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John Baldessari, ‘Learn to Read’, 2003

Although conceptual art’s adoption of linguistic strategies was motivated by an antipathy to formalism, not everyone was kicking sand in Clement Greenberg’s face. Historians have overemphasised the aesthetic dissidence of the conceptual project, ignoring its participation in the wider cultural and philosophical epiphany known as poststructuralism.

Learn to Read brings together 29 artists who inherit this synthesis of image, object and word, though two of them—Robert Barry and John Baldessari—can rightly lay claim to having inaugurated it. The exhibition’s title is taken from Baldessari’s poster of a woman reading a James Joyce biography. Stationed at the entrance to Tate Modern’s Level 2 Gallery, this 2003 work gives the project a specific critical provenance; we are a long way from the linguistic austerity of Joseph Kosuth, who famously argued for a separation between art and aesthetics.

Or are we? On the other side of the wall is Jonathan Monk’s ‘Edgware Road Translation’, 2005, which translates a statement by Carl Andre into one language after another, and eventually back into English. The result is that 36 words do the work of 20—with a concomitant distortion of Andre’s original meaning. Monk’s text pieces have a Kosuthian self-reflexivity, but his tautologies do more than chase their own tail; they are helical rather than circular—and this one spirals into an unkempt allegory of global miscommunication.

The most visually arresting work here is Simon Evans’ ‘Untitled (Cigarette Burn)’, 2004, a large sheet of paper with cigarette burns annotated by statements that veer from the concrete to the poetic. In another work, ‘28 Years’, 2006, he uses pencil shavings to construct a sort of dendrochronological autobiography appended with reflections on the past: ‘PEOPLE OF THE NINETIES, WELCOME TO THESUNSET OF YOUR REVOLUTION. SO MUCH FOR YOUR MIXTAPES’. The rant seems to warrant a megaphone, but Evans’ contentment with humbler means creates a tension between what we read and what we see—he is shouting not at us but at himself.

Other works, such as Saâdane Afif’s ‘Brume’, 2007, a blank road sign fresh from the factory, and Philippe Parreno’s empty ‘Speech Bubbles’, 1997, helium-filled balloons reminiscent of Warhol’s ‘Silver Clouds’, eschew text altogether, instead emphasising the site of linguistic signification, drawing parallels between the tabula rasa and the blank canvas. Another way of critiquing language while avoiding text is to ascribe linguistic functions to concrete items. Damien Roach’s ‘Mobil’, 2004, a shelf containing apparently random objects, spells the work’s title when viewed from the right angle, perhaps mocking the often heard notion that ‘art is a language’.

Kris Martin is one of four artists to appropriate literary texts. ‘Idiot’, 2005, is a handwritten copy of Dostoyevsky’s novel The Idiot, with the artist’s own name substituted for that of the central character. While Martin’s approach recalls JG Ballard’s ‘Princess Margaret’s Face Lift’ (which took a neutral account of an operation and substituted the princess for the anonymous patient), his nominal substitutions are presumably not intended as literary détournements, for the manuscript is placed beyond our perusal in a vitrine – the physical outcome of an endurance feat. We are expected, one feels, to mark the bloody-minded irreverence of this gambit, but it is actually rather sanguine. Imagine the inverse procedure; a writer publishes a text extrapolated from an art object. The results are there for all to engage with. ‘Idiot’ offers no such engagement, removing literary paradigms but putting nothing in their place; the vitrine is effectively a cordon sanitaire erected between art and literature.

As an examination of the relationship between writing and drawing, photography and caption, and ‘seeing and reading’, Learn to Read is required viewing. But perhaps it could have gone further in its exploration of the physicality of text inscription and its manifold spatial contexts. This is not entirely ignored—as the inclusion of Bethan Huws’ pegboard works and Robert Barry’s window texts indicates —but the modest, homespun production of much of the work sets such a solipsistic tone that one yearns for some typographical impersonality as a counterpoint. Moreover, a show grounded by two elder statesmen of conceptualism (Barry and Baldessari) might also have included some post-conceptualists like Jenny Holzer or Barbara Kruger, contemporary successors like Mark Titchner or Mustafa Halusi, or other artists who appropriate existing tropes for political effect. Granted, bombastic sloganeering might seem out of place here, but Jonathan Monk is alone, it seems, in offering subtler methodological alternatives.

Sean Ashton is a writer based in London