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Language-based works are much in evidence at Art Basel Miami Beach 2011

Selling them can still be a challenge

Often commercially unviable, visually underwhelming and intellectually demanding, language-based art, particularly work rooted in the conceptual movement of the 1960s and 1970s, has traditionally been viewed as tricky to show at art fairs. But while certain works such as an Ian Wilson discussion piece—whose only physical manifestation might be a certificate documenting the date and location of the conversation—may intentionally prove problematic to sell, spoken and written word works have become a regular feature on the art fair circuit.

“A lot of language-based work is cropping up in all contexts: in museums, at biennales and at art fairs,” says Hans Ulrich Obrist, the co-director of the Serpentine Gallery in London, who is chairing a discussion, “The Future of Artistic Practice: the Artist as Poet”, on Sunday as part of Art Basel Miami Beach’s Conversations programme. “The 21st century is all about this parallel reality where artists are poets, as well as architects, designers and musicians,” he adds.

Performance and video art, which grew out of conceptual art in the 1970s and often incorporate the spoken word, are now also firm fixtures at art fairs. This year, the Art Public section at Miami features a number of performances, including Jen DeNike’s lemanjá, 2011 (Mendes Wood, São Paulo, P1), for which seven women will worship the Brazilian sea goddess Lemanjá through dance and song (until 4 December, 2pm-5pm) and Glenn Kaino’s performance featuring volunteers hoisting a 20ft by 20ft sculptural platform (Marlborough Gallery, F5).

Organised in association with London’s Artprojx, Art Video has also expanded this year, with films being screened outdoors on the wall of the New World Center, as well as in wooden pods inside the main fair (outdoor screening, 3 December, from 8pm).

If the first wave of language-based artists deliberately criticised the commodification of art, a younger generation has embraced the market. Indeed, this shift towards the mainstream is reflected in the terminology used to describe this new breed, with many dealers shunning the term “neo-conceptual” in favour of “contemporary”. Nick Olney, the director of Paul Kasmin gallery in New York (B14), which is showing a text-based neon work by Iván Navarro, Horizon, 2011, as well as a Deborah Kass painting that incorporates lyrics (Young Forever, 2011), says such works are commercially viable. “There isn’t an issue over bringing conceptual works to fairs,” he says. “The audience attending art fairs is sophisticated and collectors come with a wide range of interests, including many who are focused on conceptual work. Kass and Navarro employ text for different conceptual purposes, but both are also concerned with form, colour and material. Their works have a strong visual presence.”

Despite the increasing popularity and commercial viability of language-based works, Nicholas Logsdail, who founded the Lisson Gallery (J1) in 1967 and who represents historical conceptual artists such as Art & Language, Sol LeWitt and Lawrence Weiner, as well as a younger generation including Jonathan Monk and Ryan Gander, says the collector base for this kind of conceptual art is still relatively small. “But they want the full range; they might have four or five works by one artist,” he says. Lisson has text-based works on its Miami booth by Gander, Say no, if you can. Say no, no, 1996 by Santo Sterne, 2011, and Weiner, JUST ABOUT ENOUGH/JUST OVER THERE (SALT + SAND), 1990.

Casey Kaplan, whose New York gallery (K24) has brought a neon text-based piece by Monk, Sunrise, 2011, priced between $20,000 and $60,000, says presenting conceptual works is still a challenge. “Miami likes a faster read, but works such as Sunrise are very visual,” he says. Characteristically for Monk, who often refers to LeWitt in his work, Sunrise alludes to LeWitt’s 1980 book of photographs, Sunrise and Sunset at Praiano. Monk took the typeface from the book and had it reproduced in neon lettering which is lit up by day and dark by night. “The piece also refers to Weiner in that you don’t have to have a picture of a sunrise in front of you, but you can use your imagination to see the picture,” says Kaplan.

While works such as Sunrise are conceptually rigid, neon works are often a safe bet. “Most people choose neon because it grabs your attention,” says Kaplan. Olney agrees: “There’s an element of visual allure and wonderment with neon pieces.”

Despite the current trend for text-based neons, Tracey Emin, who is on the panel of “The Artist as Poet”, says her neons didn’t sell well for the first four years she was making them—she began using neon in the mid 1990s. “They have only started to do well because I have been making it my language,” she says. Although language permeates much of Emin’s work, she does not see herself as a text-based artist. “I don’t use texts,” she says. “I use language, sentences and emotion. What I am saying is more important than the form. When I use repetition, for instance, it’s about the emotion of anxiety.” Emin, who was poet-in-residence for GQ magazine between 2007 and 2010, describes some of her longer neon works, such as Love Poem, 2007, which was shown at the Venice Biennale that year, as poetry.

The relationship between artist and poet has historically been strong, particularly from the late 19th century onwards when writers such as Stéphane Mallarmé and Guillaume Apollinaire started to play with language on the page. Mallarmé’s 1897 poem “Un coup de dés jamais n’abolira le hasard” (A throw of the dice will never abolish chance), which is laid out typographically and appears to fall down the page, inspired surrealist artists with its reference to the random, both in content and form. The Comte de Lautrémont, the pseudonym of poet Isodore Ducasse, who juxtaposed unrelated imagery in his literary works such as “a sewing machine and an umbrella on an operating table” also informed the surrealist idea of the chance encounter. L’Enigme d’Isodore Ducasse, 1920, a work consisting of a sewing machine wrapped in wool and tied with string, is Man Ray’s homage to him.

The use of text as image was taken up by the concrete poets in the 1950s and 1960s. Artists and poets such as Ian Hamilton Finlay, who edited the periodical Poor Old Tired Horse from 1962 to 1968, produced works that gave as much significance to the formal arrangement of language on the page as its semantic meaning. A younger generation of artists, including Karl Holmqvist, Matthew Brannon and Janice Kerbel, inherited some of the strategies of concrete poetry, using language as physical material through posters, signage and slogans. Holmqvist, another panellist for the “Artist as Poet” discussion, says his work, which includes performances of his poems, is commercially viable. “All of my work can be sold if someone wants to buy it. I am often invited as a speaker or performer, or my work is sold as artist books, drawings or installations,” he says.

While concrete poetry was not easily commodifiable, its contemporary, conceptual art, also posed problems for the market. Weiner, Joseph Kosuth and Robert Barry wanted to undermine the traditional systems of displaying and selling art by returning power—and conceptual ownership of their works—to the viewer. As Weiner once said: “Once you know about a work of mine, you own it. There’s no way I can climb inside somebody’s head and remove it.” Nevertheless, his Bent to a straight and narrow at a point of passage cat no. 422, 1976, sold at Christie’s New York on 9 November for $98,500.

During the late 1970s and 1980s, artists such as Jenny Holzer and Barbara Kruger adopted the language of advertising, which in turn made their work more commodifiable. Now, conceptual art has become part of the mainstream. But while it has become less ephemeral and more commercial, it seems there is some way to go before the market catches up. “The world has changed a lot, with a new generation of collectors,” says Logsdail. “But so many people still aren’t even scratching the surface [of conceptual art].”

“The Future of Artistic Practice: the Artist as Poet” discussion took place art Art Basel Miami Beach 2011

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Spreading the word'