THE UNCERTAINTY PRINCIPLE Communication and ambiguity in the work of John Baldessari
Curated by Roc Jiménez de Cisneros
"Language is your most versatile scientific instrument. Learn to use it with precision." This message, which George L. Trigg claimed was prominently displayed at the front of the main chemistry lecture hall of a North American university in the 1940s, could also be seen as one of the mainstays of the oeuvre of John Baldessari (United States, 1931). The immense majority of his works, even those in which words are not explicitly and directly used as a vehicle, are based on a meticulous treatment of language that totally dissolves the division between the semantic field and external appearance.
In the course of his long career, Baldessari has repeatedly mentioned his impartial treatment of words and images, to the point of confusing the two categories: "one way you could look at my work is as a piece of writing, and look at the imagery syntactically as you would look at a sentence." It thus seems natural that ambiguity—which is ultimately an essential and inescapable fact of the communication act—should be part of an approach to art that suggests all kinds of linguistic and meta-referential games.
Concealing information from the viewer, and constantly testing his or her perception of the narrative by providing clues and challenges, is the force that drives Baldessari's artistic oeuvre. It can be seen in the flat areas of colour that shrewdly hide fragments of photographs, and in the association/dissociation games of his juxtapositions of film stills. In this sense, film language is a key element in the dialectic that Baldessari sets up. It is present in his use of film techniques, like discontinuity tricks such as jump cuts (in the spirit of masters like Méliès and Goddard), but also in the very notion of a "sequence", expressed in the form of dozens of photographic montages that are nothing like the prevailing unitary composition.
The use and perversion of the communicative power of images is also a result of the collective cinematic imaginary, built up over several decades: Baldessari takes advantage of the viewer's subconscious to set traps, connect signs, question familiar scenes and highlight key parts of a mental or visual image, in order to generate new stimuli in a continual and elaborate double entendre.
Baldessari's generation of artists, who created their works in the midst of the conceptual fervour that began in the sixties, witnessed radical innovations in a diverse range of areas such as the philosophy of language, physics, cognitive linguistics, logic and the study of neural networks. This cluster of ideas unmistakably seeped into the work of Baldessari and his contemporaries, who used different media to tackle many of these new arguments raised in the academic world.
Without going any further, "Pure Beauty" (1966-68), the work that lent its title to the MACBA’s John Baldessari retrospective, gracefully revolves around the concept of "qualia" that had been described by Clarence Irving Lewis a few decades earlier. "Qualia" is a term used to describe the subjective quality of conscious experience. Two classic examples are the "redness" of red things and the "painfulness" of pain. In the very simple work "Pure Beauty"—a canvas with these two words painted in black on a white background— Baldessari tries to evoke a subjective quality like "pure beauty" based on its corresponding syntactic coding (completely aware of the impossibility of such an undertaking). A direct, seemingly unambiguous statement, transformed into an unattainable mental image.
Returning to the initial parable, the thorough analysis of the artistic act that can be inferred from Baldessari's work as an artist, and also as a theoretician and educator, fits in perfectly with the analogy made by Neils Bohr, Nobel Laureate in Physics, when he said that "when it comes to atoms, language can be used only as in poetry. The poet, too, is not nearly so concerned with describing facts as with creating images and establishing mental connections." And it is precisely this veil of uncertainty over Baldessari’s compositions that transforms the everyday into something singular, into an emergent cognitive experience that avoids single perspectives.