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> > > Signs for Sounds: Contemporary Letterforming and Calligraphy
photo taken from above of a person writing in large calligraphic letters on a white floor with red lines

Spinal Flat by Timothy Don

'Signs for Sounds' explores the contemporary practice of letter-forming from traditional calligraphy to the use of digital technologies and performance art. Obi Chiejina saw the  Harley Gallery Touring Exhibition curated by Jeremy Theophilus, at the Bilston Craft Gallery, Wolverhampton.

Whilst viewing the typographic designs, digital work and calligraphic writings from the touring exhibition ‘Signs for Sounds’ I was reminded of a song entitled ‘Breathing’ by English singer-songwriter Kate Bush. The song fuses the drama of art rock with classical music.

The eclectic style in ‘Breathing’ is matched by the wide range of exhibits selected for ‘Sights for Sounds.’ I found myself struggling to find a common theme between the title of the exhibition and the random contributions from graphic designers, writers, site specific artists, typographists, sculptors, calligraphists, and digital artists.

Would the exhibition explore traditional and contemporary sounds associated with producing and creating letters and words? Only one contributor (Simon Garfield) makes full reference to sound by giving an aural history of his career as a journalist.

Could ‘Signs for Sounds’ be a discourse of how the letterform is being subverted or replaced by the sound of the digital age of net-books, smart-phones and computer tablets?  Jason e Lewis, digital media artist and software designer created a video installation with digital words and letters fashioned into a series of floating clusters. Occasionally a word or letter would fragment from one cluster and then join another.

To be fair the exhibition’s curator Jeremy Theophilus pre-empts the criticism of a lack of artistic direction by defining the scope of the ‘Signs for Sounds’ as ‘broad.’  Furthermore Theophilus’ reluctance to impose an overall theme may in part be driven by a subtle need to show a coherent link between the liberation of the typographic industry (evident in the works of Garfield and Lewis) and democratic principles used in visitor interpretation systems for touring exhibitions.  The viewer or reader can imagine one or more themes for this exhibition without being bogged down by the heavy weight of typographic history from the last century.

Nevertheless cultural democracy does come at a price.  The sheer volume of disconnected contributions, quotes, background notes, biographies and books gives the impression of an exhibition that is trying too hard to please both experts and visitors.

This is a shame as there are some typographic and calligraphic gems here.  I particularly enjoyed the revolutionary features of ‘Light Calligraphy’ by Julien Breton (aka Kaalam). Breton is a French calligraphist who describes himself as a ‘dancer of letters’. He can also be described as an experimental calligraphist, drama revolutionary and letter de-constructor.

The ‘Light Calligraphy’ process involves breaking the ‘glue’ binding the curves and strokes of a specific calligraphic letter. For example the letter 'p' would be broken down into one vertical stroke and one curve. Breton creates and enlarges digital images of the ‘deconstructed’ letter 'p' using a camera. The disconnected parts of the calligraphic letter 'p' are then superimposed onto a photo of a dancer.  The solitary dancer will imitate the curve or stroke of the letter 'p' or for added effect perform a bend or jump against the ‘rhythm’ of the disconnected parts of the letter.

‘Signs for Sounds’ mimics the unbinding of curves, downward and upwards strokes and dots of the traditional letterform. The result is an exhibition that is graceful and elusive but sometimes lacks substance.

photo of a sunset on a lake with an arabic letter imposed over the landscape

Julien Breton, Freedom-Field at Creswell. Photo by David Gallard.

'Signs for Sounds' is a Harley Gallery Touring Exhibition with funding from Arts Council England

Tour Venues
Harley Gallery
Welbeck, Nottinghamshire
18th February – 11 April 2012

Beaney Gallery
Canterbury, Kent
18th January – 10 May 2013

20:21 Visual Arts Centre
Scunthorpe, North Lincolnshire
18th May – 13th July 2012

Sunderland Museum and Art Gallery
20 July – 29 September 2012