Gemma Padley


In Praise Of The Written Word

It is such a joy to play with words – their meanings, their look on the page – both individually and when strung together to form sentences – and the rhythm that ensues from their careful placement, which can unfold over a long period of time. 

Writing, I would argue, is as much an art as painting, photographing, sculpting; it requires precision, concentration and, conversely, a willingness to throw caution to the wind and indulge whatever emotion or thought arises when inspiration strikes.

In fact, I’ve long believed the act of writing to be akin to crafting a sculpture from clay or any other material that might come to hand. A text has to be assembled, created, shaped from matter, in this case words, into something real – not necessarily real in a physical sense, but rather something that is suspended in nothingness, lighting up the darkness that seeks to engulf it. 

And yet, a text is mirage-like, fickle, its form fixed only by words that are themselves capricious, impermanent and slippery. A text cannot be taken as read any more than a photograph can legitimately claim to be a vehicle of truth. But therein lies the pleasures of language; its boundlessness affords opportunities for unhampered creativity, allowing imaginations to run wild.

To be invited to create a piece of written work that will sit amid artworks in an exhibition space is a huge honour, and, for a writer who spends her time fashioning articles of a journalistic nature, a welcome chance to indulge a creative side that is normally kept hidden.

When researching this text and thinking about what I might like to write, I dipped into texts by esteemed literary critics and theorists including Pierre Macherey and Roland Barthes about the creation and interpretation of meaning, and came away feeling both inspired and frustrated by my lack of theoretical understanding. For to venture into the world of literary criticism is to disappear into a rabbit warren of gigantic proportions, to open oneself up and be forced to admit just how little one knows about the meanings and readings of art. 

As I was gathering quotes that struck a chord with me I had an idea: what if I presented these snippets, collage-like, as found poems or word-based sculptures?  In casting these fragments anew by removing their context, could I not focus instead on, or uncover, their inner poetry? 

To photograph is in one sense to be like a magpie – it is to gather, to be a gatherer, and then to build from or make sense of one’s finds. In writing this text I too have been magpie-like, roguishly flitting across literary criticism in search of what are, to my eyes at least, inspiring phrases that conjure up deliciously visual images and ideas. 

Despite my love for images, it is the written word in all its perplexing beauty to which I am willingly (sometimes unwillingly) bound, and I find myself moved to explore how texts or rather, snippets of text, might be moulded together in a rather unorthodox way, re-appropriated, to create a text-artwork to be experienced alongside works of a primarily visual nature.

This is every bit an experiment, but one that I hope might resonate with visitors generous enough to entertain it, and in doing so, open up myriad points of departure for discussion.  

Unwinding within a closed circle, *

Content determines form. *

In the space in which the work unfolds, everything is to be said,*

and is therefore

never said.

…for in order to say anything, there are other things

which must not be said.

We know now that a text is not a line of words releasing a single ‘theological’ meaning […] but a multi-dimensional space in which a variety of writings, none of them original,

blend and clash.*

The text is a tissue of quotations

drawn from the innumerable centres of culture. . . .

the writer can only imitate a gesture

that is always anterior, never original.

His only power is to mix writings, to counter the ones with the others, in such a way as never to rest on any one of them.*

*1.Pierre Macherey, A Theory of Literary Production

*2. Georg Lukács, The Meaning of Contemporary Realism

*3. Pierre Macherey, A Theory of Literary Production

*4. Pierre Macherey, A Theory of Literary Production

*5. Roland Barthes, The Death of the Author

*6. Roland Barthes, The Death of the Author

Gemma Padley

Gemma Padley is a writer and editor on photography, in the UK.

This essay was commissioned by Form for our inaugural group exhibition at Brighton Photo Fringe 2018

Using Format