Billboard Series #30:
Misfortune | Happiness
05/10/2023 – 18/02/2024
Joseph Kosuth (°1945, Toledo, US) is one of the pioneers of conceptual art. This art movement emerged in the 1960s. It’s not a rigid, uniform movement but rather a blend of various approaches where the idea (the ‘concept’) holds more significance than the execution. The execution of that idea can vary each time. In fact, the artist doesn’t always carry out the idea personally; sometimes, the audience receives instructions to imagine the work. Consequently, language often plays a crucial role in conceptual art.
Kosuth is a trailblazer in using words instead of images. He explores how ideas are conveyed through both images and words. His series of installations titled One and Three (1965) makes this tangible: he presents an object (like a chair), a photograph of the same object, and a copy of its dictionary definition together. In a later series titled Art as Idea as Idea (1966-68), he goes further – you no longer see an object or photos of it. Only language remains to convey meaning. Since the mid-1960s, Kosuth has advocated for removing images and any form of artistic skill from art so that ideas can be conveyed as directly and purely as possible. This idea has remained central to Kosuth’s practice.
As Joseph Kosuth’s work focuses on the relationships between words and their meanings, the primary tool for this artist isn’t paint or brushes but language. The words he uses are often not his own; he quotes from literature, philosophy, and psychology, drawing from thinkers like Ludwig Wittgenstein, Friedrich Nietzsche, Sigmund Freud, or Samuel Beckett.
Kosuth values these thinkers for their shared interest in certain themes, whether it’s Beckett’s relationship to time or Wittgenstein’s ideas about language. He extracts quotes from the original text and gives them a new home within the context of his own artworks, aiming to prompt his audience to
Language can appear in various forms (think of books, magazines, but also advertisements, slogans on clothing, etc.). To make his borrowed words tangible, Kosuth uses found or so-called ‘ready-made’ communication tools, such as neon lighting. Kosuth was a true pioneer in this regard – before him (and other conceptual artists after him), neon was only found in a commercial context for advertising. But through Kosuth, neon became the ultimate way to make language tangible: writing with light. Another ‘ready-made’ communication tool that Kosuth used early on to showcase art was the billboard.
This isn’t the first time a work by Kosuth is exhibited in Ghent. In 1978, Kosuth created a Dutch-language version of a series of billboard works titled Text/Context, in collaboration with the Friends of the Museum of Contemporary Art (the predecessor of S.M.A.K.). This work was displayed on Ghent’s Koopvaardijlaan from June 8 to July 6.
Wouter Davidts from the research group KB45 (Art in Belgium after 1945) at Ghent University, and researcher and curator Gertjan Oskar, are currently researching this Text/Context billboard from 1978. This is part of an exhibition on Joseph Kosuth’s presence in Ghent from the 1970s until now. The exhibition opens in February 2024 at the VANDENHOVE Center for Architecture & Art (UGent) – during the final weekend the billboard at Dok Noord is visible.
Within the context of this exhibition, we invited Joseph Kosuth to create a new billboard for Ghent. We didn’t simply want to re-display the billboard he made 45 years ago. Instead, he crafted a brand-new work featuring a quote from Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges. The text on the Dok Noord billboard reads, “The misfortune of today is no more real than the happiness of the past,” taken from the publication ‘A New Refutation of Time’ (1947). In this text, Borges invites readers to contemplate the nature of time and its profound implications for human existence.
In the quote, Borges suggests that reality is timeless, without a strict order of past, present, and future. Each moment, he says, exists without reference to other moments. It is us who connect moments and experience time as a straight line. By relocating this thought to the public space of a city in constant development, Joseph Kosuth invites you to see your surroundings with fresh eyes. You witness the city changing, traces of history are everywhere, and you are part of something greater.
All images courtesy of the artist
Installation photography: Michiel De Cleene
Billboard Series is a long-term art project in public space, for which every three months an artist is invited to create a new, site-specific work for a 50 m2 billboard on Dok Noord, Ghent. Through changing presentations, Billboard Series wants to build a sustainable and productive dialogue with the surrounding neighbourhood and urban landscape, reflect on the changes that this neighbourhood is currently undergoing, and introduce a broad audience to different visual languages and ways of looking at the world.
Billboard Series is a project of artlead, together with 019. Billboard Series is curated by Thomas Caron, takes place within a scenography by architect Olivier Goethals, and is being developed with the support of the City of Ghent and the Flemish Community.
Joseph Kosuth: Misfortune | Happiness was co-produced by KB45 — Universiteit Gent.