Do we make sense of trace as a sign of something no longer and therefore a mark of absence around which memory for what has been lost gathers itself? Is it, in other words something residual: a reminder that, like a fragment or ruin, survives? Or is the trace something less, insofar as its appearance is not a matter of survival or absence, but more like the hollowed out imprint of an impression: a past that has never been present? (Merewether, 1999, p. 164).

Trace is a problematic concept, because it is paradoxical.  It tells itself in binaries, it is at once something and nothing. It implies a past without adequately representing it.  Just as the process of memory is made up both remembering and forgetting, trace is similarly a manifestation of something that exists (or existed) but is no longer present.  But further than just being a question of absence, or loss, or lack, trace is somehow something all of its own.

One way of thinking about a trace would be to see it as a shadow, and if it is a shadow there is the implication of something more solid that is casting the shadow.  So the ‘real’ thing, the solid thing, the thing standing before the light, is the thing that causes a shadow to be cast.  But a shadow is not an illusion, just because it was caused by the thing and the light: it becomes something new, with a name: shadow.  It becomes other than the object that created it, and we can turn our back to that original object, and look only at the shadow, which is different and distorted.

Of course if I’ve learned anything from Plato’s cave it is that you never really know what is ‘real’ anyway, and it is likely that everything is just a trace of a trace.  The ‘real’ thing casting the shadow is just as much an deception as the shadow itself.

So, another way to look at trace would be in terms of erasure (see the parallels to forgetting?) where a mark made can never be removed to the point where it never was, the very existence of the mark is left as a trace, and that trace is held (perhaps tenuously) through action, memory and a vestige of the original that is now new and different.

Forgetting similarly has an element of trace to it.  It is wrapped up in the concept of remembering, because there is some remnant to point to the forgetting, otherwise we would not know we had forgotten, would not be aware that something was missing.

The trace becomes a past that has never been present, that is always under the sign – if it can be called a sign – of erasure.  (Merewether, 1999, p. 165).

Photographs: What they are, what they do

Photographers take photographs to remember a holiday, to record the growth of their children, to express themselves creatively, to record their view of the world or to change our perception of the world. Photographs can function as repositories for personal memories, as historic documents, as political propaganda, as surveillance tools, as pornography, as works of art. We think of photographs as fact, but they can also be fiction, metaphor or poetry. They are of the here and now, but they are also immensely potent time capsules. They can be downright utilitarian or they can be the stuff of dreams. (Badger, 2007, p. 7)

A Puppet, a Pauper, a Pirate, a Poet, a Pawn and a King

Visited the Auckland art gallery, and was thoroughly impressed to come across this exhibition featuring the artists Martin Boyce, Andreas Gursky, Thomas Demand, Wilhelm Sasnal, Kara Walker and… William Kentridge!

I had no idea it was on, so came upon the exhibition with all the delight of a surprise discovery!  I am absolutely thrilled in particular to have seen the work of Walker and Kentridge!

Walker’s video installation calling me from the angry surface of some grey and threatening sea (2007) was a filmed puppet-show featuring her characteristic silhouettes.  The narrative was a disturbing one, told with no words. My interpretation of it was that it was told in flashback, a black slave child (who we earlier see hobbling with the aid of a crutch) has his leg brutally sawn off by an angry master.  The child later sees his mother engaged in a sexual encounter with the same white man, and is enraged at her betrayal.  Instead of turning on the white man, he at once focusses all his anger on his mother and kills her, but it is an exceedingly complex relationship and it is clear that he loves and hates her in equal measures.

The drama, whatever the interpretation given it, is incredibly powerful as it is told simply through the black cut out silhouettes against a colour changing background.  There are moments when the puppeteers are visable behind this screen, but it is never distracting, rather it adds to the sense of storytelling, we are always aware that it is a narrative being related, a counter-fairytale with a tragic ending and no cloying moralistic message beyond what we take from it ourselves.

Kentridge’s work consists of three drawings and a video installation.  The drawings made up of the layering of marks and erasures to create a rich image.  The video installation What Will Come (Has Already Come) (2007) was like nothing I had ever seen!  Projected from the ceiling onto a round table/platform and then reflected in a aluminium cylinder in the centre.  The action played out, spinning round and round, across the table and cylinder.  What was seen on the surface of the table was distorted and back to front, and became clearer when watching the reflection on the central cylinder.  However, where you stood also affected the viewing: further away the cylinder merely reflected the room, to get the best view you have to stand right next to the table. It is absolutely mesmerising.  I recommend seeing it in person as the above clip really can’t do it justice.

Beaconsfield 101: Mimicry and slippage

Beaconsfield 101

Justine Giles, 2013, Beaconsfield 101 [Ink pen and watercolour on paper 295 x 420mm]

I’ve been thinking a lot about the process of reproducing.  One of the things I love most about it is the slippage that occurs through the intervention of machine and hand.  I have discovered that I prefer to work from copies of the original so that my art is twice removed… the end result is always a copy of a copy, which has usually been mediated by a machine in between (either a camera or a photocopier or both).  In this drawing the text slants down on the left hand side slightly to show the curve of a book that has been photocopied.  The hand rendering of the typeface riddles it with inconsistencies caused by human error, a tired unsteady hand, a brain that misreads the shape of the serifs.

When I went to reproduce the tea stain on this drawing, I thought about painting it on with tea, because it would be more authentic, and then I realised what a silly notion that was!  If I am interested in the slippage that occurs from mimicry it makes more sense to try to reproduce the colour of tea with a medium that, by reason of it not being the same liquid, can never quite get it right.

Beaconsfield 101 detail

Justine Giles, 2013, Beaconsfield 101 (detail). [Ink pen and watercolour on paper 295 x 420mm]

Evocative objects: Things we think with

Just a couple of quotes from Evocative objects: Things we think with.

Sherry Turkle on objects to think with:

In Paris, I read the work of the anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss, who described bricolage as a way of combining and recombining a closed set of materials to come up with new ideas.  Material things, for Levi-Strauss, were goods-to-think-with and, following the pun in French, they were good-to-think-with as well.  While in France, I realised that during my many hours with the memory closet I had done more than daydream ideas into old photographs.  When I first met the notion of bricolage, it already seemed like an old friend. (Turkle, 2007, p. 5).

Objects as uncanny:

Most objects exert their holding power because of the particular moment and circumstance in which they come into the author’s life.  Some however, seem intrinsically evocative – for example, those with a quality we might call uncanny.  Freud said we experience as uncanny those things that are “known of old yet unfamiliar.” The uncanny is not what is most frightening and strange.  It is what seems close, but “off,” distorted enough to be creepy. (Turkle, 2007, p. 8).

William Kentridge

Kentridge Felix in Exile

William Kentridge, 1994, Felix in exile [film still]. Retrieved from

William Kentridge’s work is both evocative and haunting.  He uses charcoal and pastel to create incredible animations in which the drawings are added to and subtracted from.  The images are often obliterated in the process, but there is always a trace left of what came before.  Born in South Africa, Kentridge’s work deals in both remembering and forgetting, and is often coloured by his experience of apartheid and the contrast between a violent external world and a safe, comfortable inner one (Cameron, 1999, p. 8 – 9). Continue reading

William Kentridge on Drawing.

What does it mean to say that something is a drawing – as opposed to a fundamentally different form, such as a photograph? First of all, arriving at the image is a process, not a frozen instant. Drawing for me is about fluidity. There may be a vague sense of what you are going to draw but things occur during the process that may modify, consolidate or shed doubts on what you know.  So drawing is a testing of ideas; a slow-motion version of thought.  It does not arrive instantly like a photograph. The uncertain and imprecise way of constructing a drawing is sometimes a model of how to construct meaning. What ends in clarity does not begin that way. (Kentridge as cited in Cameron, 1999, p. 8)