Starings, visual poetry by Nico Vassilakis
Xexoxial Editions, 2010
The Roman alphabet is not very pretty. The letters are stark, angular, and respectably pragmatic. They do what they are intended to do, which is to represent phonetic values, not ideas, pictures, or principles. The beauty of this is their infinite capacity for externalizing thought. Yet, unlike the logographs of Chinese, which are far richer in visual appeal, it is not necessary to memorize thousands of characters in order to be literate; one need only familiarize oneself with 26 letters.
Perhaps it is the very resistance to aesthetic treatment that the Roman alphabet has inspired artists such as Jasper Johns, Paul Klee and Charles Demuth to make art of them. John’s False Start colorfully illustrates how letters are more quickly recognized as words, but their very familiarity makes them strangely invisible. We do not see the word: we see its referent. False Start presents words in stark contrast to their surrounding environment of loud rich color. We see them as words referring to the very colors in which they appear so absurdly redundant. The letters, in military stencil fonts, are black. They bolt from the colors like charcoal, their meanings superfluous, the flames of their issue annulled and graphic.
Starings, which implies both a fixed gaze and a flock of starlings, intensifies the graphic quality of letters and presents them as bones, the fundamental objects around which the flesh of meaning is wound, disarticulated and bare, jumbled, smashed, entangled, rocked. The effect is strangely beautiful.
The cover piece, in which the word ‘starings’ is superimposed on one another, black on top, gray beneath, smooshed together to form a busy abstraction not unlike the unbridled physical energy of a Pollock drip painting, arrests the eyes in a visual splendor of orthographic entanglement. The word is just barely recognizable; it is like trying to focus on the bones of dinosaurs embedded in a wall of stone where, millions of years ago, they jammed together in a flood, had been caught in the bend of a Jurassic river, their former articulations so disjointed that the original animal is difficult to recognize. The compactness of the design, which from a distance appears to be a block of disheveled letters, has been deliberately arranged to entangle our eyes, aggressively wrestle them into vision. There is no meaning here. Or rather, the meaning is so explicitly a part of the composition that its intent is brought right to the surface. This is the actuality of seeing itself, perception magnetically held in a totemic vivacity, made energetically apparent.
“You stare your way through words and into middles of words,” Vassilakis states in his introduction, “You resolve the noise of your eyes. The information you see, you seek, to find another nature therein.”
It’s you viewing textual oddities askance. It’s the words, their origins, words within words, the seeds of language. It’s the symbols, signs, and icons seared into your brain. It’s you being attracted by perfect letter structures. It’s the revisiting of early alphabet education. It’s the timeframe between learning how to draw letters and how to write them. It’s you seeking to express the phenomenon of seeing language. It’s you transforming and appreciating the design and construction of alphabet.
The pieces are wild. Purely visual. The designs are so explosive and frenzied that it is difficult to bring them into focus. Their energy is not negotiable. It is just too perfuse. Little ‘h’s dribble down from big ‘H’s, bending like willow branches in a light breeze. A mound of S’s, enlarging then diminishing like a Doppler shift in an arc over a junkyard of tumbled g’s and o’s, lifts then drops one’s eyes in a tickling sibilance of insinuation. In another, a large white asterisk blares out of a background of m’s, crisscrossed sticks and what appear to be B’s or D’s, and the word ‘void’ strung together like a chain of polymers. To the left, a wreathlike oval of h’s, q’s and b’s surround the letters ‘b’ and ‘h.’
When I first saw these renditions, I was not a little amazed. It had not occurred to me that one could make so many eccentric and fascinating patterns with Roman letters, that one could do so many things with our staid alphabet and its prim and rigid shapes. Vassilakis claims to have made these designs on an iPod. His fingers must have the nimbleness of a Frédéric Chopin.
“Visual poetry,” observes Anna Whiteside, “refers not only to itself but to itself referring to itself.” It is circular. It is a breakdown of the inherently sequential nature of European languages. Our alphabet and sentence structure are designed to make us read from left to right. Meaning unfolds in a methodical chain of noun, predicate, qualifier, etc. This is how we feel about time. This is the sensation we have in life. Our histories are structured on the basis of cause and effect. This happened, then this happened, then this happened, and so on.
Other languages differ radically. In Balinese, for instance, all knowledge is arranged around one figure: a center with four or more points around it. It is a metaphor holding the world together.
Visual poems resist formation in a rectilinear grid. They flout their plasticity. They transform the poem into a picture.
I am reminded of an afternoon spent staring at Newspaper Rock in Canyonlands National Park, Utah. These are petroglyphs, actual recognizable pictures of people, animals, stars and wheels. Whatever that actual news may have been, is hard to say from the perspective of someone such as myself completely unfamiliar with petroglyphs. But whatever those pictures carved into the rock happened to be conveying, it was strong enough to hold my fascination for over an hour.
François Rigolot remarks that “the laboratory of formal experiments has been most active at times… when a crisis in formal values has obliged the formulators of culture… to question their expressive medium.” If anyone doubts that we are living in an age of crisis, they are living in a cave. Serious ecological decline, endless war, climate change, unbridled global capitalism, and a full hornet’s nest of other stinging and nettlesome problems find themselves represented not on paper but pixels on computer screens. Information has been digitized. The consequences of this has been a decline in attention span. And this is but one small manifestation of the crisis in the linguistic arts.
Visual poetry causes us to halt and look. Not just look, but gaze. Stare.
Visual poetry is a construction in space, not time. It reinforces the notion that the poem is a made thing. It lodges statements in the form of a shape. When pictorial and linguistic elements meet, the result, as in Starings, is startling; language extends its range of possibilities via its distribution in space and the fragmentation of the elements - letters, phonemes, morphemes, etc., that make meaning, meaning - immerse our eyes in a multifarious word factory.
Any of the pieces in Starings would not look out of place framed and hung on a wall in a museum or art gallery. They will, however, be assuming the tactile and eminently portable form of a 24-page, saddle-stitched black and white booklet next month.
September: s-e-p-t-e-m-b-e-r. Sepia timbre.