Poet Slash Artist review – if this show is art’s future, it looks good to me

Home, Manchester
A show about the relationship between seeing and reading feels like a return to Romanticism – a belief in the passionate expression of the spirit

Poets and artists have been influencing each other ever since the Renaissance versifier Angelo Poliziano said to Sandro Botticelli: “Why not do a painting about spring?” At least that is a Eurocentric way of looking at it. One of the first things you notice in Poet Slash Artist at the Manchester international festival is that few cultural traditions distinguish word and image as starkly as the west. In classical Chinese, Arabic and Persian poetry, calligraphy connects the verbal and visual in ways that make poetry and art practically the same thing.

That way of seeing words is remade for today by Imtiaz Dharker in her captivating drawing My Breath. Stripes flow magically out of her body into space. The lines continue their journey through a second picture, then in the third become words, lines of poetry repeated, repeated, repeated through entire blocks of text.

It is a perfect illustration of the subtle and mysterious relationship between writing and drawing, seeing and reading. Poet Slash Artist, curated by the poet Lemn Sissay and the art guru Hans Ulrich Obrist, probes the mystery of that borderland, and finds what can only be called spirituality. The soul, even. Precious Okoyomon’s paintings of hilarious, pitiful flowers with big sad cartoon eyes don’t have any obviously readable words on them but they are pure poetry.

Blakelike … Precious Okoyomon’s flowers.
Blake-esque … Precious Okoyomon’s flowers. Photograph: Michael Pollard

These intense floral personalities made me think of William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience. Blake fought a one-man war against the west’s separation of art and poetry. Okoyomon too is a published poet and the title of one image is gloriously Blakelike: “Zoomorphic angelic beings singing in midnight sugar storms.”

Okoyomon’s lyricism, shining out like a flashing sign that says “poetic genius”, goes to the heart of the mystery this exhibition probes. Poet Slash Artist asks what poets and artists are, what these forms of creativity have in common. And it reveals a return to romanticism in art, a passionate belief in the spirit finding expression.

That’s why Tracey Emin is a poet, says Sissay, as we contemplate her yellow-pink neon that says “It’s a crime to live with the person you don’t love”. Emin has crossed out her first attempt at the word “Don’t”, then written it again with a lower-case d. It’s a note to herself, suggests Sissay, an inner voice: she’s not instructing or lecturing people. “She’s shouting at herself!”

The future of art? … Dear Monster by Gozo Yoshimasu.
Vision of art’s future? … Dear Monster by Gozo Yoshimasu. Photograph: Courtesy of Take Ninagawa Tokyo

As an artist-poet she’s got plenty of competition. Turner winner Lubaina Himid’s poster, or painting, or poem that says “Lost Songs: Can We Ever Reclaim the Night” casts its gold letters against an abstract blue cityscape. The nocturnal colours and defiantly bright text tint sorrow with hope. Inua Ellams, poet and author of the hit play Barbershop Chronicles, pounds into your subconscious. He goes full Blake by integrating his words into a powerful drawing of a rainswept city where lost souls wait for a flying bus.

The delight of this exhibition is that it enacts a change in the very way we relate to art. During the pandemic, art fairs and biennials stopped and the art world was forced to become less about the noise, more about the art. Might that new introspection continue? This show boldly says yes. The works here want you to consider and feel. If that’s the future it looks good to me.

It all comes together joyously in French-Caribbean artist and poet Julien Creuzet’s film Ogun, Ogoun. Like a cross between a music video and Dante’s Divine Comedy it absorbs you in a stream of visual and verbal images, with poetry spoken, sung and turned into flaming sensual art. This exhibition is a manifesto for a new culture, where the hubbub and hype are silenced, and at last we can hear one another think.


Jonathan Jones

The GuardianTramp

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