The Art of Repetition

On the Spring 2016 essay prompt for this course, a quote is given by visual artist, Glenn Ligon. Before reading the prompt, I had never heard of him before. Being a lover of all things art, I decided to dig a little deeper into who this mysterious artist is.

After a simple Google Images search, I was plunged into the world of Ligon. His art deals with race, sexuality, and much more that I haven’t figured out yet, but what really stuck out to me in his work was how prevalent it was to our class discussions about recursion.

I’m aware that the recursion lens is one that I’ve been looking through A LOT because of texts like African Fractals and Snead’s “On Repetition in Black Culture,” but even without the previous practice of using that lens, Ligon’s work would still exhibit strong patterns of repetition. Pieces like Untitled (Chanterelle Menu), Prisoner of Love #1, Untitled: Four Etchings,  repeat the same series of words over and over again. Usually, like in the case of these pieces, the series of words is a relatively straightforward, but thought provoking phrase: “We are the ink that gives the white page a meaning” (Prisoner of Love #1). The phrase or  line is repeated over and over again, to the point where I eventually stopped actively reading and paid closer attention to other areas of the piece. That interested me; because began to understand the pattern, I stopped engaging with it. I challenged myself with a question: do I disengage from other things just because they are repetitive? In the case of the fractals, yes. I did not allow my eyes to trail over the fractal in its entirety; I did not need to, I knew what to expect after the first few inversions. I think that we do that with film and literature, music and other art forms as well. If the piece, book, film, etc, is too repetitive for us, we disengage.

Maybe there’s a problem in that. Maybe the repetitive content allows us to focus on less obvious aspects. For example, because the line is repeated to the point of familiarity in Untitled: Four Etchings, I’m able to notice the the choice of font, and how the words become increasingly smudged to the bottom of the piece, taking up more of the white canvas and covering it with black ink. If the phrase was not repeated, and maybe more narrative was included, I might have missed details like that trying to focus on what the piece is literally saying. Because of reviews on film and literature, there is a tendency to associate the word repetitive with negativity. No one really wants to hear that their work is repetitive. In the case of Ligon’s work, the repetitive nature of the text provided an opportunity to focus on other elements. The next time I am tempted to complain about the content of something being repetitive, I’m going to try to shift my focus. It could be an opportunity to see something new.

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