platforms, and the advancement of the web in general, has not only enabled wider participation and accessibility but the role of texts and publishing has enabled self-autonomy.It has allowed practitioners a space of self-reflection and expression that frames new questions, shapes new imaginaries and creates multiple dialogues, etc. “This approach innovatively changes the way we experience art and our relationship to it,” says Thlana.

One of his curatorial propositions and video performances, titled, The Cave that Borrows, uses the word ‘cave’, which translates into Mizo as ‘puk’, meaning ‘to borrow’. These are his expressions of humans who become victims of the materialistic world. The interchangeable meanings across languages allow him to take different inquiries into the history, cultural and contemporary issues.

With Mizo script, Thlana has a love-hate relationship. “The Latin script or alphabets that we use now was developed by the Christian missionaries during the late 1800s; and the writing system is highly incompatible with the Mizo language, in terms of grammar and tonal variations. I try to bring in this writing system as a post-colonial enquiry and help question about systems that are rigid and stagnant. On the other hand, it also opens up new ways of engagement where I actively made choices not to be confined to direct translations,” says Thlana.

Diverse archival performances across cities and disciplines constitute the research work of Delhi-based artist Najrin Islam. Islam’s research based on performance and sound arts in 2018-19 with resources in Switzerland got her the Art Writers’ Award by Take on Art in collaboration with Pro Helvetia-Swiss Arts Council. An enriching and diverse research on artists and active performance spaces like Cabaret Voltaire in Switzerland became part of Islam’s experiences across cities and disciplines, besides reflection of her writings which are evident in a blog titled Plural Futures that initiates dialogues around space, time and incidents.

Journals on political and cultural works of photography and critical perspectives on lens-based practices like ASAP Connect—Alternative South Asian Photography have brought novel ways of sharing information and conducting public projects. ASAP is a case study to provide informative and interpretive writing around art through a free, accessible platform in a mobile app or website.

ASAP was founded by curator and publisher of Alkazi Foundation for the Arts, Rahaab Allana, in February 2021, managed by associate editor Senjuti Mukherjee and supported by the Murthy NAYAK Foundation (MNF). The app has regular posts on contemporary exhibitionery practices, seminars, publications and grants, podcasts and albums. “Many young freelance writers and many finishing their degrees have an incredible amount of intellectual and creative input to share. They can drive the app, and this is a novel way of articulating the impact images have on us. The paradigm shift now is in information—sharing and production—and we must consider how to make it accessible for a generation that is constantly looking at a screen,” adds Allana.