2015 May: Mysterious Travels, Zine Jealousy and a Woman in a Box

Okay, the Mead Scholarship and Galleri Fisk proposals are done. Now I am excited to get back into my work. The end of year exhibition that is coming up is a good opportunity for me to feel pressured into finalising some ideas that have been brewing. My health problems have gotten worse unfortunately, and I’ve notice that it impacts my work. It’s made me more introverted, and desirous of hiding behind my work (rather than dramatising myself) and being meek and small. I’ve decided to make myself small for this exhibition. No Spectacular this time. I think it will feature:

  • A publication
  • A small projection
  • A series of small embroidered drawings
  • An armchair for comfortable reading

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What’s going on here interests me. I am clearly transcribing some of the language of my ink drawings, with a resistance and a relationship to the new parameters this medium offers. The most notable one is temporality; the stitches are forcing me to slow down and contemplate each mark much more cautiously. This I resist. I try to sew rebelliously, stabbing the canvas (and myself) in what becomes quite a violent activity for a medium so traditionally feminine and domesticated. Stories have begun to emerge as I sew, I imagine myself as “the agitated seamstress” which I attempted to write about yesterday in the form of a poem. I have been frantic over these things, and violent. It’s surprising how gentle and calm they look otherwise. I see them as the leaves of a story, like the parchments of a medieval manuscript; heavier and more time consuming than the modern page. I think this part of my practice is going well, albeit slow and frankly, emotional. I am silent and working, invisible to the world. The agitated seamstress deletes herself in her work, like Penelope undoing her fate with the unravelling woven shroud.

As for the publication, I am really keen about that, although I am not sure whether I should rush it to arrive in time for the end of year exhibition. I think even incorporating already made work into the book will require a lot of work. I spent a whole day just looking through my entire corpus – and I didn’t even get through it all. This is because I was really looking through all sorts of things. Sometimes a tiny piece of an overlooked drawing proves itself perfect for another format to the typical framed drawing. Indeed, this is why I feel compelled to make a book. I have more than once been struck at how something which I haven’t given much of a thought of otherwise, looks when enlarged or accompanying text. These works, of which I have plenty snippets that just seem to float across my Cloud without definition, seem to lend themselves as illustrations for an anthology of this sort. Not an overview; the publication will be its own work, reinventing the narrative of all its constituent parts. So I am excited about the space of the book, I always have been. It’s a little expensive to get them printed but I think it will be worth it to give me an idea of how I could work in this format.

There is a meta-element, too. Having recently been drawn to drawing research itself, and writing on drawing, I’ve been introduced to a range of journals, independent publications and artists who adopt the discursive text-image format as a central medium of their practice. What I found was that most of the time, I had no idea how to read these things. I’ve probably stumbled across one of the most fluid and flexible mediums; drawing juxtaposed with text. Drawing, which always defies its own axioms, and text, in its bold engagement with drawing’s boundless legibility. What this leads to is a reinvention of the possibility of legibility going on left, right and centre. Nikolaus Gansterer in his book Drawing a Hypothesis (2011) invites practitioners and researchers from diverse disciplines to interpret his diagrammatical drawings. Complete with arrows, letters, and geometric clarity, they seem to insist upon their legibility – but despite employing the lucidity of diagrammatical language, they are completely devoid of any context that could make them interpretable. I was initially somewhat sceptical – I felt all this ‘jealousy of the knowhow of diagrammatical language’ was expressed through fetishistic representation and a delight that romanticised the traces of studious intellect. But then I saw that the whole premise of the project raises a question I am repeatedly handling in my own work: how is it that something can become so mystified through the very imitation of the superficial, ‘accessible’ qualities of that subject? Through pondering the stripped-down nature of these diagrams, as ‘reader’ of the drawing you end up pondering on the nature of lines and what they can convey at large. As my tutor said, it is an interest in “what a word can do, or what a line can do”. It prompted varied and contemplative responses. A couple of writers struck me in particular with what I understand as an emphasis on empathy in art-experience: Jane Tormey describes her reading methodology as if she were entering the drawing and taking a walk in its world, observing the objects within and simultaneously letting them guide, infiltrate, and even constitute her body. But other writers read the drawings as a Rorschach test that in their decontextualised space mirrored the hollows of the subconscious. I can’t quite articulate why that reading of drawing bothers me. Perhaps because it undervalues the restrictive, guiding, particular nature of the drawing in which I believe lies its power. A biologist uses the diagrams to render a fictive research paper. Another writer raises an interesting comparison between Haitian ‘veves’ (similar to voodoo dolls) and quantum diagrams and models, in that they both do not merely attempt to give shape to truths we cannot see, but also function as maps through which to dabble with the future of the universe and our relationship to it. Emma Cocker describes drawing as an ‘if without the then’, a self perpetuating hypothesis that fundamentally cuts off the tendency towards deduction and conclusion. To illustrate this she refers to Paul Klee’s ‘cosmic curve’ resembling a lasso that tosses out an idea so far that it enters, in a sense, its own orbit, without a care in the world about falling back to Earth, consumed as it is by eternal questioning. So it turns out that Gansterer’s project was rather interesting. However I could not help feeling somehow betrayed by the endless ‘derailing’ effect of these texts. What the hell was I reading? Every now and then making sense, it hardly resembled ‘real knowledge’ – something the contemporary drawing research community seems to pine for from what I understand in my reading so far. There is such a desire to put the visual language of drawing on parr with verbal language in its ability to foster, mediate, and store knowledge. I am ready to accept that my preconceptions about what drawing is are naïve when I delve into these texts. But I cannot help feeling it’s all a bit desperate and bizarre.

My feelings are further tumulted about by work such as that of Falke Pisano, a Dutch artist with an apparently substantial history with text and image. I am completely lost on what she is suggesting in her work. Her use of language is so unfamiliar so as to alarm me at my own illiteracy – especially because of how familiar her diagrams and texts seem at first glance. I cannot enter them, I don’t know how.

Also Dutch-born, the Belgium-based artist Hedwig Houben has delighted me on discovery this year. Her work echoed the introspection I myself partake in with my own practice, using the practice as data for understanding the relationship between things in the event of art. Similarly, visual presentation seems to be used consistently metaphorically, to demonstrate something, and this is guided by lecture performances in which she ventriloquises constituent material actors in the art-making process.

What all this work shares, along with a variety of other publications and text-image work I have come across lately, is a delight in the aesthetic of clarity, combined with often dubious tamperings with unknown linguistic territory. This insistence on appearing ‘presentable’ or ‘finalised’ (what with fine silk paper, elegant binding, ample margins and generous colouring) arouses in me some degree of cynicism. But, as often such things do, this aesthetic also arises in me a jealousy of the format that I should wish to also have the liberty of leveraging.

Where this would previously embarrass me, (the desire, namely, to produce a beautiful crisp book of my own), my practice has taught me to embrace jealousy – even the jealousy of something I’m inclined to criticise.

That is when I made a folder on my Google Drive, entitled “The Publication”. This act felt definitive, as if I would now effortlessly and linearly proceed to write the book from the first page to the last (as no book is likely to have been written). I was struck with how difficult it was to harness the authority of a word. I was confronted, as any writer will probably recognise, with the vacuous glare of the neutral page. At the same time, I so dearly wished for myself the apparent lucidity of the Word in its own guise, wearing its own letter, signifying and encompassing so much, so economically. As with a lot of my other work, making entries into this document was about balancing an ironic tone (originating from the critical, sneering Kat), with a celebratory tone (originating from the lustfully jealous Kat), resulting in neither a dismissal nor endorsement, but hopefully some almost implausible middle-ground.

I wrote the first five texts in one go, before I realised that this endeavour was tiring and that I was churning rubbish. Only on reading them later did I decide I thought there might indeed have been somewhat successful in striking the ‘balance’ mentioned above, in the writing.

Back to talk of the exhibition. Much as I like to use these exhibitions as checkpoints to encourage me to make an investment (such as printing the book, or trying to curate myself in a new way), I liked my work with ‘The Publication’ (as it is temporarily called) to tumble along casually, and accumulate like dust. Indeed, I felt a bit frustrated looking through tonnes of drawings and possible additions to the book today. I felt I was pushing it along too forcefully. Therefore, I think I’ll let the whole idea potter on for a few more days and we’ll see. Either I will have my fabulous 52 page booklet on display the way I imagined, or I won’t, or I will have a miniature compromise.

Modification: I have decided that there would be no good reason to rush the finalised, professionally printed publication just to make it for this exhibition checkpoint. Instead, I’ll offer ‘prototype’ booklets, simply black-and-white printed booklets from the uni printer that I will present just to give a feel of the content.

Modification:

I have just finished putting together most of my exhibition. Three publication prototypes sit on a shelf. I broke up the written works I have been working on into “Stunt Man”, “The City” and “I am a Stone”.

I am a Stone reflects some of the work that was initiated by a spontaneous trip to Brighton. I went there to explore somewhere I hadn’t been, and I went alone to clear my head. For the occasion I bought one of those brown recycled notebooks – nothing too pretty so I wouldn’t feel pressured to write something nice. I decided it would be something of a sailor’s travel log. I’ve thought of myself as a ship’s captain before. One of my diaries is actually recycled from an unwanted novel and turned into a notebook – the novel used to be called (translated from Norwegian) The Captain on Girl Pat. In that diary I always wrote from the angle of a traveller. I guess this was an attempt at something similar.

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I went to Brighton disguised as a rock collector. Or such was the game of going there. I remembered always admiring what a collector my aunt was. She is one of those childish characters who can spend a whole afternoon hunting for a perfect bouquet in the wilderness, or finding special shells. I was never such a person, and I am even somewhat embarrassed to admit I take very little photographs and don’t have a wall crammed with cutouts like many artists I like. Of course, I know that ultimately, I find my own way of doing things. But I find these tendencies in others curious. I wanted to disguise myself as a rock collector, and I went to Brighton, and I surveyed the beach feigning geological curiosity, and that quickly turned into a real curiosity.

In fact I had never been to a beach, other than the rocky shores of Norwegian coastlines. Not something like a seaside town. I was completely taken aback by the colour of the water, and the teasing waves – they had such convincing anthropomorphic character. On that particular day, it was impossible to see the horizon. The sky and the sea merged into an absolute infinity. I felt like Truman at the edge of the world, and even remembered looking about me to see if other visitors on the Pier were not slightly concerned at being face to face with the Wall of the World – too bright and too lacking in any detail for the eye to focus on, to really be something bearable to look at.

I spent many hours examining the rocks on the beach, telling myself stories about each and every one of them; how they had been battered into their specific shapes. I even began to write messages on them – which I remarked felt a bit naughty, a bit like vandalising a very old person’s possessions – and I threw these out to sea again for the fish to puzzle over, or I left them in rocky piles for other visitors to stumble across. It was during the many hours just turning over the rocks of the beach, that I wrote a few things.

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Writing has been as equally present in my life as drawing, and these always seemed to me to be two sides of the same coin. But since the summer I moved back to England to start my course, I had been unable to write almost anything at all, and have missed it greatly. That’s why I’ve been focusing on points of entry that could suck me back into that mode. The notebook, the journey. I hoped these things would jog back my desire to write.

To further ease myself into it, I gave myself a rule, as often has helped me in the past. It was to imagine I am a stone, before writing a passage. An eternally patient stone that is camouflaged against the going-ons of the world, and is therefore in a perfect position to speculate. They turned into magic words, “I am a Stone”, that I wrote before every passage. That is why, in this brown, recycled booklet, some of the passages inexplicably begin that way. Magic words can be anything, their repetition casts a spell by determining the mode (which may be vague) that the listener or reader is now expected to assume. Like “once upon a time”.

With all three of these exhibition booklets I played around with format a little bit – nothing is final about them. I jumbled the order of texts, and delighted myself in juxtaposing them with various drawings. These drawings are also somehow narrated. Sometimes, when drawing, I feel I am actually directing a scene, or insinuating a story. So they often collapse comfortably with my texts, I feel. The prints weren’t that beautiful, but that’s okay, these are just tests. I am really excited about the stories. They have a different flavour to the oral storytelling of my Vernacular Spectacular performances. I am determined to explore this part of my practice further.

The embroidered works work well with the booklets I think, they not only imply the theme of text by being themselves ‘textile’, but they invite a reading, I think. I know how violent a process it was to make these works (they are really quite tiring!), and am interested in how their history of making breaks the domestic atmosphere of the space like an unspoken family secret.

To further subvert the comfort of the interior (emphasised by a delicate chair and a vase of flowers), I thought of showing a film – but opting for a small, claustrophobic presentation rather than the wide, cinematic projection I did in the last exhibition. I had in mind a film in which I pretended to be an operatic diva in housewife attire – singing repeatedly “I make shapes with my body, that you’ve seen before”. I had filmed this with a narrow, vertical angle on my iPad. I could see myself while filming, so I could ensure to “fit myself” into the window of the camera’s field of vision. Therefore, instead of being caught on camera, I was directly climbing into the camera. I think this awareness of the body movements make the woman in the video seem all the more trapped. By putting the iPad in a case I made for it last year, I began to think of her as “the little woman in the box”. She would be a small pathetic voice, singing from the box. Her image would become literal, and she would exist like a pet fish in a bowl – alive but inferior. I wanted her only to be heard when somebody cared to listen, so I provided headphones. Otherwise, you just see her mouthing some kind of plea. I placed the box above a little cupboard to resemble a mirror above a dressing table, and I suggest in my press release that she is a female Narcissus cursed into the mirror she vainly spent too much time with.

Finally, a breath of fresh air – we take to the streets. In a series of Imitation Photos I have been making on the side (assisted by my roommate who photographed me), I photographed people caught unawares in some kind of habitual pose in an urban environment – reading a newspaper, standing on the escalator – and waited till they left, only to assume their positions. This is an idea I had a while back during some uni work. For the occasion I dressed up to look like a character – on this occasion I had in mind someone like Barbara Streisand in her movies – imposing but charming. I bought an expensive pink trenchcoat for the shoot, and then gave it back the next day.

I really like these photos and intend to make more – I can do them anywhere. For a few of the photos I interacted with the subject and asked to use their props (a graffiti artist, a tourist bus ticket seller, a skateboarder) – but I generally prefer the imitation to take place without the subject’s knowledge. I carefully edited these photos afterwards, cropping them into squares that centred the subjects and me in the images, and gave even the photos of the subjects a premeditated, cinematic quality. I arranged them into images that replicated the dimensions of a Polaroid instant photo, simply to emphasise the spontaneous, and detective/Sophie Calle-esque nature of the enterprise. I was very pleased then, with how the photos looked. They feature in this exhibition as a refreshing outward glance to urban life, celebrating what can be found on its streets, but insisting on this non-character of the woman imitating other postures, or the woman caught in the box on an endless performative loop. Therefore, I guess I’ve been questioning the inherent intimacy of “the little” in this show. I said I wanted to be little, and I was. But that did not help me become more authentic. In littleness I found violence, estrangement from myself, and claustrophobia. I’m really curious to see what people will make of it. Photos below.

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