Jenny Holzer, Purple, 2008. 19 LED signs with blue, green, red, and white diodes, text: government documents 19 pcs., 148.1 x 13.3 x 14.8 cm each Courtesy of the artist and Yvon Lambert Paris
Jenny Holzer, Purple, 2008. 19 LED signs with blue, green, red, and white diodes, text: government documents 19 pcs., 148.1 x 13.3 x 14.8 cm each. Courtesy of the artist and Yvon Lambert Paris

One salient feature of the exhibition “From Gesture to Language” is the anachronistic juxtaposition of ancient and contemporary. This is perhaps due to the participation of curator Pascal Torres Guardiola, who heads the department of chalcography—engravings, lithographs, and other printed matters—at the Louvre. The longstanding historical connection between engraving and printing in European arts here serves to communicate to the viewer a vigorous textuality.

As the exhibition’s title suggests, from a beginning of simple symbolic movements (the gesture) the complex system of communication that is human language (writing) has evolved, to be the vessel through which humanity records and transmits its cultures. By including Chinese artists in its international cast, the exhibition is intentionally constructing a global vision of community.

In an exhibition dominated by the visual, such an emphasis on textuality prompts the audience to discover that the appearance of writing and language in the artworks, as a characteristic, looms closer to form (symbol). Artists are unwilling to let their works be considered literature, nor as philosophical or sociological thinking, so the concepts that they articulate must necessarily involve the transformation of language. When today’s art increasingly emphasizes thought, and explications of artworks have developed into a landscape of knowledge, does concept even carry meaning to the viewer who confronts the artwork? Is concept a form of thought, or the thought of form? And where to place the audience’s sensibility? These perennial questions of aesthetics also make an appearance in this exhibition.

In response, the two curators do not take a mechanical approach, instead deploying the works that they have selected to subtly make known their points of view. Engraving is the featured artistic medium of the exhibition, which traces the timeline of Western art history. Stops along the way include the royal court of Louis XV, engraving’s divergence from monarchical patronage, and its breakaway toward Modernism and a bold visual practice. Always, the entry points compose the value of artistic language itself.

At the same time, the curators depart from the limitations of engraving, and bring into the galleries contemporary art media (installation, video, performance), along with traditional Chinese calligraphy and painting. The apparent straight line running through art history is crisscrossed with present-day artistic practices, where the artists pull it in directions. Though words and visuals amalgamate then separate, the art historical coherence resists coming to pieces. For example, in Bruce Nauman’s Good Boy Bad Boy (1985), each of the two color monitors shows an actor. One is a white woman; the other is a black man. They speak the same phrases, but because of the differing changes of speed, tone, emphasis, and facial expressions in their performances, the audiences end up with quite opposite feelings. As for Xu Bing and Andre Kneib—artists who use the other culture’s written symbols to make cross-cultural works—what they have borrowed is the visual form itself.

It is apparent that the narrative model of “From Gesture to Language” is built upon the background of contemporary art. At the very least, it assumes that there is no cultural barrier with the audience. Or perhaps in order to establish an exchange, the cultural depth of each artwork was simply wiped away. If we look again at the group of engravings made during Louis XV’s reign, copied from paintings that celebrated Qing dynasty emperor Qianlong’s military conquests, and we see forms and narrative from the original that were altered by French artists—does this fact even mean anything to audiences today? Maybe its significance lies in the reminder to pay attention to our prejudices during cultural exchange. However, prejudice is a talent common to humans and cannot be overcome through the aesthetics of contemporary art. On a micro scale, prejudice is always present in an individual’s judgment of an artwork.