Thursday, 30 July 2020
Saturday, 25 July 2020
But what is it about drawing that helps us feel better? For myself it is a way of externalising my thoughts and dissolving myself back into the world.
Many of us are on lockdown because of the global corona virus pandemic. It is a time when many people will face severe challenges to their mental well being, in particular because we are social animals and on being deprived of that social life we struggle with what to replace it with. Drawing can be a way of exploring the fact that a social life isn't just about how we relate to other people, it can help us form new relationships with the wider world. Every morning I go out and walk in order to take some exercise and I always take a sketchbook with me. I make at least one drawing during my time outside, and try to spend at least 20 to 30 minutes on a drawing, which means I have to slow down and concentrate.
What I have also found useful is to have a particular interest, so that when I'm looking for a subject to draw, I have a filtering device. The other week as I walked through my local woods, I noticed some very rudimentary structures being created. They looked very unfinished and I suspected that they were mostly made by children, but as my walk is very early in the morning, I will never know who builds them, as I come and go before the builders arrive. I see these structures as signs of a desire for shelter, of a need to build things, but none of the people doing the building have the skills to make something robust. Gradually an allegorical idea begins to emerge from observational drawing.
It is important to me that I'm drawing something that is part of the ecology of the woods and that it is a sort of interface between humans and trees. Nobody is destroying anything and the living trees are used by people to lean various lengths of found branches against them, which means that no one is trying to cut them down. I can imagine both a future and a past where these simple structures would be developed much further and would become dwelling places, the important issue being that the structures are built in sympathy with the trees rather than replacing them. As I begin these trains of thought, I'm of course linking myself back into society, thinking something that connects all humans back into the natural world.
The Zulu or Nguni Bantu word 'ubuntu' means, 'humanity' but it can also be understood as 'I am because we are', it is a word that reminds us of a belief in a universal bond of sharing that connects all, not just people, but everything. Trees, rocks, dogs, plastic straws, electric light bulbs, the wind, soil and Bob Dylan.
When people use drawing to find their way out of difficult places, they will often find themselves using imagery that is a metamorphosis between the human body, nature and the world that humans have constructed. It's as if the mind searches for ways to dissolve us back into the environment from which we emerged, a way of healing that recognises our need to be entangled into the fabric of everything.
Shamans also develop often hidden or unconscious links between people the landscape, plants and animals, believing that the wellbeing of someone is dependent on how well an individual is in some sort of empathetic union with their environment. The shaman's job being to re-establish contact with whatever has become disconnected. It was Joseph Beuys that introduced me to the aspect of an artist's role that could be seen as shaman-like and although I only met him a couple of times, his ideas stuck.
In the case of walking and drawing these are activities that promote wellbeing by directly engaging with the external world and in the cases of Bobby Baker and Leonora Carrington drawing is seen as an activity that directly engages with the internal world of the mind, but that also leads to wellbeing. In the case of the cards, the images of body parts that are set out alongside images of viruses, bacteria or wounds, are drawn images that have been through a process of 'design' to ensure that they all belong to the same family of forms. The cards can be engaged with in a similar way as you would a tarot card game, so there is a different type of physical engagement as you have to initially play with them, rather than contemplate them. All of these approaches are however centred on drawing, drawing that gradually, in the case of the cards, becomes simplified as images are turned into 'icons' or 'symbols'.
Drawing as an approach to communication using image making is a vital tool for human wellbeing and by going 'beyond' the verbal it can help develop an understanding of things in ways that are more 'holistic' and attuned to the body as a whole rather than just the mind.
Wednesday, 22 July 2020
* Agnes Denes has been at times associated with 'ecovention' a term that was supposed to represent a new art paradigm that would focus on teaching how art could help society by getting directly involved in the world. Ecovention artists stated that they would take responsibility for extending various environmental principles and practices out into various communities. The exhibition 'Weather Report' brought to public awareness a range of artists working on sustainable ecological issues, if you are looking to explore work of this sort looking at the artists that were exhibited is a useful beginning: Kim Abeles, Lillian Ball, Subhankar Banerjee, Iain Baxter&, Bobbe Besold, Cape Farewell, Mary Ellen Carroll (Precipice Alliance), CLUI (Center for Land Use Interpretation), Brian Collier, Xavier Cortada, Gayle Crites, Agnes Denes, Steven Deo, Rebecca DiDomenico, Future Farmers (Amy Franceschini and Michael Swaine), Bill Gilbert, Isabella Gonzales, Green Fabrication (via Rick Sommerfeld, University of Colorado, College of Architecture and Planning), Newton Harrison & Helen Mayer Harrison, Judit Hersko, Lynne Hull, Pierre Huyghe, Basia Irland, Patricia Johanson, Chris Jordan, Marguerite Kahrl, Janet Koenig & Greg Sholette, Eve Andrée Laramée, Learning Site (Cecilia Wendt and Rikke Luther), Ellen Levy, Iñigo Manglano-Ovalle, Patrick Marold, Natasha Mayers, Jane McMahan, Mary Miss, Joan Myers, Beverly Naidus, Chrissie Orr, Melanie Walker & George Peters, Andrea Polli, Marjetica Potrc, Aviva Rahmani, Rapid Response, Buster Simpson, Kristine Smock, Joel Sternfeld, Mierle Laderman Ukeles, Ruth Wallen, Sherry Wiggins, The Yes Men, and Shai Zakai.
Sunday, 19 July 2020
A few years ago the Jerwood Drawing Prize was won by a verbal description. In 2014 Alison Carlier's sound piece 'Adjectives, lines and marks' described at the time as an 'open-ended audio drawing', a 75 seconds long spoken description of an object, was chosen as being a worthy winner, because as the artist put it, "It exists in your head, rather than in a made or finished way. This open-endedness puts it in a similar place to some drawing conventions." The text's source was a reference book on Roman excavations in south London held by the Museum of London. The extract that Carlier had had recorded was her reading aloud a section describing a "hard, red, brown" Roman pot found in the London borough of Southwark. The exhibition was toured to Leeds and I was able to listen to the work and make my own mind up as to its value.
I listened to it several times. It was an interesting idea, but one I felt had little poetry in it, more a concept about the relationship between the languages of art forms than a new observation about the world. The fact that a description in words of something can be seen as a type of drawing, is fascinating and opens out the territory between the two disciplines as fertile soil within which to plant ideas and when Carlier reads her work aloud, it becomes part of the expanded field of drawing which now includes performance.
I was reminded of this recently because I have just been reading Ali Smith's 'How to be Both', another work from 2014.
Tuesday, 7 July 2020
Asemic writing doesn't signify anything but itself. This can be thought of like a form of ghost writing, a text aspiring to become a ‘presence’ or thing in its own right, rather than a form that carries significations of other things. Ghosts are often in fiction aspiring to the reality that living life forms have, and if we are not careful they might supplant the living.
Any inscription that is still legible, but perhaps only faintly, is like a ruin of its former self, a phantom presence. This ruin can however be a powerful form in its own right and signify a silenced voice. Its past form can overcome its present one, especially if its erasure wasn’t just a consequence of normal wear and tear, but was the result of a deliberate attempt to remove it. This can often be the case with graffiti, especially if it is politicised comment or a sign of struggle.
Erased or cleaned off graffiti can also be thought of therefore as a type of palimpsest. One text is removed to make way for another, but in a future time, the first text may re-emerge and become more important than the text that replaced it.
Patrick Ford has highlighted for me how these issues relate to the political graffiti that has appeared all over the city of Hong Kong and of how inexperienced government appointed cleaners after doing their work, left recognisable 'ghosts' of the slogans used. The erased text being still clearly legible to locals residents, even though the offending words or characters had been cleaned away.
As the cleaners would use solvents to try and remove the messages, the ink or paint used was partly dissolved, thus creating a delicate wash effect not too dissimilar to traditional Chinese ink painting. In effect the process of cleaning was developing an aesthetic 'look'. Patrick also sent me a link to the artist Serene Hui Sze-Lok, who has written about this issue in an Amsterdam Alternative article, and who points to that fact that these drawn marks now bear witness to the writing and un-writing, of the city’s memoir.
The word "palimpsest" means to be scraped clean and ready to be used again. In medieval times Vellum was so expensive that old texts were often scraped off, so that new ones could replace them; therefore the original palimpsests were made as a matter of economy. However the removing of a text can also become a political act, even if it was not seen to be so at the time. Sana’s palimpsest, one of the oldest Koranic manuscripts in existence, has been carbon dated, and its new date indicates that the under-text or ‘scriptio inferior’ could have been written 15 years before the death of the prophet Muhammad. However it differs from the standard Koranic text as completed in about A.D. 650, under the direction of Caliph Uthman ibn Affan, the third leader of the Muslim community. Muslims believe that the Koran they read today is the text that was standardised under Uthman, and regard it as the exact record of the revelations that were delivered to Muhammad. A variant reading could be seen as a threat to the authenticity of a sacred document, therefore the ghost of an earlier text, when it emerges, could be thought of as a threat to religion.
However we can also regard the idea of the palimpsest as a metaphor. Thomas de Quincey describes our brain as ‘a natural and mighty palimpsest’, he points to ‘layers of ideas, images and feelings, each one as it arrives burying ‘all that went before’. Once thought forgotten ideas and feelings are as de Quincey says, ‘not dead but sleeping’. More recently the term ‘palimpsest’ as we have already seen has become a metaphor for describing the city, both its physical form as well as our collective memories and experiences of it. The concept of the palimpsest is a way of thinking about the transformation of a city, new structures existing alongside old ones, as well as new life stories being written upon existing ones. Hong Kong is no different to any other city, however its present situation is more urgent, and we can see change happening in real time as the Chinese government tries to force Hong Kong to become integrated fully into the Chinese state.