Text, Art and Audiences

Text has been used as a communication tool in artwork for many years. Some examples of this include: Magritte’s famous pipe painting Treachery of Images, the numerous comic strip styled artworks of Roy Litchenstein, the enormous collection of text based artworks by Jenny Holzer, and eco-artist David Buckland’s recent Ice Texts. But why do artist’s put text in art? What is it that drives this need for communication with the audience of an artwork via not just image or colour or process but also words? The most basic answer is that this need is different for all artists. The reasons I use text in art might not align with the way all others in history used text in art, though it certainly aligns with some.

The Treachery of Images Rene Magritte
(The Treachery of Images is an oil painting by artist Rene Magritte, created in 1929)

When I initially began researching where this combination of art with text might come from, I was discovering a whole new world of artistic decision making. A world in which art was made for an audience, not just as a tool of expression. Because is there a point to using text in an artwork that no one ever sees? Over time it has become not only the choice of words against image which is important, but also the locations for showing these artworks. It has developed from gallery audience to public audience. Rene Margritte’s reasonings for using text in his artwork are not the same as Jenny Holzer’s, and the intended audience for a graffiti artist are another leap away (though that’s for another time in another post).

Related image
(Jenny Holzer lit up Times Square in 1983)

So why does the audience matter? In the decision making process for the artworks of Jenny Holzer,  writer Ann Jones (1) says “…there are aesthetic and conceptual decisions about how and where [the artworks] appear, but it’s the text and the way the audience encounters it that drives these [decisions].”  According to this, thinking about the audience is an vitally important aspect of creating text based works in combination with the location of the artwork. After all, text is written to be read and where you are when you read any words – especially if you weren’t expecting them – will factor in to how those words are delivered to you. This is the whole point of advertising in public spaces and both Jenny Holzer and David Buckland play on this, even though Buckland’s audience encounter is not the same as Holzer’s.

(David Buckland’s stance on climate change denial)

The difference for David Buckland is that while his glacial text projection artworks themselves are not encountered by the audience – because let’s face it not many people have the means to go visit an art exhibition on an ice cap –  the same decision making processes as Holzer’s apply. By intervening in public spaces with projected text on unexpected and yet well thought out backdrops, his artworks engage and communicate with viewers. Even though these artworks are viewed by most as photographs only, the experience of viewing them and the poetic statements used by Buckland still hit their mark.

So where does my own art practice fit in to this? From my university studies and the research that followed, I learnt a new way to express my social, political and environmental concerns through my art. The first result of this combination of text and art was an installation titled The Red List [Exctinct] (2015). This artwork was based on mapping links between human settlement and species extinction within Western Australia. I created the artwork to be location specific as a scaled down latitudinal/ longitudinal based map, installed using a compass so as to be facing due north. The way the audience would be encountering it was always in my mind, from the colours of the paint and words, to how the text would read, to the use of the materials in the artwork. Was it successful? I think so. I observed the audience on several occasions and was pleased with their discussions and reactions, especially in the vast range of ages learning from the installation.

What does this all mean? With the current shift towards more socially engaged artworks and audience inclusion, text-based works are in their prime. They are becoming not only something being read in passing but something to be responded to by those reading it. In fact this response is being sought after. As far as audience encounters go, words and their strong history as an emotive yet basic human communication tool are in my view only be leading the social and political art world into the future. 

The Red List [Extinct]
(My own artwork The Red List [Extinct] at Sculpture by the Sea in Cottesloe 2015)


(1) Jones, A. (2012). Truth and the power of words. Retrieved from https://imageobjecttext.com/2012/03/23/truth-and-the-power-of-words/

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