I’ve just received the proofs for a book that is coming out soon, published by artist David Bellingham at his WAX366 press. It features some photographs of David’s recent work and the transcripts of a couple of conversations that he and I have had about his work over the past few years. Knowing David’s work, I’m sure the book will be beautifully produced: his publications are always a joy to read and look at. Everything he makes tend to be witty and engaging, but also always very thoughtful and precise. Here is the shorter of the pieces, which deals with some specific installations. The longer piece deals with David’s approach more broadly and considers older material, particularly that held in the Centre for Artists’ Books at the VRC, Dundee. I’ll put details of the book on the ‘collaborations’ page of this blog, once I have them.
FOR THE WALL: A conversation between Lisa Otty and David Bellingham 2012
L.O. Each of these works was created for a different space, from an entire gallery wall to an alcove in a corridor. To what extent did the space dictate the work?
D.B. The words aim to occupy the space rather than refer to something that is already there. In this sense they are not site specific, the works can be made on any suitable wall. Clearly the size and shape of the available space partly determines the choice of work, the work I initially proposed for the DCA show was a two part text that required two separate walls, as only one wall was available we made WORDS ON A WALL THAT’S ALL instead, it is all quite flexible, the important thing is to find something that works in the space rather than forcing something to fit.
When you make traditional pictures the image area is bounded by four corners and four edges, here it is the limits of the wall that frame the image; the drawn marks are integral to the surface of the wall rather than something hung on it or standing in front of it. Working directly onto the walls offers an opportunity to make things on a scale that might otherwise be impractical. Given the time you can make something that fills the available space, whereas if you make something portable on the same scale you have material costs and problems of transport and storage that limit what is possible.
Obviously there is a long tradition of wall drawing, the earliest examples of drawing we have were made on the walls of caves. Frescos, murals, graffiti and the work of contemporary artists like Sol Lewitt, Niele Toroni, Daniel Buren and Lawrence Weiner offer a model for drawing that uses the wall as a ground, my works come as a modest continuation of these traditions.
L.O. In terms of size, colour and density, the pen stroke you used in these pieces makes me think of printed works on paper. Was this deliberate? (Or is it perhaps just the imagining of my print-preoccupied mind?)
D.B. There is clearly a link between page and wall. Text set on a page is conditioned by the white space around it in a similar way to text set on a wall. White page and white wall are equivalent grounds in this sense. The space around the words is of as much interest as the words themselves, the words are inseparable from their surroundings like a trees in a landscape.
Each letter is formed or revealed by an irregular field of small black lines, there are no hard edges so the words appear to float on the edge of registration. This runs counter to the abruptness of signage. I am interested in the immediacy of the sign – however where the unambiguous delivery of a sign might tell you to STOP or GO, I want to see what happens if you replace this directness with a propositional or indirect mode of language.
If you want to place words on the wall there are only so many ways to do it; I was getting a bit tired of the generic use of vinyl lettering on gallery walls and was looking for something less definite, less like signage, a way of integrating the letter into the surface itself. The aim is to avoid the flatness of signage, to have the words hover on the wall indefinitely – both there and not there, provisional like spoken words in the air.
L.O. Why did you choose these particular phrases? While the works share visual properties, there seems to be little connection between the phrases depicted – am I missing something, or is each work intended to stand alone? To what extent is this a series of works?
D.B. It is true that the works appear to have little in common with one another but they do have shared qualities.
The works employ isolated words and phrases as free-floating things, there is no thematic or narrative link between them. The use of language is not metaphoric, the works are not standing in for, or describing, something absent; the words are concrete elements to be read as things. The words are ‘…on the wall’, ‘big’ is ‘upon little’, so in the way language is put together the works have a commonality.
What I have taken from concrete poetry is the proposition that words and letters can operate linguistically and visually outside of the conventions of sentence structure. In sentences words are subordinate to the discursive flow. My interest here is in treating words as concrete elements, as units of material, as things of interest in themselves.
The words should be judged by what they do, by how they are used. There are three active elements, definition, construction and placement: the dictionary definition of the words used, the construction of words into units of sense and the placement of these constructions on the wall.
If we look at a brick wall we are not necessarily concerned with the history of the particular bricks used (an etymology of the brick). Rather we consider the wall as a complete thing, we are concerned with how well it is made and how appropriate it is to its location. The wall texts should be approached in this way. Each work is an image constructed from familiar elements – they are whole things. We intuitively understand that poems and literary forms are composed but, of course, visual artworks are composed too.
Words are treated as building blocks, most obviously in BIG UPON LITTLE where the stack of three words is echoed by what the words say. The word BIG is placed over the word UPON which in turn is placed over the word LITTLE. This piece is derived from the local name given to a rock formation on the grounds of Stonehurst Farm in East Sussex. My father used to visit this farm as a child and often spoke of the place, so I have had the name ‘Big Upon Little’ in my head all my life. I mention this as an aside, to acknowledge that the work has a source – that it comes from something concrete. So we have three secondhand words used as the material for an artwork, where they come from has nothing to do with what has been made. The words ‘Big Upon Little’ in the work do not refer to the sandstone rock called Big Upon Little in the south of England, they refer to themselves to the actuality of the words big, upon and little.
The work is not didactic it does not describe things or tell stories it simply shows things as straightforwardly as possibly. It offers the opportunity to stop still and pay attention to what is actually there. The work shows something but resists saying anything. In part this is a response to a world that is full of information, where everything is moving and attention spans are short.
In WORDS ON A WALL THAT’S ALL the words are where they say they are – on the wall. The qualification ‘that’s all’ is a caution not to expect any more than what is shown. There is nothing hidden nothing to interpret from what is said – what is said is what you get, with the implication that there is as much to see as there is to read. So to answer your question, it is not subject but an approach to language that the works have in common.
‘Sometimes I wonder whether I am painting pictures of words or whether I’m painting pictures with words’. Ed Ruscha
“Neither lines nor words are ideas, they are the means by which ideas are conveyed.” Sol LeWitt
Note: The works discussed in this interview were made for the touring exhibition,
Poetry Beyond Text: at DCA, Dundee, Scottish Poetry Library, Edinburgh and the Royal Scottish Academy in 2011: and for the exhibition Making Words – Marking Words: at the Cooper Gallery, DJCAD, Dundee in 2012