There’s a story that Pliny tells about the Corinthian potter Butades, and his daughter Kora. Kora’s lover is about to leave her for a time, and she is compelled to capture his silhouette. This story is used by Pliny to describe the origins of painting and of relief sculpture (Kora’s silhouette is then appropriated by Butades as he presses clay to it and turns it into something else), but it is also, more obviously, a story about drawing. Moreover it is a story about traces, shadows and haunting. What Kora does is depict something that is fleeting and distorted, a shadow, and does so in the most immediate way she can. Her impetus is not to create a portrait of her lover, but to capture a silhouette he has temporarily cast on the wall. In order to do so she must turn her back on her lover while he is still present, and reduce him to an outline. In the act of copying his shadow she holds on to her lover in a way she already realises is tenuous. The very act of drawing his shadow is a recognition of her understanding of the implication of absence.
What Kora is left with is not so much a portrait, as a trace; evidence of a (now absent) presence. What is a trace exactly? Tim Ingold, author of Lines: A brief history (2007) defines it in this way: “In our terms the trace is any enduring mark left on a solid surface by a continuous movement” (p. 43). But is it truly something visible? Or is it ephemeral like words left hanging in the air after the speaker has finished saying them, real but intangible, living entirely in our short-term memory? Does the action of trying to pin it down to a line or notation obliterate the trace entirely?
To me the trace is a haunting, visible, but perhaps tentative or insubstantial. The trace is not what it depicts: it refers to what is absent at the same time as being present as something else.
The word ‘temporal’ has two meanings. The first is to do with time; the other less obvious meaning is a relationship to the worldly or secular. So the temporal can refer to both the passage of time, an intangible concept, as well as a state of being, or existence in the world; presence.
Drawing holds within it the passage of time that consitutes its own making. It is the trace of time spent with a surface. John Berger notes the connection of drawing to time: “Isn’t the act of drawing, as well as the drawing itself, about becoming rather than being? Isn’t a drawing the polar opposite of a photo? The latter stops time, arrests it; whereas a drawing flows with it” (Berger, 2008, p. 124). Drawing has a somewhat unfinished quality; not only does it reference the gestures of its own creation, but it also suggests a continuation, this process of becoming. Drawing is used as a noun, the artwork, the tangible outcome, but it is also a verb, a method of making, the process of construction. Even as a word ‘drawing’ implies perpetuation.
Drawing is also a temporal matter for the artist, as the flow of time is understood differently. It is a process of anticipation, but it is not necessarily linear. A drawing appears slowly, adding and erasing. When I draw I am present in the moment, this moment, right now as my pencil touches the paper, but I am also present in the moment before and the moment after, because of the direction of movement. And at the same time I am somewhere else, somewhere internal, looking backward, looking forward, seeing the beginning and anticipating the end.
This sense of flow could also be used to describe the process of writing. However, the relationship between drawing and writing is often understood in opposites: where drawing is frequently used to record the visible, writing’s advantage is in its ability to convey the intangible. Nevertheless there are crossovers between these two modes particularly where they operate as trace.
In his book The Pleasure of the Text, Roland Barthes explores the idea of the text as a type of trace.
Text means Tissue; but whereas hitherto we have always taken this tissue as a product, a ready-made veil, behind which lies, more or less hidden, meaning (truth), we are now emphasizing, in the tissue, the generative idea that the text is made, is worked out in a perpetual interweaving; lost in this tissue – this texture – the subject unmakes himself, like a spider dissolving in the constructive secretions of its web. Were we fond of neologisms, we might define the theory of the text as an hyphology (hyphos is the tissue and the spider’s web).
(Barthes, 1975, p. 64).
Here Barthes talks about text as subject and content, as form and meaning. The metaphor of the tissue serves to illustrate how text itself is a layering of meaning; the text is ghost of the idea, a way of drawing attention to, or translating the concept for, an abstract representation. Or perversely to translate a set of abstract concepts into a set of abstract symbols, albeit symbols for which we have the key.
Rebecca Solnit in Faraway Nearby (2013) similarly talks about the ethereal nature of text:
The object we call a book is not the real book, but its potential, like a musical score or seed. It exists fully only in the act of being read; and its real home is in the head of the reader, where the symphony resounds, the seed germinates. A book is a heart that beats in the chest of another. (Solnit, 2013, p. 63)
When Solnit talks about text as ‘potential’ she is talking about the ability for text to suggest rather than to dictate or teach. This is text as trace. Here text performs the feat of opening new, unique and personalised worlds to the reader, a reader who is expected to be a participant in the interpretation of meaning. Which brings that person very close to the role they play when looking at a drawing. The interpretation of meaning, in words and imagery (as well as words as imagery) involves unraveling the spectre of an idea.
‘Hauntology’ is a term coined by Jacques Derrida in Spectres of Marx (1993) to describe the philosophy of haunting; the power for the past to continue to shape and influence the future; to return. While Derrida’s focus was applying this terminology to Marxism, the term itself has proved useful to many writers from a multitude of disciplines to describe transformation and the shifting territory between being and not being, presence and absence.
It is precisely those apparent contradictions that define the term, in his article for the journal French Studies, “État Présent: Hauntology, spectres and phantoms,” Colin Davis states: “Hauntology supplants its near-homonym ontology, replacing the priority of being and presence with the figure of the ghost as that which is neither present nor absent, neither dead nor alive” (Davis, 2005, p. 373). The spectral is a strange mid-ground, neither one thing nor the other.
The idea of haunting, for me, is closely related to trace. Trace uses what is present to refer to what is absent; but trace is not describing something that is missing, so much as it is describing something that is altered. Hauntology extends this idea by drawing attention to the fact that what is missing is present as a spectre; that is to say, while not literally present, it cannot be said to be fully absent either.
In the article titled “Spectral Bodies: Derrida and the philosophy of the photograph as historical document” Nick Peim paraphrases Derrida “… the very business of representation – where one, present, element stands in for another, absent, element – is necessarily ‘ghostly’ or spectral: that is, its sense necessarily depends on something that is not there” (Peim, 2005, p. 74). Therefore it would seem that representational art by its very nature is hauntological, because it depicts, and it re-presents.
Representational art doesn’t have exclusive ownership of the concept of trace. A found object may also have a haunting presence through the trace of its unknown history. While a representational artwork can reference trace through distance and absence, a found object resonates with a different kind of trace: primarily it is present as itself (there is no stand-in or mediated image), but it too references more than just what is visually presented. It is significant because of suggested history. A found object presented as art object is altered, its meaning is no longer the same meaning it had in the world, it becomes a stand-in for an idea.
Often the distinction between drawings and found objects is seen in terms of authenticity versus fiction. A drawing interrogates reality, whereas a found object seems to embody it. A drawing is a fiction because of the transformation that takes place where the subject is abstracted through line, manipulated onto a surface: Deanna Petherbridge in The Primacy of Drawing suggests, “Drawing… is subversive of reality, even when it uses languages of verisimilitude, because a line is an abstraction, a cunning suggestibility or a bold bodily trace” (Petherbridge, 2010, p. 426). It is tempting therefore to look at a found object as authentic, the trace of a real experience, but perhaps the object too becomes representation in the context of the gallery. Does a found object become fiction when it becomes art? When the context changes, the way we read the object changes, so therefore meaning must change also.
In a drawing class the tutor will explain that drawing is really about looking. To learn to draw is to learn to see the world in finely honed details. But the English language likes versatility in words, ‘to draw’ also aptly describes a motion (literal and figurative) as in; to draw out. In addition ‘to draw’ can also mean to frame or formulate; to draw conclusions. So drawing is not just about seeing, but also about extracting information, attracting it, or pulling it out.
When I think of my own work, I understand it all as drawing, even those seemingly unmediated items (Can anything truly be unmediated?) because they are all about looking closely, and drawing out traces of information.
There are two key ideas I have been grappling with that challenge notions of time and create a trajectory in two directions; the concept of trace which is primarily a backward pull, and the concept of potential which pulls forward into the future. Can drawing simultaneously embody both trace and potential?
I first began to interrogate the idea of trace by translating found photographs into drawings, to discover whether the transformation would gain from the slippage. I recognise that photographs and drawings operate differently in their relationship to time, (as Berger suggests, one freezing time, the other expanding it), but I was also curious about assumptions around truth and reality in these two mediums. It is generally accepted now that the camera can lie, but its verisimilitude is trusted more than that of a drawing. However trace and potential are subtle concepts, I came to realise that the tiny photograph used to create the drawing Space Ship could also speak to the notion of trace without needing a layer of mediation. In fact, in the ‘trusted’ medium of photography, a space ship that is clearly not a space ship became even more enigmatic.
My interest in writing as image first manifest itself in books I found that carried not only a printed typeface but also examples of other people’s handwriting. It occurred to me that there were two sets of communications here: the legitimate one of the author/publisher (the voice of the printed book); and an informal communication belonging to the giver/owner. These interventions gave the object a personalised history, but they also became orphaned sentiments as soon as they left the hands of the intended recipient. They pointed to a specific connection that was now severed from its context. In other words they operated very expilicitly as trace. My translation of both type and handwriting into drawing was in effect uniting the two communications while leaving behind a trace of my own.
Some of my source material has defied a drawn mediation. These objects needed to exist as themselves, because they already held their own and could be manipulated in other ways to tell the story.
A framed calculator is no longer a calculator; when its function in the world is removed, it becomes image. It is divorced from its intended use, and instead becomes a story about its connection to the person who once owned it. All stories, even with real protagonists, are fictions.
A paperback, Justine, is more than the sum of its words. In addition to being a text it is also an object. It is drawn in two directions; it is potential, because it is a book that can be read, but it is also a trace, because it is an object that has been held. There are other layers of complexity too, because trace and potential are evident in the way the discolouring of the once-white cover, and even the page edges, reference the sullying of the main character in the story; so that the life of the object has come to allude to the content of the book. Additionally, the link between the title character and the artist, draws connections outside of the object itself teasing out a relationship between a fictional character and a story being created about identity.
Is it only potential that pulls forward? Is it possible for trace to project itself into the future? Perhaps they are the same thing, and potential when seen in retrospect becomes trace? If trace – potential is a continuum, then our perception of where something sits in that continuum is relative to our own positioning in time.
In a potter’s studio in Corinth, a girl is drawing an outline on the wall. She does it intuitively, impulsively, optimistically grasping at shadows. She is already imagining a time when she will look at that outline and think of the man who is right now still in the room with her.