April fools: The two Franks misfire

Justine Giles 2016 April fools The two franks misfire

Justine Giles, 2016. April fools: The two Franks misfire [watercolour, ink & graphite on paper, 297 x 420mm]

On the  first day of April 1987 NZ Post became a State owned enterprise rather than a government department.  My primary school class wrote letters to be sent on the first day of NZ post, and this is the one I received from my teacher (who was also my Aunty). The anomaly with this letter is that there is no 34 Bowman Road, it was sent to the wrong place (with no return address) but somehow got to me anyway.  As a result it bears two postmarks (or franks) one 1 April 1987 and the other 3 April 1987.  It may have been strangely prophetic as the next house I lived in was a number 34.

Frank means direct or straightforward, it is also the name for the postmark that includes the date and ensures postage.

I have an uncle called Frank.

Cockatoo Island: Embassy of the Real

Last week Mary and I travelled to the Sydney Biennale for the Vernissage where we spent three days exploring the art. The title of the 2016 Sydney Biennale is The future is already here – it’s just not evenly distributed, the works exhibited are divided into seven embassies of thought:

  • Embassy of the Real – Cockatoo Island
  • Embassy of Translation – Museum of Contemporary Art Australia
  • Embassy of Spirits – Art Gallery of New South Wales
  • Embassy of Non-Participation – Artspace
  • Embassy of Transition – Mortuary Station
  • Embassy of Stanislaw Lem – Mobile book stall
  • Embassy of Disappearance – Carriageworks


This post focusses on the Embassy of the Real.

Housed on historical Cockatoo Island, the Embassy of the Real is concerned with the body, physicality, space, and oddly a bit of the psychological. There is a sense of balancing the tangible outer world with the less solid realities of the mind.

William Forsythe, 2013. Nowhere and everywhere at the same time, no. 2. [Automated pendulums].

William Forsythe’s work consists of a long room strung with numerous pendulums that move on automated tracks, so that they are perpetually swinging. The viewer becomes part of the work by negotiating the space.  In order to avoid being hit by a pendulum, the viewer must move in and out, conscious of their steps, the pauses, and at the mercy of the prescribed (and automated) rhythm. Artist and choreographer Forsythe draws attention to our understanding of our own bodies, without music, he turns us into dancers.

This work left an enormous impression on me.  Art work that can “do” something to the audience is very powerful. Despite my art education, I have to admit that I am usually resistant to art that wants me to participate in a physical way: I am a thinker, and I like to approach things in my own time and on my own terms… that and I’m pretty awkward. I cannot explain what magic Forsythe wove here, but I could have played in this room for hours. This artwork made me reassess my body not just as a vehicle to move my brain around, but as a presence in the world, a physical manifestation with sophisticated perambulatory ability (although in fairness I was hit by a pendulum once).

Bharti Kher, 2013-15, Six women [Plaster of paris, wood metal, 123 x 61 x 95.5cm each] 

Exploring the body in a different way is Bharti Kher who presents six naked women sitting on wooden stools.  The women are cast in plaster from real-life models, the detail so convincing, it is almost as though they are living participants that could at any moment shift on their stool, raise a hand, or open their eyes.

The women portrayed are New Delhi prostitutes, and for me they question ideas of vulnerability: “Critically, the vulnerability of the women stems only in part from their nakedness; Kher’s sitters were sex workers, paid by the artist to sit for her, in a self conscious transaction of money and bodily experience” (Biennale of Sydney, 2016, p. 53).

There is a certain vulnerability in nakedness certainly, but I was also struck by the apparent age of some of the subjects: wrinkles, slouched shoulders, a certain birdlike fragility… and yet, these women have an undeniably strong presence in the room. Perhaps because they are not alone, they command the space. The more time I spent with them the more powerful they seemed, their stillness, their identical positions heightened their individuality. I stopped noticing their humble stools, and the raised platforms they sat on began to suggest to me majesty.

Chiharu Shiota, 2009/2016. Flowing water [beds, black thread].

The psychological was certainly at play in the work of Chiharu Shiota.  Installed in one of the island’s barracks Shiota draws her audience into a psychological dream space. The work consists of institutional metal framed beds leaned up against the walls behind a web of black threads that repeatedly criss-cross the space.

When we encountered this installation it had stopped raining outside, and we entered through a doorway that was still dripping run-off from the eaves. Going inside was like entering a different state of wakefulness, somewhere between the dreams and the daylight.  The thick web that enmeshed the walls and lowered the ceiling also seemed to create the illusion of mist, despite the bright light and sunny skies that had appeared outside. The threads were suggestive of something organic, a web, a nest, a network of connective tissue (the microscopic made massive). The beds connected this to the unconscious, or semi conscious, and was suggestive not only of the moments between dreaming and waking (or waking and falling asleep) but also suggested sickness, hospitals or institutions, entrapment.

Emma McNally, 2014-16. Choral field 1 – 12 [graphite on paper, 215 x 304cm]

I suspect people who draw are often drawn to (haha) other people who draw. Emma McNally’s impressive giant drawings absolutely captivated me.  The works are installed on large wooden supports, and are placed facing in different directions, the audience approaches the work across a zigzag boardwalk on the floor.

The works themselves are incredibly complex charts mapping unknown (imaginary?) territories.  They vary from intricate and precise to expressive and smudgy, suggesting a complex battle between chaos and order.


Untitled: The art of James Castle.


When I happened upon this book at the public library, Untitled: The art of James Castle, I was drawn in by its title Untitled (having never heard of James Castle).  Opening it I fell in love with his curious drawings. Castle (1899-1977) was a self taught artist from Idaho. He was born deaf and never learned to speak, he was also functionally illiterate.  His drawing are made in notebooks or on found ephemera, including packaging, envelopes or other scraps, and some were created using soot and saliva applied with tissue or sharpened sticks.  The contents of his drawings appear to have been inspired not only by his surroundings (scenes from the farm he lived on, portraits of his family) but also by other images he saw, as well as advertising, and text often as mundane as calendars.


It appears that Castle considered the landscapes and interiors to be the public or shared part of his practice and the text works were more like private musings (Bell, 2014, p. 22).  There is a strange notebook filled with an odd calendar, which starts out with recognisable months “… but these are quickly joined by murky abbreviations for new months, XERM, for example. Some months have thirty-one days but most have thirty-three, -four or -five days (always recorded in proper numerical order). About halfway through the notebook, numbers give way to months populated by letters, first in the same calendrical format, then in a reoriented, elastic grid, hinting at Castle’s effortless departure from the ordinary” (Bell, 2014, pp. 29 – 30).


Main Catalogue text

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.

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It is a platitude in the teaching of drawing that the heart of the matter lies in the specific process of looking. A line, an area of tone, is not really important because it records what you have seen, but because of what it will lead you on to see.

(Berger, 1960, p. 23).

Ways to draw

win, lose or draw

draw fire

draw blood

draw down

draw up

draw in

draw off

draw on

draw away

draw ahead

draw out

draw in your horns

draw a bead on

daggers drawn

draw yourself up

draw and quarter

beat to the draw

quick on the draw

luck of the draw

draw straws

draw the line

draw a blank

back to the drawing board.

Untangling Drawing Part Two: Cheating Time

Mark making is almost always about cheating time and challenging physical space. Think about it. Even the act of signing your name on a document is making a mark that represents your endorsement of something, so you don’t have to continually tell someone you agree, or take the time to travel distances to approve something in person. Writing is about communicating ideas across distance (either in time or space) writing enables people to communicate without having to be present. Similarly making images is also about communication but in a more abstracted or ambiguous way.

In the early days humans drew on cave walls, traced their hands: I was here, like the anticipation of future haunting. Those early renderings were literal traces (of hands) as well as figurative ones, the evidence of existence. There is certainly a strong link between the process of drawing and the concept of trace: “If drawing is the art of the trace, this would mean that it has a privileged relation to the non-visible” (Newman, 2003, p. 96). Drawing is perhaps the simplest expression of mark making and as such the formative example of expression.

Whatever else art is about, the impulse to create is also the impulse to mark the world, to sign it as you might a school desk “Justine waz here”, to prove you are present in the world, and to assure yourself that one day, long after you have gone, long after you have bled out of living memory, somewhere there will be proof you once existed.

Drawing is a temporal activity on numerous levels. Usually it is created for a future audience who are not present at the time of its making. But additionally, drawing holds within it the passage of time that consitutes its own making… drawing is the trace of time spent with a surface, inherent in the mark is the deliberate touch of the artist. It would seem that the immediacy of drawing, as the most pared back form of mark making, is able to hint at the intangible and the ephemeral “… drawing is closer to the movement of time, to lived temporality” (Newman, 2003, p. 96). John Berger also 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).

The process of drawing operates on different time streams. 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.

Paul Sietsema

Paul Sietsema all the world...

Paul Sietsema, 2002, all the world… [pen, ink, collage on paper, 52 x 37.5 cm]

Paul Sietsema Recto Verso

Paul Sietsema, 2008, Recto verso [ink on paper, 76.2 x 55.9cm]

Paul Sietsema Ship drawing

 Paul Sietsema, 2009, Ship drawing [ink on paper,129 x 178 cm each]