On deciphering artists' statements

Heba El-Sherif , Wednesday 18 Feb 2015

What is a statement that goes with an artwork meant to offer to its audience? And why has the practice of producing corresponding statements become so widespread in the art world?

Mass Alexandria, Video, 2013 by Sara Nabil
Mass Alexandria, Video, 2013 by Sara Nabil (Photo: Courtesy of Medrar)

Artist statements were not always pasted on walls next to artworks on display. Writing a statement to go alongside an artwork is a somewhat new practice that has gradually become inescapable for Egypt’s contemporary artists and a staple of its galleries.

While some statements are short and factual, some come in longer form, filled with pompous prose.

Lately, many have relied on convoluted terms to communicate a certain thought, or to push audiences into further research on the body of ideas proposed by the artist.

There isn’t one sole purpose for a statement. Artists’ statements can be submitted as part of residency applications, juried exhibitions or press announcements. Exhibitions, too, require statements, whether written by the artists themselves or by their curators, and it is this kind of statement that audiences engage with the most. 

So what is a statement meant to offer to its audience? What type of audience is it addressed to and how are we to judge the complexity of the language?

The purpose of a statement

“The purpose [of a statement] is to relay the intention of the work, whether by context, subject, object, point of inspiration, whatever that may be, and then leave the spectator to decide whether that intended message was met, whether it exceeded their expectation or simply failed,” Aida Eltorie, international curator and cultural researcher who is based between Cairo and Yokohama, told Ahram Online.

Examining an artwork may take the spectator on a personal journey or arouse certain feelings, forming a silent impression that is chiefly a result of how they have personally received the work at a certain moment in time.

But examining an artwork could also lead the spectator closer to the thought, experience, assumption or query posed by the artist through this product.

“Some statements speak about the story of the making of a work, or the medium. Sometimes what you read in a statement brings about the 'aha!’ moment; the work becomes nuanced, redefined, gains traction, or is simply elucidated,” explains Sara Rifky, co-founder of Beirut, an art initiative and exhibition space in Cairo.

“What scares me is the demand of some to drum the statement down so it becomes about oversimplifying a work. This is a mirror of the attitude some people have towards contemporary art, to make it overly accessible to the point of becoming populist,” she added. 

Meanwhile, there are those who propagate that art should educate, and in one way build a bridge between the artists’ ideas or thought processes and the audience, where the final piece becomes a reflection of this thought.

If that is the case, the statement becomes a tool through which the artist communicates with their audience and peers. This is not to say that the statement should be direct or leaves no desire for further research. It should be able to communicate something that the artwork cannot convey on its own, and thus becomes complementary to the artwork on display.

According to Dia Hamed, co-founder of Medrar for Contemporary Art, interpretation of the work is a process that will come about naturally, “but there needs to be at least one sense the artist is trying to communicate.”

Hamed suggests that statements have become a cheat sheet: “When the art is encrypted, the statement de-myths.”

According to Taha Belal, a statement can possibly be an artwork itself.

“I think a statement or a text can do different things for the artwork … it can also detract from the work and close it down, turning it into something that needs to be 'understood',” Belal, a Cairo-based artist and co-founder of Nile Sunset Annex, told Ahram Online.

The word and the audience

When looking at the practice of art writing it becomes imperative to examine who the text is intended to address, and what effect the current trends in writing have on the art scene as a whole.

“I do think that often there is a demand on the part of the audience for a text that explains. Often audiences will turn to the text before looking at the exhibition,” said Belal.

"Art, like any other field, is specialised. Like physics or medicine, art has its own argot," says Rifky, maintaining that the purpose of a statement is not to educate somebody from the ground up.

“Galleries in Egypt in the past 15 years have started to use what we call 'artistic jargon' so when you go and attend a talk, you must be up to date with the theme and point of discussion, otherwise it will be hard to comprehend the intended dialogue, and by result the entire context it is found in,” says Eltorie.

To her, the primary audience is those who are operating in the field: curators, galleries, museums, academic institutions and art magazines.

"The audience targeted by the statements are the ones who have the mind and understanding to grasp the intended statement. So if the artist wishes to target the person walking by in the street, and who carries no artistic background, then his written work may speak a simple language reachable to that everyday pedestrian who carries no artistic lingua in their background," Eltorie added.

“This is something not only sought after in Egypt; it is the common function of several institutions in Dubai, London, Houston, and even Tokyo whereby art is the language of the intellectual elite (as it always had been since the times of its imperial importance).”

In towing art to the elite, accessing the artistic playground resembles going to the opera. You have to dress up and if you haven’t seen the opera before you’re likely not to enjoy the show and will be reluctant to repeat the experience.

To Hamed, forming a sea of pompous terms only succeeds at keeping a portion of the audience at bay.

“I believe using common language is a strategic decision made by the [art] space,” he tells Ahram Online.

“If you’re not an architect, you are not concerned with how a building like the mugamma (Cairo's central administrative building) is built; what you are concerned about is the impact this building has on you … There is a responsibility on the artist. We don’t create art for ourselves.” 

At Beirut, Rifky engages with audiences through artist talks or walking with audiences through the exhibition. “The point is not to produce informative text but to create genuine engagement,” she said.

The statement and the artist

According to Eltorie: “To validate a work of art can also be by the satisfaction of the artist in its making and not by the institution or audience there to see the work.”

She explained that while Vincent van Gogh was never validated by an audience during his lifetime, this reality does not make him less of an artist or render his work unimportant.    

Hamed admits that writing text is a vital process for the artist, but he believes it shouldn’t be a prerequisite. “If I am going to communicate I should be good at communication through text.”

Although visual communication remains their forte, the current trend stipulates that all artists submit text alongside their work, a prerequisite that may force some to write up shaky, ungenuine statements.

“I didn’t come across statements during my studies and early career (2002-2006),” Hamed recalls. At the time artists were only expected to come up with a title for their work, but “slowly the titles grew longer, reaching one sentence … [then] it was filled with data.”

In 2006, the Youth Salon asked people to write statements for the first time. The piece of writing was referred to as "the artist's vision" or "about the work," Hamed explained.

“I started looking through published literature, including Galal El-Roumy, to find a piece of text that was heavy enough to include … Some people used to write lyrics from Mohamed Mounir’s songs … there was definitely peer pressure involved.” continued Hamed.

Ultimately, artists are judged by their work, not their words. But as artist statements become an extended mean of expression, the relevance of the text and the vocabulary used loom large in audiences’ minds.

“It is binary — whether with or without a statement, there are several factors to question when looking at that statement. The practice is a study of several years. The audience is a result of that practice. The statement acts as the relative critic: the uncle, aunt or cousin of the intended work, who is there to imply, dictate, or simply criticise, while the spectator then validates their personal and professional opinion with the work of art itself,” Eltorie concludes.

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