Private view: Wednesday 30 May 6-8pm
By Paola Ugolini
A word is dead when it is said, some say. I say it just begins to live that day.
Vocalizing is the title of a double solo exhibition that focuses on the written word used, with very different outcomes, by Tomaso Binga (born Salerno, Italy, 1931) and Greta Schödl (born Hollabrunn, Austria, 1929) from the beginning of their long careers.
For Binga, the word is the political tool par excellence for deconstructing a language that has always been male-oriented, while for Schödl the written word is the graphic-aesthetic element that, emptied of meaning, becomes rhythm, vibration and the perfect seismograph to record her moods on a daily basis.
It has taken years for women to learn to ‘speak’ in order to be heard, to understand that the word is the key means to express feelings and thoughts and to give voice to an identity that has remained silent for too long. Like children in their early infancy who must work hard to line up vowels and consonants in order to find their own voice, women have had to struggle to find a common voice with which to express themselves. Within the feminist movement, the claims of female poets and visual artists gathered such strength that they have courageously rewritten not only the words that tell their stories, but also the very history of art.
Feminism was one of the most interesting intellectual and political movements of the last century – a revolutionary movement that, while grounding its roots in the battles for equal civil rights that began in France in the Revolution of 1789, succeeded in shaking our modern age with its subversive power right up until the second half of the twentieth century. In particular, as Griselda Pollock has insightfully suggested, the meeting between art and feminism was essential for the aesthetic and sociological impact that women artists had, especially during the 1960s and 1970s, in the transformation of artistic and literary practice. Language has always been a powerful tool for defining oneself and the world, and when women finally emerged from the creative and intellectual oblivion in which they had been confined by centuries of patriarchal culture, the basis of their visual poetics focused on language and the body. Their research – which aimed at undermining verbal language by turning it into the object and subject of works created with performance, collage, video and photography – defined not only a new aesthetic but also a new form of expression. Feminist artists began to deconstruct words visually in order to say what had never been said – what could not be said – and then finally to give voice to the ‘problem that has no name’, as Betty Friedan acutely defined it in her critical essay The Feminine Mystique. The mystification through which generations of women had been confined within domestic space and made to believe that it was wonderful to be a housewife began to be revealed and recounted by female artists and poets using these revolutionary verbal-visual techniques. Women’s liberation therefore involved not only sexual freedom and equality of civil rights, but also liberation from a male-coded language in order to arrive at the creation of a new form of visual writing capable of giving shape and intellectual dignity to the new identity that women were seeking.
This short essay presents the research of two female artists, Tomaso Binga and Greta Schödl, who have used the word to rethink language and its function.
Tomaso Binga is the stage name of the poet and visual artist Bianca Pucciarelli Menna, one of the most prominent figures of the contemporaneous Italian phonetic-performative poetry who, as a form of protest against male privilege, decided to adopt a man’s name. Her artistic debut took place in 1971 with L’oggetto reattivo [The Reactive Object], a solo exhibition held at the Studio Oggetto in Caserta, when she used the pseudonym Tomaso Binga for the first time. In 1976 she worked with the Argentinian artist Verita Monselles, creating the photographic installation Litanie Lauretane [Litany of Loreto or Litany of the Blessed Virgin Mary], sometimes presented with the title Mater [Mother], in which Binga shapes the letters of the alphabet with her body to form the word mater. Taken in Monselles’ Florence studio, the photographs aimed at creating a new gestural alphabet, a symbolic alternative to existing language. This work relates to Binga’s contemporaneous experiments in her Scrittura Vivente [Living Writing] series, of which Alfabetiere Murale [Wall Alphabet] (1976) is certainly the most famous piece. This work equally manifests a desire to replace alphabetic writing with a corporeal alphabet; whether written or spoken, language was perceived as a worn-out and inauthentic form of expression from whose construction woman as subject is excluded. Binga’s ‘living writings’ thus aimed to create a radical alternative to ‘male’ language. This desire to question the exclusivity of the male symbolic order is also manifest in the artist’s decision to double herself, assuming the dual identity of Bianca Menna and Tomaso Binga that was ratified in the work Oggi Spose [Just Married] (1977), in which the artist marries her male alter ego. In Binga’s work, through the mingling of her physical body and the written word, the feminine is at last no longer represented as a passive object but as an active subject who strongly asserts her existence through a completely new and unexpected use of language.
Although she is still not widely known to the general public, Austrian-born Greta Schödl is one of the most significant artists of visual poetry living in Italy. Having trained at the Viennese Academy of Applied Arts, which she attended from 1948 to 1953 in a cosmopolitan city in the grip of intellectual ferment, she left Austria in 1959 to settle in Bologna, Italy, following Dino Gavina, a brilliant and charming Italian entrepreneur who invented design art. Schödl’s delicate works feature organic and geometric shapes that intersect with words, obsessively repeated line after line to fill entire canvases with finely detailed handwriting. Written using black Indian ink and highlighted in gold, the words emerge from their watercolour backgrounds as a result of the artist’s meticulous labour, precise and consistent despite the difficulties of non-recognition in a still provincial and decidedly narrow-minded Italy. The language employed is always Schödl’s mother tongue, or rather the German alte Gotik – stylish, pointed and inherently rhythmical – that she learned at school as a child. The colours are varied and intense: shades of blue, pink and yellow in combination with gold that figures as the consistent leitmotif of speech while remaining suspended between the real and the visionary. The words are repeated without leaving gaps on the surface of the canvas, and the gold leaf – which is poured hot using a medieval amanuensis technique that permits filling each letter’s empty spaces the same way within the same word – forces the viewer to read the canvas as a vertical composition by loading it with symbolic meaning. Greta Schödl’s visual poems resemble delicate ideograms which, like mantras, create vibrational messages that speak to us of that extraordinary, marvellous complexity that is the poetry of living.
Betty Friedan, The Feminine Mystique, W.W. Norton & Company Inc., New York 1963.
Raffaella Perna, Arte, fotografia e femminismo in Italia negli anni Settanta [Art, Photography and Feminism in Italy during the 1970s], Postmedia Books, Milan 2015.
Griselda Pollock, Looking Back to the Future: Essays on Art, Life and Death, Routledge, London 2001.
Carla Subrizi, ‘Punti d’incontro tra scrittura, performatività e femminismo in Italia: l’arte riscrive l’identità e la storia’ [Points in Common between Writing, Performativity and Feminism in Italy: Art Rewrites Identity and History], in Corpo a Corpo [Body to Body], exhibition catalogue, Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Moderna e Contemporanea, Rome, June–September 2017, published by Silvana Editoriale, Milan.
This text has been written in conjunction with the exhibition Tomaso Binga & Greta Schödl: VOCALIZING, at Richard Saltoun gallery, 41 Dover Street, London, 31 May – 7 July 2018.