Site 1 Tom Nicholson

Actions and traces: Contemplating Christian Capurro’s Another Misspent Portrait of Etienne de Silhouette as a drawing.

This talk was given by Tom Nicholson on the 13th March 2004 at Worksense Haircutters, Melbourne, the inaugural site for the AMPEdS project. Other workplaces, homes, public institutions and places of worship will host this work throughout the year with a different speaker being commissioned for each site. This address was conceived as an informal talk, so a conversational format has been retained.

I want to address this object, this residue of five years of dispersed public action, and, in what is a quite traditional art historical exercise, to explain the experience of this object, its curious presence, it uncanny silence, the force of its persistence.

There are many ways this task could be undertaken, and this site, a hairdressers, suggests one of these ways.

A hairdresser, like the newsagency, or the doctor’s waiting room, is one of those sites in which the magazine, the ‘glossy’, is a kind of constituent part of the architecture.

At the hairdresser’s I am even more aware of the ephemeral nature of the glossy. It is always the case that a different set of magazines will be available for perusal for the next visit. There is also a throwaway quality to the interaction with the magazine, a casual ‘glancing through’ while waiting my turn.

Mirrors are what I most associate with hairdresser. At no other stage of my life do I sit more or less still in front of my own image for 20 minutes or longer.

And mirrors and magazine are connected here, since at the hairdresser, the magazine is connected to the shaping of self. We might choose an image as the model for a shaping of our own haircut, so that there is, at least in fantasy, a kind of conflation of magazine image and the mirrored image of self. The hairdresser as a site exacerbates what is the logic of the magazine image anyway: an appeal to a kind of narcissistic identification with the image on the page.

This site draws out what I have always found with Christian’s erasure-based work: a curious specular quality, a kind of mirror in which an image is denied. Like a mirror, the erased surface of the magazine is, in semiotic terms, indexical to the body. In both cases what we see - both on the pages of this magazine and in the mirror - is physically caused by the body. I think this is why when I find myself examining these pages, and reading through those reduced traces of the erasing action of the body, it feels like tracing the course of a mirroring, but a mirroring which refuses a pattern of narcissism.

Having started with a kind digression I now wish to more or less leave behind the suggestions of this site.

I want to try to explain the experience of this object by talking about the relationship between actions or performance and the traces that are left behind. Specifically, I want to explore this relationship as a kind of drawing.

The relationship between actions or performances and what they leave behind has been the subject of several studies and exhibitions over the last five years or so, notably, Paul Schimmel’s LA show Out of actions, as well as exhibitions this year in London, at both Whitechapel and ICA, and the Liverpool Tate.

This recent spate is explained partly because the history of post-war performance is now 50 years old and the history of performance-based work within modernism is almost 100 years old. Contemplating these histories is, now more than ever, a history of residues. Mediating on these histories must also be a meditation on the relationship between the performance and its residues.

But this spate of exhibitions and studies is explained by the nature of performance. The problem of the relationship between performance and its trace is embedded in the nature of performance-based work itself.

In general, post-war performance art is characterised by an intense attraction to the terms of the present, an attraction that has been widely interpreted as a response to the scale of destruction seen with the Jewish Holocaust and the Atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. This attraction meant asserting the primacy of human subjects over inanimate objects, and its function was both a suspicion of relics and the expulsion of images.

But even for the artists who most aggressively pursued this assertion of human subjects over inanimate objects, most notably Japanese Gutai artists like Shōzō Shimamoto, Kazuo Shiraga, or Saburo Murakami, the question of how to manage the relics of their actions or performances was a vexed one.

Saburo Murakami’s work, Many Screens of Paper, 1956, which involved him leaping through a series of paper screens (in an action which seems perversely familiar to a Melbournian as a ritual of winter Saturday afternoons) left both the perforated screens and photographic images as traces. Murakami insisted on the screens being destroyed, though photographs remain.

Murakami’s dilemma reflects not simply a knot inside the nature of performance-based art, but a knot within iconoclasm itself. In the stunningly interesting publication, Iconoclash*, several writers point out the ambivalence of iconoclasm, that embedded within the history of the destruction of images is the generation of more images. Perhaps the most striking example of this contradiction is Marcus Gheerhaerts the Elder’s Allegory of Iconoclasm, 1566-68, a strikingly elaborate image documenting a great array of Roman Catholic crimes of idolatry. But as Joseph Koerner points out, iconophilia is both censured and preserved, since Geerhaerts himself is involved in creating a stunning image.

Allegory of Iconoclasm

Marcus Gheerhaets the Elder, Allegory of Iconoclasm, c.1566 –1568
etching 15” x 10.4”, British Museum, London

Similarly, on a more contemporary note, the Taliban destruction of the giant Buddhas at Bamiyan was presented as an expression of the Taliban prohibition on images. But their act also spurned a great array of images, a contradiction which the Taliban largely created by inviting foreign media to document their achievement.

The history of iconoclasm is tightly woven into the history of iconophilia, often in unexpected ways. Anyone who attended the launch of Christian’s project at his studio last week would surely have been struck by a similar paradox in the visual material massed in that studio.

From quite early on in post-war performance-based work artists have considered the way that traces of performances are what remains in the history books. It is traces that govern any given performance’s place within the discourse of contemporary art.

For some this conundrum was the object of play, like French artist Yves Klein. His Leap into the Void, jumping from the first floor of an apartment block, was (as far as can be determined from a variety of not entirely consistent sources) actually performed by the artist. But it was then “documented” in a falsified photographed which has become an icon of post-war art.

Where the action alluded to that utopian of human impulses - to transcend our limitation by gravity - the falsification of the documentation suggests a more complicated relationship between performance art and the desire for a world transformed, without mediation - or to borrow a phrase - for that moment which is revolution precisely because it is not televised.

For other artists the making of residues becomes part of the structure of the action or performance. Possibly no other artists did this more acutely than the German artist Joseph Beuys, whose performances and actions were regulated by, and in turn inflected the meaning of, a series of sculptural objects which he used and reused before configuring them as residues, often in vitrines not dissimilar in form to the one encasing Christian’s magazine. The placement of Beuys’ objects in glass boxes, with that deathly distance from our touch and handling familiar from Victorian museum cases, intensifies the sense of them being from and of a moment now irretrievable. It intensifies our encounter with them into a kind of looking locking reliquary, fetish and photo album.

One of Beuys’ most important works, May Day Sweep, 1973, in which he swept up the rubbish left by a May Day demonstration on Karl Marx Platz in the inner West Berlin suburb of Neu Kölln, made collecting indexical traces the very purpose and subject of the action. This act of archiving, using a broom (with its marked echo of the painter’s brush), created a sculptural mass which was a trace of two specific events, both the May Day demonstration and Beuys’ sweeping up (and succinctly implicated many others, historical and environmental).

But for me the relationship between action and trace is most interesting as a kind of drawing. By this I don’t mean drawing as a physical type (i.e. something done in charcoal on paper). I mean drawing as a system or structure. I see this is a two-part structure.

Firstly, a drawing is the trace of an activity.

Secondly, a drawing is a kind of proposition. That is, that trace of an activity is also a proposition.

An example: a very late drawing by Michelangelo, an artist in many ways at the centre of the Western tradition of drawing as an activity which has preparatory, empirical and speculative functions. The drawing is amongst the last of his surviving drawings. The anatomy of the male figure of Christ is largely made of a series of arcs, which record a kind of abbreviated movement of the arm and hand, suggesting a certain looseness but also the imprecision of aging hand. In this work we see drawing clearly as the trace of a series of complex manual gestures, an accumulation of marks which record the ‘movements of the hand and arm. This involves a kind of ‘stilling’. The drawing is the silent aftermath of an activity. In semiological terms it is an index. The drawing is physically caused by the artist’s movements in the same way that a footprint is caused by walking or my shadow is caused by my body. As I said before a drawing is the trace of an activity and the highly gestural nature of this drawing makes that quite clear.

Crucified Christ

Michelangelo, Crucified Christ, c.1560
black chalk, 10.9” x 9.3”, Count Antoine Seilern Collection, London

A drawing is also a proposition. And in this case, the drawing, that accumulation of traces, makes propositions: chiefly the representation of Christ on the cross, as well as, implicitly, a whole series of theological ideas and narratives around the meaning of that event. In semiological terms, this function of the drawing is iconical. It generates an act of reading and imagination through resemblance, one that disrupts, at least in part, our real sense of place and time.

So drawing is the trace of activity, and also a proposition. What is really interesting about drawing is the relationship between these twin features: the relationship between the drawing as a trace, and the drawing as a proposition.

In Michelangelo’s drawing, his loose arcs often articulate specific features of the human anatomy, like the connection between the torso and the leg around the hip and the groin. Other times, the marks have a less clear relation to anatomy. Around the armpits and arms for example it is difficult to dissemble corrections, specific muscles, and the imitation of blurring, the visual effect of movement, through a series of repeated arcs or pentimenti. In this drawing the imitation of movement occurs through Michelangelo’s own body movements, of which the drawing is a vivid trace, and through the appearance of movement, in the pentimenti. In other words, his gestures articulate a curious double imitation of movement, an echo across the two functions of the marks as traces and proposition. This echo is crucial to the pathos of the drawing: as indexical marks they reflect Michelangelo’s closeness to death, and, in the narrative proposed by the drawing, it is unclear if Christ is alive or dead, and whether the appearance of movement represents an animate body wrestling with pain, or a kind of light or release which reflects Christ’s divinity or prefigures His resurrection.

A second example: Jackson Pollock’s late painting Lavender Mist: Number 1, 1950, a work that wouldn’t be considered as a drawing for the purposes of museum categorisation, but which I think manifests the structure of drawing I have described. The painting functions as a trace. Its gluggy surface records Pollock’s swaying dripping technique of making marks on a horizontal unstretched canvas. Once tipped up to a vertical orientation the surface also becomes a proposition for a space to look into: an image of dematerialisation, of a matter of suspension or weightlessness, like mist, as the title suggests. This swinging between glug and air, between body and vapour, which is a large part of the intrigue of the work, is precisely the relationship between the work as a trace of an action and the work as a proposition. Interestingly, it also echoes Pollock’s own description of how his work came into being, how this intensely physical process would allow him to lose himself.

Lavendar Mist: Number 1

Jackson Pollock, Lavender Mist: Number 1, 1950
paint on canvas, 7’3” x 9’10”
Copyright 1998 Board of Trustees
National Gallery of Art , Washington, D.C.
Photo by Richard Carafelli

So how might we consider Christian’s object in terms of drawing?

In a literal sense, flicking through pages, we encounter a kind of drawing in the traces of manual work and in the feint residues of the images from the magazine pages.

But the magazine is also a drawing in the extended sense of drawing which I have just described.

It is the record of a highly dispersed action, dispersed temporally over five years, and dispersed in spatial terms, including hundreds of trips to and from people’s houses and workplaces (to drop off and collect the magazine) as well a sustained period of international travel. It was an extraordinary and vast action, and this vastness has, I think it is fair to say, solicited a wide range of responses, from incredulous admiration to dismay.

One of the most compelling features of the object that all this activity has left behind is just how compact it is. The relationship between the action and its trace is one of intense compression, a kind of vacuum-packing of time and space which is a large part of the apparition-like oddness of the work. It reminds me of what I understand to be the conceptualisation of Books of Hours, that they both record stretches of time through Biblical narrative, but that they also absorb stretches of time through the encounter with them, through reading them and meditating upon them. This double sense of containing time is an important part of the magazine, and is generated through the drawing structure I have described, through the relationship between the action and its residue.

Even as we encounter the work here in the vitrina at the hairdressers, as one double page, we are conscious of each page containing a stretch of time (which is inscribed on the page) as well as the jump from one page to another containing a stretch of time and a different place. So with each double page, we read a new passage of time and a new passage through space. These passages accumulate as we flip from double page to double page, somehow trying to hold in our heads, as is the nature of any encounter with a book, the pages which have gone before.

It is striking when you handle this object (which we are denied by its current form of exhibition) that this is an object transformed, at once physically diminished (in that it is markedly lighter for all that long suffering rubbing out) but also curiously elaborated. Although there is a melancholy about the object, it is also luminous. The erasing has eliminated the kind of luminosity of a glossy, that shine that seems to have materialised miraculously. It has replaced it with a luminosity which, in opposition to the nature of advertising, is based on exacerbating the presence of how the thing came into being. Whereas the luminosity of an advertisement is generally derived from an absence of indexical residues, specifically about the production of the merchandise (in other words, that sweatshop outside Jogjakarta needs to feel very distant indeed from the billboard on Bourke Street), the luminosity of this object is precisely a function of the process of its coming into being.

To return to drawing as a relationship between an activity and its trace, part of what is interesting about Christian’s work is that it draws out one possibility or possible trajectory from drawing: that is, a kind of visual language which is opposed to the dominant visual language of capitalism in two respects.

Firstly, it doesn’t show its subject. It has no immediate meaning through resemblance, or in semiological terms, through iconical signs. Its proposition, if you like, is a kind of looking and reading which is built around not showing, which assumes that understanding through seeing is never straightforward. Apart from Sylvester Stallone on the cover (with the benefit of twenty fewer years to his name), we are not shown anything by this magazine, and it requires acts of reading and looking which disrupt our normal spectatorship.

Secondly, the relationship between an action and its trace are articulated to always implicate the past in the present. Particularly set against the visual language of the glossy, this implication is markedly set against the amnesiac visual language which is the dominant form in our culture. The nature of the relationship between action and trace in drawing is that the past manifests itself through traces, which both act as records of the past but also suggests future actions. This is not a feature exclusive to drawing, since all radical actions in the past leave residues which in turn suggest future related radical actions. Christian’s object - this residue of five years’ work across many places and with many slightly sore hands involved - to me reads as a drawing, in large part because like most drawings I have seen and enjoyed in the past, it manifests a paradoxical impulse to both exacerbate the form of the present, as well as to reach outside the form of the present. The persistence of this object, a function of this paradox, is also its muteness.

Tom Nicholson
March 2004

Tom Nicholson is an artist, writer and PhD candidate at Melbourne University. His project Seven Days was seen in NEW04 at ACCA, Melbourne, while more recently he collaborated with Raafat Ishak on a work for the 2004: Australian Culture Now survey show at The Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia.

Tom Nicholson

Tom delivers his talk at Worksense Haircutters