An ‘Open and Shut’ case

Or perhaps more accurately an ‘Open’ and ‘Closed’ case.

I’ve been considering the “Open Works’ and have been prompted to consider how to distinguish between a piece of work that provides information above meaning, work that provides a directed flow to closure rather than enabling the viewer to reflect and summon their own conclusion and thereby by closure form a piece of work.

In “The Open Work” Eco spends a deal of time on the construct of language, differentiating scientific and poetic forms and their independent criteria. Meaning and information are twin distillations of language , and whereas the technical requirements of language place the onus on information clarity and lucidity, the poetic places more emphasis on meaning – and here I am concerned with the denotative conjunction between image and text. Scott McCloud (Understanding Comics, The Invisible Art) talks about “There’s something strange and wonderful that happens in the blank ribbon of paper.” (p88) Here he is talking about two adjacent frames of a comic book, under the general discussion of ‘Closure’ – allowing the reader to conclude the narrative flow. And that is, I think, the essence of ‘Open Work’ for me; in a comic book, a film, there is a directive flow from one image to another (I take the point that with a physical element the reader might ‘flip back and forth’) however the adjacency has a dictatorial control over the narrative sense, no matter how easy or difficult the flow is. The axe may start to fall on the victim in the leading frame, the person cleaved in two in the next frame allows the viewer to put blade to body. If the second frame showed, for example a picnic in a wooded glade, the viewer would still try and make sense of it, the narrative form would impel the viewer to construct a ‘story’ between the two based on all the preceding story lines AND the viewer’s own personal history. To not provide closure between the two frames will disengage the viewer and the work will have failed (this particular reader).

However the flow from image to text in a body of work that contains both sequential images and associated text provides an altogether different set of challenges for both artist and viewer. Eco cites (p51/52) that the English language (perhaps the Italian too as this text is a translation?) has an endemic redundancy of around 50% “…. only 50 percent of what is said concerns the message to be communicated, while the other 50 percent is determined by the statistical structure of the language and functions as a supplementary means of clarification.” Information. Eco then goes on to write 160 words or so (I didn’t count them specifically about a lover who wants to express his feelings and then goes on to quote a poem by Petrach:

‘Chiare, fresche e dolci acque

dove le belle membra

pose colei che sola a me par donna

The poem has, even though my Italian isn’t very good, a great deal more ‘meaning’ than the 160 words of information about how when the lover when he sees a stream “…a stream of smoothly flowing, cool, clear water. The memory of this stream affects me in a way a particular way, since the woman I then loved, and love still, …..” &c fails to convey the same level of meaning, but a lot of information, that impelled Patrach to pen the poem.


“Clear, fresh and sweet waters where she alone to me seems woman rested her lovely limbs.”

One punctuation mark and disjunctures in the grammar that open up the possibilities of narrative(s). Opening up the possibility of varying poetic closures, not determining the storyline for the reader but encouraging the reader to enter the conversation in the ‘strange and wonderful’ place between the texts, be they image/words or image/image.

Closure is a matter of experience and experience is gained through the overt immersion in the form, such as artists might want to do, or by simple existence. I am wary of being too prescriptive with the narrative flow, I want to be left to ask my own questions rather than be told what to think, what to associate, how to interpret; and by implication, I want to offer the same invitation to viewers of my own work.


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