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The Self and Text: The Importance of Language Within Confessional Artwork, by Madeline Girling-Jones

Madeline Girling-Jones was awarded one of Art in Liverpool’s Publication Awards in partnership with Liverpool Hope University. This is a shortened version of her 2021 dissertation study.
The full study can be read at:

Confessional art “encourages an intimate analysis of the artist’s, artist’s subjects’, or spectators confidential, and often controversial, experiences and emotions.” (Jackson and Hogg, 2020), resulting in often emotive and autobiographical pieces of artwork, whose concepts are elevated through the use of text. The aim of this study is to investigate the relationship between language and confessional artwork, examining why text is used and how language is explored.

Both Tracey Emin and Sophie Calle incorporate text within their broad catalogue of work, using language to express and explore the confessional aspects of their practice. This study will focus specifically on four pieces of their work which exemplify the use of text, concentrating on how language is utilised and how it emotively connects with the viewer and the participants.

The confessional can be defined as, “intentional revelation of the private self.” (Jackson and Hogg, 2020), operating as an avenue which lends itself to the expressive notion of handwriting. The purpose of this section is to examine how handwriting operates within confessional artwork by Emin and Calle, focusing on how the visual element of the written word contributes towards the work, exploring notions of intimacy and immediacy.

The immediacy of handwriting encourages mark making, which reflects the artist’s intention, revealing the private self through the way in which they choose to write.

The intrusive nature of observing a stranger’s handwriting provokes the notion of intimacy and vulnerability surrounding handwriting. Understanding and recognising the curves in which someone writes is a privilege obtained only through knowledge of another. The display of handwriting invites the viewers, strangers, into an intimate part of the artist’s life, allowing a realm of vulnerability to be opened, ultimately revealing the private self.

Tracey Emin’s handwriting is undeniable within her practice. More Love Again (2011) depicts the following, written in loose capitalised handwriting: “I had to ask to be loved again and again and again”. The way in which the text is written suggests an emotive motivation, allowing the viewer access into the conceptual underpinning of the piece, solely through the expressive notion of handwriting. The ‘N’s’ are presented backwards, allowing further insight into Emin’s private self, whilst simultaneously presenting the possibility of vulnerability in allowing the viewer to see her human error.

Emin’s neon light work, I Felt You And I Know You Loved Me (2008), is a linear 20ft pink neon installation, in Liverpool Cathedral, depicting the title in Emin’s cursive handwriting. The handwriting differs to the one used in More Love Again (2011); it is neat and sophisticated, in an accessible manner enabling the viewer to approach the work without hesitation. The premeditation of the text raises the question of authenticity. The issue of authenticity suggests that although Emin’s work reveals the private self, the redistribution of personal experience suggests this is a revelation of a constructed self.

The use of handwriting is also prominent in Take Care Of Yourself (2007), a collaborative project in which Sophie Calle shares a typed email from a past lover in which he ends the relationship, with 107 other women, each interpreting and responding to the letter individually.

Calle presents handwriting as a vehicle of immediate response, with particular reference to its use as annotation. Within the project, linguist, semiologist and mediaevalist, Irene Rosier-Catach uses her own handwriting to annotate the email, allowing herself to physically engage with the text. Her notes are energetic suggesting she was focusing on communicating her thoughts rather than the application of them. The positioning of the handwriting suggests that Rosier-Catach was leaning on the paper, which suggests concentration, allowing insight into the private self of the writer. If the annotations were typed, the same connections might have not been made.

The contents of the break-up email from Take Care Of Yourself (2007), are emotionally fuelled. Although the message is directed at Calle, there is a universal response to topics such as love, which can be successfully conveyed through language, translating into an emotional response for the viewer.

The ‘offering up’ of the artist’s personal experience is a theme, which reoccurs within confessional artwork, becoming a distinguished part of the artistic practice encouraging and gaining an emotive connection with the viewer by performing authenticity through the vocalisation of feelings, experiences and emotions through text, enabling a range of meanings for viewers within both, Calle and Emin’s practice.

Unlike pictorial art, artwork which involves text does rely on the presumption that the viewer can read and understand the language in order to connect with the emotional discourse. One concern is of Anglo-Centricity, creating a language barrier based upon the secondary presumption that the audience can understand or read a particular language.

It could be argued that Emin could not create artwork in any other language; the sentimentality of recounted stories relies on memory and the immediacy of recall which is most naturally accessed in the artist’s first language.

Sophie Calle, who is French, writes and creates within her language but also provides translations to other languages. Take Care of Yourself, is translated into; braille, morse code, hexadecimal language, shorthand, binary form and as a barcode. The extensive representation of language is exemplary, but the delicacy of colloquial or shorthand annotations could become lost in translation, weakening the intensity of the response.

Emin’s diary-like entries found within her mono print work, More Love Again, exemplify inner monologue, accessing her conscious mind and making immediate recordings through print. If the text were to be written in second or third person, the confessional aspect would be greatly diminished as Emin would no longer ‘own’ her own experience.

In Calle’s Take Care of Yourself, the professions of the 107 different women who participate, range from a crossword writer to a sexologist, each dissecting and digesting the email in a way, which comes naturally to them, creating a varied range of representation. The act of annotation therefore becomes a form of representation of the inner monologue.

There is an overall importance on how text is presented. The use of handwriting contributes a personal and intimate element, which cannot be recreated through typography, revealing errors and imperfections, representing the private self through the intimacy of script. Although the issue of authenticity has been argued, the vulnerability conveyed through confessional artwork, retold or not, encourages an array of emotional responses to be created between the viewer and artwork, ultimately, allowing language to construct and uncover the self.

About the Author:

Maddie Girling Jones
b. 1999, Liverpool

My work explores the autobiographical and confessional through a variety of media such as: collage, print, photography, painting and textiles, with a focus on language, heavily influencing the direction of the work. I use text to capture and preserve my personal and collective experience, becoming love letters to past moments, memories and feelings. The tracing back and recounting of these moments emphasise my specific association to time and place, creating personal narratives, which reflect the autobiographical aspects of my practice.

The personal details found within my work derive from the archiving and collecting of engraved moments, conversations and words spoken by people I know and knew, creating a further sense of intimacy between myself and the work. The glimpses created through this, allow for a form of self-portraiture to be constructed, giving insight into my personal experience through snippets of language and the recording of past selves. The recent introduction of textiles has allowed my experience to be held, allowing a tangible representation of how I felt, creating pieces, which hold and home my past and present selves.