The text below is an excerpt from Balthazar Lovay's catalogue essay which accompanied the exhibition of Pascal Vonlanthen with Marc Jancou Contemporary in 2021.
In 1962, Fluxus artist Alan Kaprow organised the exhibition and happening Words at the Smolin Gallery in New York. Visitors entered an environment consisting of large sheets of paper hung from floor to ceiling on which words and phrases were hand-painted while phonographs played their recorded vocal counterparts. The texts were taken from graffiti, billboards, signs, newspapers, magazines and even from conversations overheard in the street and which Kaprow referred to as “urban text”. By immersing visitors in the art space, he wanted to bring the urban dynamics of the city of the 1960s and its invasion by written language.
The question of the prevalence among writing, orality and image over the centuries is still subject to discussions for historians. Despite a growing diffusion of writing and printed images since the invention of printing in the 15th century, orality is, for the majority of people of the West, the main mean of information or education until the 19th century. And while it is true that these last two hundred years have seen an unprecedented increase in the possibilities of image production (from the invention of lithography to the smartphone), writing is taking on a much more important role in the social life of the 20th and 21st centuries than it ever had before and in a context of a growing intermediality. In Europe, this mutation began in the 19th century when writing mutated by its “mechanised” reproduction and dissemination, especially in the field of the printed press, coupled with a strong increase in literacy. Until the mid-19th century, literacy has not reached yet all strata of society nor all geographical areas. As the sociologist Anne-Marie Laulan has summed up: “The language of images was for a long time the language of the illiterate”.
Pascal Vonlanthen, who suffers from fragile X syndrome (a disease causing cognitive dysfunction) is highly illiterate. However, since 2014 he has produced more than 500 drawings that he creates by “copying” passages from printed texts, mainly from the daily press, alongside writings of his own invention. Almost all of his drawings are a transfer of the interface of the printed media. Did Vonlanthen in his own way have the same intuition as Kaprow? To answer this question, we propose to place Vonlanthen's work in the perspective of the gesture of appropriation seen in a broad sense and in a long term. And it is through an observation of the chronological development of his practice that this perspective takes shape.