Words chapel – impressions from the exhibition of visual poetry in Tilburg, held November 9th to 25th, 2012

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This post is an excerpt from the book Kapel van woorden (Words chapel) from 2013. The book is a collection of poetic impressions and reflections arising from the exhibition of visual poetry that was held in Tilburg, The Netherlands, from November 9 till 25, 2012.

Almost half of the crowdfunding for the publication of the book consisted of donations from outside The Netherlands, therefore the book contains a short and subjective summary in English (which in this post I slightly re-arrange) of the introductory text by Jenneke Harings, “Colorless ideas sleep furiously”, of the Voorwoord (Preface) by the organisers, and of the essay by Philip Meersman titled “Visuele poëzie in Tilburg: een reflectie op de tentoonstelling” (“Visual Poetry in Tilburg: a reflection on the exhibition”).

Jenneke Harings was in 2012 literature consultant at bkkc, center for the arts and culture in the Dutch province Noord-Brabant. When we contacted her with our plans about the exhibition she was quite enthusiastic and she gave us much useful advice to improve the project. In her personal introductory text she explains beautifully why she got interested in this exhibition and why it was worth the effort.

“Where words are, there is meaning. Even if it doesn’t have to. This is the strength of words. Or better say, of the people who provide words with meaning. As soon as words walk in the territory of fine arts, there is something going on. The viewer becomes a reader as well.” Exploratory exhibitions about the combination of language and image are not often seen. Nevertheless there are a number of artists and poets working on the edge between art and literature. Not only was the project of this exhibition an example of good research in visual poetry. It was also going to take place in a city where spoken language is currently in the spotlight. The chosen location was beautiful and the results could only be positive, if the project got accepted by the funding committee. “I could only help prepare the application as good as possible” Jenneke writes. And so she did, and the project got financed.

In November she visited the exhibition. “The art that hang there, or stood or laid, was intriguing. In each work I saw the research about the relations between word and image. The contradiction, the connection, meaning or signification.”

“Colorless ideas sleep furiously” is a sentence written by the famous linguist Noam Chomsky. It is a sentence that according to Chomsky does not mean anything. But there have been competitions held to imagine a context where this sentence might have a meaning. Evidence of the human will to always give meaning. “It is a beautiful sentence. A sentence that is nourishment for all the visual poets who will hopefully contribute to new exhibitions in the future.”

The three organizers of the exhibition Ellen Vedder, Martin Beversluis and myself have been motivated firstly by personal interest, as we write in the introduction. Being poets and graphic designers we have been producing and researching visual poetry for a few years and we have come across more and more authors, poets, artists and designers engaged in similar ways. From this experience came the urge to set up an exhibition and invite others to show their work next to ours, expand our own research, celebrate visual poetry.

Visual poetry is a form of literary art where a variety of materials and media are used to produce inspiring and thrilling 2D and 3D works. We believe that it is appealing to a wide public because a visual poem uses visual and textual language at the same time, and can be read on different levels. On the one hand this makes it “easier” and accessible for an audience not particularly accustomed to literature or art. On the other hand the interaction of text and image offers complex and layered materials for expression, that are interesting also for the “insiders”.

In our choice of the people that we invited to expose with us and in selecting the works we wanted to show the diversity of contemporary production in visual poetry, both by established authors, as well as by promising talents working in the Dutch-speaking area. We first invited Renaat Ramon, SAGE, Helen White, Rozalie Hirs, Marieke Houwers, Tonnus Oosterhoff, Nick J. Swarth en ACG Vianen. Later we came across the work of Sjon Brands and just could not resist adding it to the selection.

Thanks to funding by the Province of North-Brabant and the support of bkkc, we could organize this exhibition and complete it with an interesting program of performances, where Martin Beversluis’ network and his experience in organizing poetry slams and related events was fundamental. Poetry performances are very multidisciplinary and they definitely should be seen as a form of visual poetry. With Martin’s help we created room for performances by poets and musicians inside the exhibition, rather than next to it.

The Goretti chapel in Tilburg, our chosen location for the exhibition, provided a challenging context for the performers, because of its peculiar acoustics. In many cases the challenge was taken and transformed into inspiration, giving shape to really impressing results. Unforgettable for us, are the performances of Gijs ter Haar & Jouke Koning, Esther Porcelijn, poets collective Hongerlief, Philip Meersman and Helen White. In this book we have given room to the poets who held a performance to publish one of their poems. In an attempt to recall the suggesting atmosphere in the Goretti chapel, we have allowed the poems and the photo’s from the exhibition to embrace and influence each other.

An important goal for us was to attract and engage a public as large and diverse as possible. For this purpose we organized some extra activities, amongst them a visual poetry contest, open to students, professionals and young talent, which turned out to be a great success. Not only the quality of some of the submitted works was surprisingly high, the contest also involved actively hundreds of visitors who came to the exhibition, visited our facebook page and voted for their favorite works. The ten nominees are also included in this book.

Looking back at the exhibition we like to think of it as a first step upon which to build further. For a while we have worked together with Philip Meersman, developing the idea of a retrospective on visual poetry in the Low Countries within an historical and international context. Like Philip writes in his essay, there have been in the recent past some attempts to decode the DNA of visual poetry and to generate encyclopedic overviews. Meaningful examples can be found in the works of Bulatov (Dmitry BULATOV (ed.), A Point of View: Visual Poetry, The 90s. An Anthology, Kaliningrad-Koningsberg, 1998. 592p), Parmiggiani (Claudio PARMIGGIANI (ed.), Alfabeto in sogno. Dal carme figurato alla poesia concreta, Milaan, 2002, 466p.) and Dencker (Klaus Peter DENCKER, Optische Poesie. Von den prähistorischen Schriftzeichen bis zu den digitalen Experimenten der Gegenwart, 2011) and in The Last Vispo Anthology (Nico VASSILAKIS & Crag HILL (eds.), The Last Vispo Anthology: Visual Poetry 1998- 2008, Seattle, 2012, p336). In the Dutch-speaking area the relevant literature includes Zieteratuur (Karel TEN HAAF, Zieteratuur. Concrete en visuele poëzie uit Nederland en Vlaanderen, Groningen, 2010, 136p) and De letter te lijf (Humphrey OTTENHOFF, De letter te lijf. Beeldvorming van concrete en visuele poëzie in Nederland en Vlaanderen, Groningen, 2005, 329p.).

None of these attempts has succeeded in being complete however. Therefore this exhibition provides a good occasion for looking deeper into what has been left untreated until now.

To start with, Philip gives a definition of visual poetry: “Visual poetry situates itself between fine arts, music and literature and can be described as a combination of verbal and non-verbal elements forming together a spatial-semiotic unity, and which have to be read, seen, viewed and understood as such. Each element – verbal, non-verbal and the spatial-semiotic unity – is bearer and signifier of meaning on its own as well as in combination with the other individual and combined elements. Furthermore, the work can only be reproduced through using multimedia techniques and an oral performance will never be a true representation of the work. Finally the materials, techniques and methods used, provide the possibility to date the work post quem and to recognize or even identify its maker.”

Based on this definition he is able to provide us with a set of tools that can help us better understand and enjoy visual poetry.

The first question that has to be addressed when confronted with a piece of visual poetry is whether the verbal elements are prevailing of rather the non-verbal ones.

In second place we can concentrate on the verbal elements and look for what we may call the “special effects” of poetry, or seven forms of repetition. These can be divided in abstract (verse, meter, measure, strophe and form) and concrete (phonetic and lexical figures of speech). In third place we look at what we see. How the work is visually composed, what the non- verbal elements represent, what is their iconographic meaning, whether the viewer is supposed to recognize or reconstruct a story. Next we can focus on how verbal and non-verbal elements combine and interact with each other, and how they form together a meta-meaning.

The following, more practical, question is to identify materials, techniques, graphic elements, typography, that were used to create the work. This gives us the possibility to date the work and when possible complete it with a historical context both from the point of view of literature and of fine-arts. Besides it is useful to look at how the work can be reproduced. Can it be re-written or does it need to be photographed or filmed in order to give a truthful representation? At last, every visual poem provides a challenge as to be orally reproduced. This is typically not or barely possible, and every oral reproduction will be partial and subjective.

Using the tools just described, Philips discusses in his essay most of the works from the exhibition. These works consistently reach over the limits between verbal, sound and visual, and they each construct an own language that transcends the conventions of literature, music and fine arts. For instance Utopia and Metabet by Renaat Ramon suggests to represent the foundation of language itself, the city. Similarly, ACG Vianen takes the architecture of his city, Eindhoven, as inspiration for his series Beelddichten. Next to this Vianen also reflects on the mellow side of poetry with his teddy-words that besides sight and reading also recall a tactile experience. Completed with his performance, this work surrounds the public and activates almost all of human senses.

Sjon Brand’s speaking birds “talk” with one another about poetic topics in different languages. The viewer/ listener is induced to reflect about daily communication, language and sound, the essence of spoken language and about the meaning of the message.

With Voices, Helen White creates a human figure out of her own words, in a reversed-Eden situation. A video installation shows picture of concretized poetry, where physical objects become support for fragments of poems.

Marieke Houwers presents Where I End and You Begin, a work that can be read in the tradition of Mel Bochner’s Working Drawings. Language and words are existential elements of a “diary” in which the public can examine the love struggles between “I” and “you”, wearing white gloves so to preserve the fragile purity of the story.

Also Ellen Vedder explores the world of relationships with Liefste: heart-shaped little tables carry words that suggests a sweet love story. Or perhaps not so sweet, depending on the order in which the tables are placed and read.

In Autodicht (a collaboration with Max Vos) she integrates the iconography of different car brands in the poem and makes a statement about the omnipresence of cars as status-symbols.

Rossella Bargiacchi makes very different works. Her constellation is an expression of concrete poetry, but her PoeTree is a wooden alphabet-tree, an invitation to read and cross-textualize and a research on the edge of design, sculpture and language. A more conceptual problem is the postmodernist Oplossingsgedicht where an apparently easy solution becomes complex when you come closer and take a look in the diversity of answers that are hidden in the original puzzles used to create the collage.

Ik niet meer by Tonnus Oosterhoff is a two-dimensional moving poem where words become sculptural elements. A very different line of research than the one underlying the animation Gentleman Fight Night, a collaboration between poet and performer Nick J. Swarth and director Jeroen de Leijer, where the fragility of poetry gets crushed in a work that explores the boundaries of video art, animation and visual poetry.

Completely the opposite is the internet work Geluksbrenger.nl by Rozalie Hirsch. This poetic tree of life, when put in motion interactively by the viewer, radiates positive energy and creates an oasis of quiet and reflection.

The work by SAGE is often surrealistic, like in Schepping, and uses the alphabet as ultimate symbol for meaning, like in Samenvatting of het ultieme gedicht. In Vergeten Woorden out-of-use Dutch words are exhibited as specimens in formalin jars so that they can be looked at with nostalgia and unbelief, like language- related curiosities. Last but not least their Pogingen tot poëzie (which could be translated as Attempted poetry) refer to Greek mythology and constitute reflections on the circumstances in which poetry is created: sometimes like a Herculian mission, sometimes like an escape from reality, and sometimes like an eternal punishment in the Tartarus.

Philip’s conclusion is an appeal to the public: “each time, you stand in front of one of the exhibited works, you will definitely feel the urge to create a true as possible oral performance of the piece. Nothing or nobody should keep you from trying!”

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