2021 - by Diane Smyth
Jorge Luis Borges, the Argentinian author, took a dim view of human attempts to chart the universe. His one-paragraph story On Exactitude in Science features a 1:1 map that covers the territory it surveys, and ends up being left to rot; in The Aleph, he suggests we’re mired in subjectivity, incapable of seeing outside our particular perspective. But it’s Borges’ essay The Analytical Language of John Wilkins that springs to mind when I look at John MacLean’s Conversations, perhaps because both are about language. As the title Conversations hints, MacLean is an artist who likes language.
Borges’ essay is an intellectual take down of plans for a universal language proposed in 1668 by Wilkins, an English scientist and philosopher. Wilkins’ language was based on a logical classification of the world, with concepts categorised into Genera, subdivided into Differences, and subdivided again into Species, and specific letters assigned to each component; Borges admires the economy but points out this system is riddled with “ambiguities, redundances, and deficiencies”.
Borges adds that “there is no classification of the universe that is not arbitrary and conjectural”, and even suggests that the universe may not exist “in the organic, unifying sense inherent in that ambitious word”. He ends with a quote from GK Chesterton, which he describes as “the most lucid ever written about language”, and which references “tints more bewildering, more numberless, and more nameless than the colours of an autumn forest.”
John MacLean’s Conversations, meanwhile, is a contemporary mash up of photographs and emoji, put together in trompe-l’œil montages. Both emoji and photographs are often described in terms of language, the emoji 😂 named the Oxford Dictionary Word of the Year in 2015, and photographs – as pictures – said to be worth a thousand words. MacLean’s series includes a vocabulary list, as do many of his projects; in Conversations, this list consists of the codes for the emoji he’s used, such as :door: or :moon_waning_crescent: or :index_finger_pointing:.
The list is telling because it suggests emoji can be exchanged for words, acting as symbols mutually understood by users. That’s an essential element of language and a big difference with photographs which, if they speak a thousand words, don’t say anything in particular. Where a photograph records a particular, real-life example, an emoji abstracts, taking from the many to sum up a general idea. A 🍑 stands for a kind of everypeach; if you’re in North America it can also mean “ass”, but it’s still an everyass.
In MacLean’s montages this difference is put into stark relief, the emoji eerily unworldly when paired with photographs. The carefully placed shadows of a fake rock look hyperreal next to the unpredictability of a straggling bunch of flowers; the perfect curves of a graphic hole look surreal next to an old wooden post, randomly scratched over time. Even when they show much the same thing, a ladder on a flight of stairs, say, or a box next to a box, the emoji and photographs look radically different. Even when what’s photographed is nondescript – and MacLean shows some impressively featureless scenes – the photographs don’t become general.
And if photographs show the particular, it’s probably inevitable that there are an awful lot of them. The total number of photographs in the world must now be in the billions, and increasing all the time. That also pulls photography away from language, because there’s just no way to memorise all those images to create a shared vocabulary. By contrast, there were 3521 emoji as of September 2020 – a large but not an outlandish amount. Chinese has 50,000 characters, for example, of which you need about 2000 to read a newspaper.
To me, this isn’t a weakness of photography. In fact, I think it’s a strength because, in recording some of the sheer variety of the universe, photography is one of the few media that can reflect something of its unclassifiable, arbitrary chaos. Photography can record some of the “tints more bewildering, more numberless, and more nameless than the colours of an autumn forest”. Even so photographs can’t show everything, and they also aren’t reality. The world’s cameras aren’t like Borges’ Aleph, capable of showing everything that exists from every conceivable angle. Photographs are partial representations.
And when I think more about MacLean’s Conversations, that’s what it seems to explore. One of his images combines an emoji of a map with a photograph of a wall; for me, it evokes Borge’s 1:1 map but, unlike that example, it’s not pitting representation against the world. A photograph of a wall is not a wall. In fact this image is juxtaposing one partial representation with another – what’s conceptually closer is Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation, which also references Borge’s map but asserts that these days, it’s the territory not the map that’s rotting. What’s left is the representations.
And emoji are also partial representations, for all their ability to abstract. They have their roots in 176 symbols created by a 20-something designer, Shigetaka Kurita, in 1999; inspired by Japanese manga, kanji characters, weather pictograms, street signs, and emoticons, Kurita, like Wilkins, inevitably included “ambiguities, redundances, and deficiencies” in his system. As Borges pointed out, that’s the nature of classification. In Japan 💮 means ‘good homework’; sometimes a 🍑 is just a peach.
Added to this, MacLean has deliberately avoided well-known emoji in this project, instead favouring what he terms “outsider icons”, whose meanings are less fixed. They interest him, he says, “because they are replete with the interpretive potential of their generality”. Emoji seem closer to language than photography but, as with photographs, you might not know what they say. MacLean’s series is about systems of representation, not what they might – or might not – represent. By putting two systems in conversation, he points out their quirks and flaws.
In 1929 the surrealist Rene Magritte combined a painting of a pipe with the text “Ceci n’est pas une pipe”, naming his artwork The Treachery of Images, though the word “pipe” is no more a pipe than the image. Like Magritte, MacLean is playing with language and images, and in doing so, disrupts these attempts to pin down the bewildering, the numberless, and the nameless. Humans are good at inventing new languages, or the photographic medium, or emoji; what’s harder is to remember that these representations are just that – representations. The universe eludes them, in fact it may not even exist “in the organic, unifying sense inherent in that ambitious word”.