A Parliament of Lines

Originally, ‘thing’ meant a gathering of people, and a place where they would meet to resolve their affairs. As the derivation of the word suggests, every thing is a parliament of lines.

(Tim Ingold in the introduction to Lines: a brief history, 2007)

Exhibition at the City Art Centre, Edinburgh, Scotland, 5 May – 8 July 2012

Piers Art Centre, Orkney, Scotland, 30 March – 8 June 2013

RMIT Gallery, Melbourne, Australia, 28 June – 17 August 2013

Tim Ingold. An enigmatic character if ever there was one.  In Lines: a brief history, he highlights the lack of any scholarly approach that focuses on the line as a core of study, stating that he wrote the book: “as an open invitation to join an enterprise” of the study of the line. Such a call has been taken up by curator Euan Gray, the culmination of which is this show: “A Parliament of Lines aims to explore how drawing is being used in current contemporary Art practice. The exhibition seeks to question what constitutes a drawing, at times exploring its boundary with painting, animation and photography” (Euan Gray, in the exhibition’s book). I’ve long been intrigued by Ingold’s work, so perhaps it comes as no surprise that the title of the show immediately drew me in.

All artists involved claim to have some kind of connection to Scotland – by birth, by upbringing, or by education. So therein lies the second conceptual motivation for the show.  Thirdly, the show has five different themes around which various pieces are grouped:

  • Figuration
  • Abstraction
  • Landscape
  • Sculptural investigation
  • Film, photography and reproduction

But while these notions exist in the accompanying video and publicity material, the layout of the exhibition is not so strongly grouped – and so much the better for it.  While I was most intrigued by those pieces in the ‘landscape’ section, I was also drawn to Ainslie Yule’s sculpture sketches. Out of the 15 artists exhibiting, it is to four that I wish to turn my attention: Ainsley Yule, Layla Curtis, Graeme Todd, and Sam Griffin.

Spiritual Space: Sam Griffin – Bring the Good News, Not Now but Soon; Ruin Value; Zeitbeger (pencil on paper); Huey, Dewey and Louie (pencil and graphite on paper).

A recent article on the Cambridge University research pages considered the assertion by archaeologist Dr Susan Oosthuizen that the search for Britishness can be found through our connection to the land – a connection not only through space, but time: old traditions that saw us heft to the land are still reflected in modern practices, be they politics, community, or subversive movements. As I looked at Griffin’s work (before having read the Cambridge piece), I was struck by sense that the ancient, temporally distant, can resonate so strongly.

Ruin Value, Sam Griffin. From the Schirman and De Beaucé website

In Ruin Value, we see a tomb, crudely constructed from several upright stone plinths, with a stone plinth roof.  No clue is given as to whether this drawing is taken from a real relic, or if merely a construct of the artist’s mind.  Either way, there is a mystery to the tomb: who made this? who was it for? is it actually a tomb? But this is not all the picture shows.  To the left and right of the tomb, we see two geometric shapes.  The left, in particular, shows a Flower of Life, a sacred geometry symbol that has captured the imagination of many, as something that may just hold a key to the mysteries of a spiritual universe and existential meaning. Personally, this is not a thought that particularly appeals to me.  But conversely, it is not something I would wish to rule absurd.  To me, the presence of an ancient monument next to potentially spiritually loaded geometric patterns speaks of this connection with the land that can tie us back through time.

Permeable Places: Layla Curtis – Glasgow Index; Edinburgh Index (ink on tracing paper).

These are drawings that are partial copies of Glasgow and Edinburgh street maps.  Why partial?  The bulk of both cities are shown, yet the partiality is through only showing street names.  In a move that initially seems counter to Ingold’s call, all lines in the maps have been removed.  But of course, the lack of a solid line denoting the street edge does not mean there are no lines – rather that we are forced to consider what a solid line can come to mean in representation of place.

Glasgow Index, Layla Curtis. From the artist’s website.

In a world of public spaces and privatised enclosures, we have come to know where we can be – and where we can’t.  Yet take away the lines, and you are left with a map of possibilities, not confinement, one of permeability, not boundaries.  As I walked through the exhibition, I came first to the Glasgow drawing.  I have been to Glasgow a handful of times, but it is not somewhere I know well.  I can get about the centre on foot, find suitable transport and roads to get further out, but I lack a comprehensive understanding of how it all joins up.  And this was the beauty of the map.  Where there are no roads; this map shows no markings.  So that huge swathe of largely wordless space snaking through the west of the city must be a river, presumably the Strathclyde.  A closer look and one can see the odd road crossing over the river as a bridge, evidenced solely by the street name. The Edinburgh map, on the other hand, had an instant familiarity, mostly from pouring over my OS and A-Z maps.  But again, the spaces stand out: the expanse of the Meadows and Bruntsfield Links (besmirched by Melville Drive cutting through); the name-encircled Arthur’s Seat; the possible gap of the narrow and crowded Water of Leith.  Everything is possibility, potentiality.  Maybe, we could go further, and present a blank page. No names, no lines, nothing.  Just pure, potential experience.  As has been said before: “The drawing board is a map with no references“.

Sublime Landscapes: Graeme ToddMount Washu (acrylic, ink and varnish on canvas); untitled; untitled (ink, acrylic and varnish on panel).

Todd’s three large paintings shown at the exhibition feature some of the elements that make landscape painting what we have come to know it as: the topographical features, the trees, the buildings. But not all elements are present. At first look, any three-dimensional perspective is missing.  One cannot easily tell what is in front, what is behind. It is as though it is a collage of landscape elements, all shot through with a deep vermillion, crowding in from behind.  It is almost as if Kant’s sublime has been abstracted to its extreme, but just short of losing the very recognisability that makes the sublime possible in the first place.  Perhaps Todd’s work can take us one step further: didn’t Bruno Latour once say that distance is a myth? I wouldn’t like to go that far.  But it certainly seems as if Todd’s work encourages us to dispel the notion of landscape as something only far off and removed; an antidote to the myth of the gaze: in Mount Washu, the house is such a size that it is unlikely to be reachable by hand. But its immediacy stands for itself: it, and everything else in this landscape image, become of the viewer, the abstracted and disconnected elements create a single experience where everything is tied in together; the single-colour wash of the background crossing the boundaries of the lines between tree and cliff, drawing us in, troubling the boundaries between viewer and viewed.

People in the Landscape: Ainslie YuleStructured Wave; Drawing for Sculpture A; Drawing for Sculpture B (pencil and wash on paper).

In The Orchard, E. A. Hornel

Drawing for Sculpture A and Drawing for Sculpture B seem to be showing physical features of a landscape – perhaps some kind of bank.  Drawn onto this is Yule’s sculpture – seemingly of a stepped structure, utilising the form of the bank.  While much could be said of the intrinsic beauty of such fine architectural drawing, it was the surroundings to the central point to which I was most drawn.  Across both Sculpture A and Sculpture B, there appears a series of smudges – sometimes fingerprints in paint, sometimes tiny ink spills.  What are these splodges meant to represent?  What are we being shown here?  I do not know what the artist’s intentions were, but to me, these smudges represent people. But not the detailed characters one might expect of the ‘artist’s impression’; rather these have no strong definition.  These are but fleeting ephemera, the ghosts of the people who have yet to visit the sculpture, should the dream ever be realised.  Not people of ponderance, but of transience, drifting through, with no clear line between their body and their surrounds. Interestingly, there happened to be another exhibition showing at the same venue – Art and the Garden.  One piece here caught my attention, and goes some way to offering credence to my understanding of Yule’s work. E. A. Hornel’s 1898 piece In The Orchard, in its carefree and slapdash painting, shows Victorian children playing amongst some apple trees.  But where does the soft colours of the dresses end and the lush greens and reds of the apple trees begin?  Who holds the fray in this scene?  Do we even need something to hold the fray?

Just what are these Lines of which we Speak?

I wrote part of this post in the National Library of Scotland, surrounded by thousands of lines, mostly short ones, defining words in dictionaries.  I finished this post in a local library, hemmed in on two walls by an exhibition of tapestries. Truly it is lines that come to define us.  And just as Tim Ingold reminds us, the life of lines (and lines of life) is multitudinous:

What do walking, weaving, observing, storytelling, singing, drawing and writing have in common? The answer is that they all proceed along lines.

So there we have the lines through time of Sam Griffin (and Dr Oosthuizen), the dissolution of the map lines, and the opening up of places of Layla Curtis, the troubling boundary/non-boundary lines of Graeme Todd’s sublime landscapes, and the hard lines of sculpture and their opposition to the blurry edges of people in Ainsley Yule’s work.  Lines are everywhere, but lest we forget that lines are not the definition of existence, or of people’s place in the world or landscape.  Lines are merely the constitutive meshwork of which we all fall into: like the tapestries around me, where the lines of the thread weave into one another to create a surface, so too do lines of landscape cross-over and knot, bringing meaning, substance and connection through time and space.

Black Box Shorts 1: Surface & Layers and 2: A Sense Of Unease. Edinburgh Film Festival 2012

Amongst the reams of narrative-based, feature-length films that makes up the majority of the Edinburgh Film Festival programme, there also features a collection of experimental films.  Foremost among them, is the Black Box series, with each showing organised around 4 collections of films, each with a different theme or focus. There are also two feature-length films. I’ve always considered the Black Box films a highlight of the festival for me, focussing as it does around exploring notions of time, existence, place, boundary and connection. I want to talk about collection 1 and 2 just now, viewed back-to-back on the 29th June 2012.   Hopefully parts 3 and 4, later today, will also stir some thoughts within me.

Black Box Shorts 1: Surface and Layers

  1. Rujak – Kenneth Feinstein/Indonesia, Singapore/2011/2 min 35 sec/DCP
  2. Under the Shadow of Marcus Mountain – Robert Schaller/USA/2011/No dialogue/BW/7 min
  3. Curious Light – Charlotte Pryce/USA/2011/English dialogue/Colour/4 min
  4. Landfill 16Jennifer Reeves/USA/2011/No dialogue/Colour/9 min
  5. tricolor – Martina Heyduk/Austria/2011/No dialogue/Colour/8 min
  6. Heavy Eyes (Schwere Augen) – Siegfried A Fruhauf/Austria/2011/No dialogue/BW/10 min
  7. Deep Red – Esther Urlus/Netherlands/2012/No dialogue/Colour/7 min 15 sec
  8. Chromatic Cocktail 180 Proof– Kerry Laitala/USA/2011/No dialogue/Colour/8 min
  9. Never a Foot Too Far, Even – Daïchi Saïto/Canada/2012/No dialogue/Colour/14 min

Black Box Shorts 2: A Sense Of Unease

  1. Untitled – Karl Erik Brøndbo/Norway/2011/No dialogue/Colour/11 sec
  2. Three Warning Signs – Eytan Ipeker/Turkey/2011/No dialogue/BW/3 min 14 sec
  3. Carbon – Craig Webster/USA/2012/English dialogue/BW/9 min 20 sec
  4. God Is in the Roots (Dieu est dans les racines) – Peter Snowdon/Belgium/2012/French dialogue with English subtitles/Colour/14 min 47 sec
  5. I Own a Carousel – Lori Felker/USA/2011/English dialogue/Colour/6 min 50 sec
  6. Europa – Telemach Wiesinger/Germany/2012/No dialogue/BW/20 min
  7. Barge Dirge – Lindsay McIntyre/Canada/2010/No dialogue/BW/7 min
  8. Habitat – Robert Todd/USA/2012/No dialogue/BW/9 min
  9. A Place to Come (Un Luogo a Venire) – Flatform/Italy/2011/Italian dialogue with English subtitles/Colour/7 min 30 sec
  10. Landfill -Andrew Kötting, Curious/UK/2011/English dialogue/Colour/3 min 37 sec
  11. Disquiet -SJ Ramir/New Zealand/2011/No dialogue/Colour/8 min 15 sec

Of the first two selections, I imaged I would take most from the first collection, though the theme, Surface and Layers, was predictably vague.  Of this first selection, the ones that really struck me were Rujak, with its double image focused on one layer on a rain-shimmering puddle, and on the layer of different seens of movement, such as ornamental fish (suggesting a depth to the puddle that was not there), creepy-crawlies and the view from a train window, replete with nodding telegraph poles and associative hypnotic lulling.  The busier the scene, the less obvious was it that these views were transposed onto a puddle.  Not until a cyclist pedaled through the water did one get jolted from the view from the train.  Then there was Landfill 16, 16mm film that has been buried in dirt, dug up, with the subsequent partially decomposed film played.  The mottled, mouldy, staccato result was reminiscent of my early forays into tobacco smoking, where closing my eyes would lead to intense visual textures, that seemed at once cloying and suffocating, but somehow distant, out of reach. Finally there was Never a Foot Too Far, Even, one film shot from two projectors, with a time delay.  Each frame was manipulated individually, to create a haunting, juttering of images, creating new and ghostly visual ephemera.

But it was selection 2: a Sense of Unease that really captured me. The selection title was misleading. As the curator began her introduction of the films, she invoked Freud’s trope of the uncanny (German: unheimlich, meaning unhomely, unfamiliar), which far better described the films. Some certainly created a sense of unease; Three Warning Signs for example, consisted of a mostly blank screen with a continuous high-pitched tone throughout, while God Is In The Roots shown footage of a rope acrobat performing a high art piece, while a narration of someone who apparently was lost in a woods for several days retells her story (the rope acrobat and narrator are actually one and the same). The narration was a fascinating treatise on how perhaps, just perhaps, we shouldn’t consider ourselves as so disconnected from nature as we often do.  The ‘God in the roots’ is seemingly a reference to flying birds who see the green grass as sky, as their limit, with god being beyond that green boundary, unreachable: converse yet similar to that of the Judeo-Christian beliefs of the West.  Most affectingly, for me, was the narrator’s understanding that she may just die in those woods, and as such will return to the nature that nourished her.  But, she concedes: “This is not my nature”.

However, the film that really caught my imagination was Flatform’s A Place To Come. The opening scene shows a landscape, shrouded in mist.  As the mist thins, a lush green field appears, with leafy hedge on the right, and tall trees on the not-so-distant horizon. At first, this looks like an archetypal English meadow, though the Italian narration throws this assumption into doubt. As we contemplate the scene, the narrator describes another setting: a man is walking, he’s followed by a dog several metres behind; following them both another dog paces excitedly towards them, plane trees in the background… – a story not reflected by what we witness. The mist then returns, obscuring all view, with only a tuft of grass at the very fore remaining.  As the mist lifts once again, we see a new scene – the one previously described by the narrator. And so it follows: visual follows audio. After a few such cycles, a new line of narration is introduced, interspersed amongst the scenic descriptions. The narrator asks us to consider the possibilities of other worlds. What does it mean for something to be possible? If something has no probability of existing, then that makes it impossible. But if something is probable, for example, that other worlds exist, then we can rightly say that these worlds are possible – that it is possible for infinite worlds to exist.  Or so the narrator’s straw man would have us believe. But the problem is, that a probability is by no means a certainty. As long as a probability is no more than a statistical category, then the other worlds do not exist. Their existence rests not on probability, but rather actuality. In other words, so the narration goes, a probability means an impossibility of existence.  It is now that the significance of the pre-emptive narration can be realised: the narration is constructing a world. It is probable that such scenes described could exist, but we come to realise just how false these scenes are, their impossibilty. These are montages, digitally constructed, just to be destroyed once we see through the surface sheen. But I wonder: Does this hold significance for our understanding of landscape? The moment we describe something, it becomes imbued with values. But can we ever truly define a landscape? For while it’s fair to take value in and from a landscape, can we really place value on a landscape? Can we ever truly define the event before its existence? Can we ever be sure about A Place To Come?