LONDON — A 2,000-year-old wax tablet bears inscriptions of the Greek homework of an Egyptian child, fudging his attempts to copy his teacher’s script and running into the margin. A few displays down sits the poet Alfred Tennyson’s bent quill, deformed, perhaps, from the frenzied scribbling of verses in creative passion. Elsewhere, an iridescent illuminated manuscript of Latin psalters sits across a banal display of plastic BIC pens.
Ranging from the lofty to the ordinary, together these objects narrate a history of writing through an ambitious new exhibition at the British Library. Writing: Making Your Mark endeavors to trace the development of what the exhibition’s wall text refers to as “mankind’s greatest invention” through over 100 objects and 40 different writing systems to illuminate our journey from the wax tablet to the iPad.
No one can pinpoint exactly when writing was invented, but the earliest evidence of this faculty hails from Mesopotamia (ancient Iraq). On show is a 4,000-year-old Mesopotamian clay tablet impressed with cuneiform script — wedge-shaped markings made with a reed stylus — indicating wages distributed to farm laborers. Next up is picture-writing: Egyptian and Mayan hieroglyphics stand preserved in limestone stelae lionizing their respective pantheon of deities and dynasties. Somewhere along the way, at around 1800 BCE, the alphabet is born as migrants in Sinai assign Egyptian hieroglyphs to spoken language. We see the symbol of an ox head morphing across a sandstone Sphinx, an urn, and a slab, eventually becoming a recognizable majuscule “A.” Before we know it we are looking at the hands of some of the greatest minds of the Western world: Mozart’s ornate musical flourishes and James Joyce’s erratic color-coded notes for his magnum opus Ulysses — genius made material.
But as well as dutifully laying down these linear developments, the exhibition powerfully delves into the personal and political complexities of writing, driving home that writing not only is one of humanity’s greatest inventions, but a skill born out of some of the strongest human motivations.
As well as counting, two other impulses allegedly spurred early civilizations to put reed to papyrus: to name and claim things, and to speak beyond the grave. The exploration into the occult properties of writing is one of the most fascinating threads of enquiry in the exhibition which investigates how writing functioned as a kind of dark magic.
The literary theorist Johnathan Goldberg hinted at writing’s potential supernatural abilities when he asserted that “writing makes absence present” in his book Writing Matter. By giving materiality to speech, the words of a man or woman could exist across different planes of time and space, making writing a potent vehicle for mediation between the living and the dead. A small Egyptian funerary effigy asserts the presence of its late original with the inscription “Here I am.” The communication line also works the other way: oracle animal bones from the Shang dynasty used in divination rituals convey messages to deceased ancestors. These necromantic objects incite a strange familiarity since they detail mundanities one might casually drop via text message to one’s mother: the weather, children’s whereabouts, even a niggling toothache.
The political nature of writing was such that it also functioned as an important visual tool to represent societal values. In the 1920s, Russian Constructivists used typography for propagandist purposes to forge a new graphic language for their post-revolution world. On display are examples of this totalitarian style pioneered by the artist El Lissitzky whose designs employed rigid right angles to mirror the ordered utopia of the Communist state.
With arcane linguistic and phonological terms floating around, at times the exhibition threatens to become overly academic, but evidence of the whimsical side of writing brings in a welcome sense of playfulness. Wandering minds and states of boredom gives birth to beautiful on-page procrastination. In a mischievous bit of marginalia in the 14th-century Gorleston Psalter, a monk draws an absurd line of marching rabbits touting instruments and crosses, emphasizing a nexus between art and text.
The exhibition is also certainly not without humor and at times irreverently sheds light on the limits of writing systems to wonderfully comedic effect. In an angry, caustic telegram sent from the English playwright John Osborne to the theatre critic Irving Wardle, punctuation hilariously jars with his apoplectic emotions: “CREATION IS SOMETHING YOU DO NOT RECOGNISE OF COURSE STOP HOW COULD YOU BECAUSE YOU DO NOT UNDERSTAND IT STOP. ALRIGHT STOP FROM NOW ON IT’S OPEN WAR ALL THE WAY.”
“Isn’t that amazing?” mused the art historian E. H. Gombrich in his book A Little History of the World, “with twenty-six simple signs, each no more than a couple of squiggles, you can write you like, be it wise or silly, angelic or wicked.” If nothing else, this exhibition fascinatingly details the communicative powers of the “squiggle,” weaving the nuances of human character and emotion through the history of writing in a way that is at once intellectual, fractious, moving, and joyous.
The artist’s portrait of her mother, painted in 1977 and reproduced on the vaporetti of Venice, may be one of the most evocative artworks in the Biennale.
A new box set of four of the Iranian director’s features offers a great opportunity to get to know his singular style.
Shows at the Hudson Valley’s Hessel Museum of Art feature artists Dara Birnbaum and Martine Syms, as well as new scholarship on Black melancholia as an artistic and critical practice.
It’s not a “greatest hits” show, or a comprehensive survey; rather, it is a starting point to reconsider an expansive vision of Chicana/o art.
“I’m focused on contemporary Native American stories, the modern-day ups and downs of that lifestyle, but I’m not trying to do it in a traditional manner,” the award-winning filmmaker told Hyperallergic in an interview.
PLEASE SEND TO REAL LIFE: Ray Johnson Photographs reveals the “career in photography” that occupied the artist in the last three years of his life.
The Tweet comparing an ominous screen capture from the Tucker Carlson Show to one of Holzer’s Truisms is being sold as an NFT to benefit crucial organizations in the wake of the Supreme Court decision.
Rapper Maykel “Osorbo” Pérez was sentenced to nine years.
Contemporary Black-Indigenous women artists Rodslen Brown, Joelle Joyner, Moira Pernambuco, Paige Pettibon, Monica Rickert-Bolter, and Storme Webber are featured in this digital exhibition.
On the day of the Supreme Court’s decision to undo 50 years of constitutional rights to abortion, artist Elana Mann’s “protest rattles” feel especially poignant and urgent.
This week, Title IX celebrates 50 years, the trouble with pronouns, a writer’s hilarious response to plagiarism allegations, and much more.
Since antiquity, women’s eyebrows have been sites of intense scrutiny, constantly shifting between trend cycles.