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‘…language is not a tracing of reality’ – Roland Barthes, Systeme de la Mode (1967)
‘As we are drawn to sit down by the stream just here, or to pause at just this painting along the wall, so too anomalous individuals, people and things, draw our lives out … And letting yourself be drawn requires that you not be focused on any point. It will be active, for you have to prepare yourself, but it is not intentional. Being drawn in by the music or the smell is a way of losing yourself as you dissolve into scent’s sensuality.’ – Gordon C.F. Bearn, Life Drawing (2013)
I recently contributed a drawing (upon a wall) to an exhibition of work by postgraduate researchers at Winchester School of Art. The exhibition, Image-Text-Object: Practices of Research, brings together a wide range of ‘practices’ which span across both studio- and humanities-based research. As a writer I’ve written about the image from a theoretical point of view, yet equally in that writing I tend to state the need to understand (and to theorise) the image by making the image. This exhibition afforded me the opportunity to start from the point of view of image-making, to help complete the circuit of both a critical thinking and making of the image. I was tentative in making the first marks upon the wall, but through the support and generosity of those involved in putting the exhibition together, I soon immersed myself in the task and indeed for that short period of time completely let go of everything else going on in the world!
The work presented is a tracing (and enlargement) of a life drawing I made back in October 2013. It marks the first iteration and emblem of a new project, The Making of (the) Image. Inspired by Simone de Beauvoir’s 1959 essay on Brigitte Bardot, the project ‘draws out’ from a recent book reimagining Roland Barthes’ Mythologies. The book invited ‘writerly’ accounts of contemporary culture, yet arguably the machinations of editing such a volume reinforce the didactic, theoretical language that comes before reading myth. The work I created for the exhibition is part of a project to divest an article, ‘Kylie Ecriture’, from its original publication in Barthes’ “Mythologies” Today (2013). The text (which deliberately reworks ‘The Face of Garbo’ line-by-line) might be said to have failed as text. The tracing upon the wall, however, serves to provoke the plurality of its image: no image is the opposite of another image. We try to ask what the image is that an idea isn’t, yet too readily we’re drawn by a desire, an objet petit “an”, to theorize the image as singularity. I sought to go back to the drawing board, quite literally.
Drawing is an act of discovery, as well as a form of testing and securing. As John Berger writes, drawing ‘forces the artist to look at the object in front of him, to dissect it in his mind’s eye and put it together again; or, if he is drawing from memory, that forces him to dredge his own mind, to discover the content of his own store of past observations’. While drawing may appear to be a fluid action, the description Berger gives of both looking out to an object and ‘dissecting’ it in what he calls the ‘mind’s eye’ would seem to describe something rather more complicated. He adds: ‘each mark you make . . . is a stepping-stone from which you proceed to the next, until you have crossed your subject as though it were a river’. My original drawing was made with great speed. I very deliberately looked only at the subject, never at the paper. In this way, then, a very intense form of looking was traced by a completely blind form of drawing. For the exhibition I enlarged this image using an overhead projector. Using a pencil on the wall and working with the previously formed lines, the technique was arguably closer to a mode of writing. Yet, equally, I had to feel my way through the delineated lines. And as I leaned towards my own mark-making I had to contend with my own shadow as it cut across the light of the projector, removing the image entirely. I was focused solely on the act of drawing. I was not intentionally thinking of anything beyond the fidelity of each mark I was tracing. Yet, here again was a certain blindness of drawing, which inevitably brought to mind Jacques Derrida’s commentary on drawing. This is the confluence not only of text and image, but of the Text and the Image (formed of both a cultural lexicon and idiolect).
The French philosopher Jacques Derrida was a guest curator in the early 1990s at the renowned Musée du Louvre, Paris. He organized an exhibition of drawings held by the museum under the title of Mémories d’aveugle [Memories of the Blind]. The exhibition brought together a series of drawings and prints that show blindness as a recurring motif. Derrida makes the case that the images are not simply representations of the blind, but self-reflexive accounts of drawing itself as blind. ‘[T]he blind man’, he writes, ‘can be a seer, and he sometimes has the vocation of a visionary’, a thought which he then combines with the act of drawing as ‘an eye graft, the grafting of one point of view onto the other: a drawing of the blind is a drawing of the blind’. In other words, in order to draw it is necessary to look away or to bring a vision of something onto a different plane. This was precisely the experience I had standing between my original drawing (formed of it own sense of blindness), its intense illumination (from the overhead projector) and the virtual retracing upon the coarse paintwork of the wall. As in Derrida’s account, the artist may literally draw a blind subject, but in order to bring pencil to paper there is inevitably a moment of blindness when the eye must look away from the subject and/or equally cannot see what goes on between the tip of the pencil and the surface it meets. Derrida’s account brings together many images of the blind and blindness to elaborate on this idea, but essentially his statement – ‘drawing is blind’ – holds as a general argument of how meaning is mapped from one place to another in any act of mark-making:
By accident, and sometimes on the brink of an accident, I find myself writing without seeing. Not with the eyes closed, to be sure, but open and disoriented in the night; or else during the day, my eyes fixed on something else, while looking elsewhere, in front of me, for example, when at the wheel: I then scribble with my right hand a few squiggly lines on a piece of paper attached to the dashboard or lying on the seat beside me. Sometimes, still without seeing, on the steering wheel itself. These notations – unreadable graffiti – are for memory; one would later think them to be a ciphered writing.
What happens when one writes without seeing? A hand of the blind ventures forth alone or disconnected, in a poorly delimited space; it feels its way, it gropes, it caresses as much as it inscribes, trusting in the memory of signs and supplementing sight. It is as if a lidless eye had opened at the tip of the fingers, as if one eye too many had just grown right next to the nail . . . – Jacques Derrida
Roland Barthes also refers to drawing in terms of blindness (specifically in relation to the artist Cy Twombly). He goes further to suggest the history of painting has been subject to the ‘repressive rationality’ of vision. The eye, he writes, is related to reason and evidence, ‘everything which serves to control, to coordinate, to imitate; as an exclusive art of seeing’. Blindness, however, offers a different way of relating to the act of drawing – as a way of bringing together reflection and the body (or more specifically the hand). The blind man, Barthes describes, ‘doesn’t quite see the direction, the bearing of his gestures; only his hand guides . . . Or that hand’s desire’. Barthes classifies this ‘trajectory of the hand’ as a controlled action, which in palaeography is termed ductus. In palaeography the analysis of handwriting is not based on the actual letters formed, but on the manner and direction in which the lettered strokes appear. Barthes considers Twombly’s work as a prime example of the ductus, suggesting his is ‘a writing of which only the leaning, the cursivity remains’. At regular intervals in drawing upon the wall, I switched off the overhead projector to reveal what I was leaving behind – both what I was losing from the projected image and what final marks I was leaving upon the wall. In between the actual marks and the virtual lines seemed a certain elusive cursivity. That loss perhaps always felt as you try to fix the image. The stepping-stones that Berger describes leading us across to our subject are every bit as a slippery as we might expect when crossing that river.