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Words, Shapes, and Color

Words, Shapes, and Color
I once wrote a poem called “The Fate of Seeming.” Simeen Farhat turned it into two sculptures, two word-bubbles, one called “Word-Bug” and the other “Poetic Muse.” My poem found itself as two new kinds of wonder. This is what Farhat does—she turns words into wonders of geometry and grace, puzzles of form, shadows of sense. It is as if someone took your breath and made it into a gesture.
I stand before “Poetic Muse,” before my converted poem, and I feel breathless. I am amazed and disquieted. Where is my poem? All art is metamorphosis, both making and erasing. I know this. But still, I want to re-find my breath, my poem, in the gestures she makes in resin and color, in her graces of geometry. It is, however, difficult. My poem has been absorbed and effaced. This is the fate of art, and it is nothing to bemoan. But I still wonder: Where is my poem in this play of shapes and color? Has it been eaten by her sculpture, converted beyond recall?
You might think this is my pathology as a poet, and nothing to do with anyone else. But that is not true. We should all stand breathless in front of Farhat’s word sculptures, because her sculptures convert human language itself. We all live in a sea of language, and in her art this sea of language is dried into kelp and shell ornaments on a beach, or crystallized into a coral reef, or evaporated into mirage.
The challenge of Fahrat’s art is also the source of its power, because it produces two reactions in counter-point. The first is a visceral and powerful attractiveness—the seductive charm of words mazed into patterns of promise and suggestiveness. The second is a confusion about where and how we stand towards our own attraction to such charms. These two reactions prompt questions. What is offered by turning words into shape and curvilinear filigree? How can I take up this art? How can anyone? And I want to take it up. I am both held and resisted by what I see.
Earlier in her career, Farhat made sculptures that, while seemingly centered around language, fit within the politically inflected fashions of conceptual art. She made scenes of social commentary, and these sometimes involved the human figure.
Such art provokes, and provokes in different ways depending on where it is shown.
I will not discuss these earlier works, however. I want to focus on the breakthrough works that center around poetry, and in which there is no longer human figures. In these newer sculptures, the question of how we can take them up has become central, our human relation to the works divided between, on the one hand, our visceral attractions to the complex braiding of shapes and colors and, on the other hand, our recognition that these shapes and patterns are made out of the forms of language, even if we cannot read that language or quite recognize those words.
In order to proceed we need to answer a fundamental question about Farhat’s art. How should we understand her making of poems into shapes? What does she do to words? Imagine speaking a sentence—let’s say, the following few sentences:
The Fate of Seeming
You don’t want God. Nor do I
Want God. Yet love seems;
Belief seems; X seems.
And fear, whatever fear, we fear.
And all—I am not wanting all,
But there seems an all
Unhurt, unhurt and fierce.
As you speak these sentences you begin to modify the sounds of the words. You find and develop patterns, encouraging further distortions, but all derived from the original sounds of these words. You repeat this procedure until you produce a melody, a song out of the original word-sounds. In doing this, you would not be setting the poem to music. Instead, the music you made would emerge out of the very sounds of the original sentence—a music from within the sounds of the language. This is what Simeen Farhat has done visually, orthographically, kinetically—making out of a poem, out of its natural orthographic forms, a visual melody that is not an illustration of the poem but a new art form.
One of the more touching recent pieces shows the potential of this kind of art. The poem is built from a single phrase: “Hope We Can Talk.”
Despite its simplicity, the sculpture exhibits an effective dynamics of color, built from a restricted palette and exploiting the translucence of the resin she uses to create her word forms. She creates shadows of color, and diffusions of color tones within the patterns of words. She constructs degrees of translucence. This effect is heightened, in other sculptures, by the way words and phrases are stacked slightly displaced one after the other fan-like in patterns of three or four. This produces not only shadows of color and line, but turns shadows into echoes within space, producing a kind of depth that both recedes from us and billows towards us.
This dimensionality of color and translucence represents a new modality in her art. In her earlier work, Farhat used opaque resin and wood to make her word-forms, painting the sculptures in single colors. One of her most beautiful—“Before We Descend”—is all white.
The sculpture is made from the following passage from a poem by Omar Khayyam:
I cannot read Persian. I only know Edward Fitzgerald’s famous and influential translation into English. He translates this passage in the following way—
Ah, make the most of what we yet may spend,
Before we too into the Dust Descend;
Dust into Dust, and under Dust, to lie,
Sans Wine, sans Song, sans Singer and—sans End
In Farhat’s sculpture I can see neither wine nor the lack of wine; neither can see a song or a singer or dust—nor do I see their absence. The vector of the piece seems not to point to decay, as does the poem. The sculpture shows emergence, not deconstruction. The sculpture does not translate the poem into visual or plastic terms. This sense of emergence is facilitated by the monochromatic white of the sculpture. The simplicity of color shows the words emerging as a texture of complex, interweaving shapes, as if we were seeing the emergence of language itself out of curves and filigree.
As a scene of emergence, the sculpture points to something it has not yet reached. It points to the poem it could become—it is the before of the poem not the after. And thus the piece speaks the motive of Khayyam’s poem, the motive that says “live, now!” in the face of inevitable death. The poem and the sculpture meet in the sacred need of life to emerge as form, to manifest our aspirations in form and as form.
I can now provide the first part of an answer to my initial question about the whereabouts of my poem in her sculpture. My poem is other than her sculpture. I can find traces of my poem, but not my poem. When I see a word bubble I want to re-read my poem, even reread. Not to find how the art illustrates, informs, or interprets my poem. My poem has become an alphabet of possibilities that Farhat uses to make another kind of poetic figure: and so doing she produces a parallax. Our eyes form a parallax, because they are separate but close, so that each eye collects light from a different angle, so that when the information from both eyes is processed we see three-dimensional objects, we get a depth of view beyond mere surface. Sculpture is already an art of our depth of view. Sculpture and poem provide two targets that we bring together—the two objects becoming like our two eyes, and our seeing being the processing of them both into a further form—let’s call it the border of sense and form (including color). The absent human figure in the art is compensated with we who see by parallax, making a scene of art that is greater than either poem or sculpture.
Farhat offers a further twist to this aesthetic parallax by deriving her most monumental word sculpture from poetry but from her own aesthetic confession. In this case, however, the particular words matter far less than the fact that they are simply human words.
The English words from which this sculpture is derived express a common aesthetic ideology, about which one might have varying reactions. She talks about her multicultural background, about rights, free speech, and empowerment. Making art out of such concerns can matter, especially when the art is exhibited in certain places, at certain times. This statement, however, captures neither the aesthetic nor the artistry of the sculpture made from its words. But it doesn’t matter. The sculpture could have been made out of a shopping list. What matters is that we find in this sculpture a new melody of visual forms and color, echoing and recalling human words, any human word. The parallax made possible by the sheer magnificence of this sculpture is between art and our humanity, our various human aspirations articulated by our words and made visible by art, by this art.
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