Bounded by a continuous, modulated pencil line, the image of a squat, flightless bird with a mournful human face arrives in the middle of a white field projected onto the gallery wall. This form quickly transitions through a series of uncanny deformations: bird parts become human parts, boy becomes girl, face becomes mask, mask mutates into fruits and flowers. Accompanying these shifts is an atmospheric soundtrack, which for now remains a barely modulated sonic cloud. These are just the first few seconds of Flora (2009), one of a series of four ‘film drawings’ by Alice Maher, which explore the relationship between the drawn line, imaginative transformation and the moving image.1
The film drawings are the product of a laborious process of inscribing, scanning, erasing, re-inscribing and re-scanning; each one documents the extended transformations of one single drawing on A4 Hahnemuhle paper. Not every stage in this process is given visibility, however: the mutations progress largely by way of a sequence of stills which report on quite considerable alterations rather than an animated continuum displaying each increment. Nevertheless, the visible erasures mean that the physical effort of production is built into each work’s final form: the shadow of previous states is always cast upon movements in the present. The resulting films last between three and seven minutes and are projected on a loop, delivering a sense of unending metamorphosis.
Contrasting with CEL animation, then, which requires a new drawing for each frame, Maher’s works unfold from a single, densely re-worked sheet. Together with the work of William Kentridge and Naoyuki Tsuji, for example, Maher’s films raise the question of the condition of drawing within an age of digital media and the moving image.2 The ground of Maher’s drawings is a palimpsest, a surface overworked and reworked, dramatizing the visibility of ‘analogue’ erasure as opposed to the sheer I/0 logic of digital data and its deletion.3 Erasure works differently: it is partial, incomplete, and, unlike the instantaneous removal of pixels or characters from the computer screen (if not the hard drive), the material mark requires more pressure and persuasion in its leave-taking. The films therefore raise various formal and technological questions, which play out alongside Maher’s exploration of a varied iconography pertaining to the representation of femininity and to the affective dramas of subjective life.
The nature of the space in which Maher’s figures arrive and mutate is left indeterminate throughout: without any specified environment, they seem instead to inhabit a mutable space parallel to that of the mind, the page becoming an elastic arena of seemingly endless transformative possibilities. Indeed, the forms and characters that appear in Maher’s films are often fantastical, improbable, even impossible—products of imaginative life let loose in the repositories of myth and folklore, rather than of the observation of objects in the material world (although these certainly come in too). As in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, a powerful presence in Maher’s work more broadly, these forms enjoy (or endure?) the capacity to move between animal, vegetal and mineral states.4 There is fluidity not just between things but between classes of things. In Flora, as the title suggests, humans frequently sprout branches, roots and leaves. These strange hatchings, growths and hardenings take on metaphorical resonances, as if aspects of the psyche—the spreading of desire, the building of emotional connections, the toughening of the ego’s defences—were figured in the way in which bodies are augmented, doubled, cut apart, fused together, covered, bound, pierced, protected and otherwise reshaped.5 The succession of images seems to figure the travails of the psyche. In this respect Maher’s work aligns with such artists as Louise Bourgeois, Kiki Smith and Rosemarie Trockel, who, albeit in very different ways, put figurative drawing into the service of finding a language for modes of embodiment shot through with the warpings, weight, rivenness and pleasures of the emotional life.6
Mid-way through Flora the film’s quasi-protagonist, a constantly shape-shifting female figure, becomes amorously involved with a male character. Naked together, she stands through the very centre of his supine body, looking down at his face. Hair begins to cover her body, spreading, becoming more dense, and eventually covering both figures in a thick mesh. The hair on their heads then flows outwards creating a thick field of interwoven lines, as if conducting an electrical charge (Trevor Knight’s soundtrack enforces this connection). In the next sequence the pattern is repeated, this time with him standing through her. Their bodies now become covered with spots, which multiply and invade the air, gathering into a swarm that buzzes insistently around the couple. How to read or to feel these charged motifs? As signs for libidinal transfer? Emotional interference? Gathering anxiety or excitement? The quality may not be specified, but the intensity builds nonetheless.
Such loaded motifs are punctuated by the arrival of a wide array of signs drawn from the innumerable repositories of cultural life: religious iconography, folklore, book illustration, and the history of art. Remaining with Flora alone, viewers might recognize Velazquez’s Infanta, one of the Children of Lír, Leda and the Swan, and (ambiguously) Medusa. These are joined too by everyday characters from the modern world, which insist upon the contemporary purchase of Maher’s project: a woman dressed for the town in a skimpy dress and heels, and the casual slouch of a semi-naked youth in baggy combats. Indeed, various ‘low’ points of reference rub shoulders with ‘high’ culture, with none given particular priority, just as mythical entities share a space with base bodily pleasures and functions; frequently slipping into Rabelaisian mode, Maher has her figures urinating just as she hints at signs of elevation.7 As in much of Maher’s previous work her negotiation of cultural symbols and hierarchies in the film drawings is both playful and irreverent, sampling and colliding disparate forms of content. Indeed, the artist has a longstanding interest in art’s relationship with popular culture and everyday life (while a student in the 1980s she wrote a dissertation on Pieter Brueghel, for example). Maher’s work has consistently aimed not only at an iconographical repertory, but also at a register of earthy, bodily pleasures and pains, addressing direct sensory experience, or at least the availability of the memory of such.8
What of the form of expression here too, the combination of drawing, erasure and the moving image? Drawing (together with sculpture) has long been at the centre of Maher’s practice. This is not in the sense of drawing being at the root of her work in other media, but rather of drawing in a more ‘major’ key. Maher’s work in the medium has most often adopted a large scale: from The Thicket series (1990), where drawing provided a vehicle for the exploration of embodied experience running parallel to (but avoiding the heroic rhetoric of) Neo-Expressionist painting; to the looming Ombres series (1997), comprising a company of menacing, fourteen-foot charcoal spectres that tower over the viewer; to the evanescent repetitions of the Continuous Drawings (2000), dramatizing the play of subtle difference within a structure of interminable repetition; and the silhouetted, silky, Bosch-sampling charcoal series, The Bestiary (2007).9 In the Ombres the question of scale is particularly dramatized as here drawing moves not only beyond its usual modest sketchbook dimensions, but escapes the scale of the picture as such.10 Maher’s film drawings similarly represent a significant departure from drawing’s conventions, expanding beyond both the surface of the page and the address to visual perception alone. Indeed, once installed, the works become immersive environments, with the projected images accompanied by Knight’s soundtrack, which adds emphasis, accent and inflection to the succession of images.11
Given that much of Maher’s sculptural work might be connected to Surrealism—references have been made to Meret Oppenheim in particular12—it might be tempting to frame the contingent, unpredictable unfolding of Maher’s film drawings to the Surrealist automatism, which André Breton referred to as a ‘true photography of thought’.13 But while Maher’s imagery is often psychically charged, her forms seem to transform themselves by way of the creative mobility of the imagination rather than by the unconscious logic of condensation and displacement so central to Freud’s ideas. In 1999, Maher was invited to select and curate an exhibition of drawings from the Hugh Lane collection.14 The two drawings she singled out for particular attention were Keith Henderson’s undated Asleep and Paul Klee’s Anima Errante (1934). The former image of a sleeping girl is rendered in a style reminiscent of book illustration, a popular mode that Maher’s own drawings frequently recall; the latter is a non-figurative work by the Bauhaus master, who was never invested in drawing as the revelation of the Freudian unconscious so much as a contingent, exploratory journey set in motion.15 Maher’s film drawings have much more in common with the Klee’s idea of ‘taking a line for a walk’ in the generation of new forms and imagery, than with the manifestation of ‘latent’ repressed contents.16
Although with significant differences, Maher’s working method recalls the ‘Drawings for Projection’ of South African artist William Kentridge.17 Kentridge also proceeded by way of a lengthy process of drawing, erasing and photographing in making these works. For him, the process of moving back and forth from drawing to camera, which he describes as ‘stalking the drawing,’ generates a kind of objective chance, which the artist names fortuna.18 Whereas to produce a traditional animation, a studio needs to work out the content of the film fully in advance, Kentridge describes fortuna as a contingent and transformative agency that guides him from one sequence to the next, enabling the development of visual ideas that were not (and perhaps could not have been) planned out ahead of time.19
Indeed, for both artists the laborious cycle of drawing, erasing, photographing and redrawing becomes a technology designed to yield contingent surprises, somewhere between chance and pre-determination. It becomes a new medium calibrated to make space for the arrival of unforeseen possibilities, constituting a privileged site for the ‘workshop of the mind’ as it fabricates thought, to use the language of Heinrich von Kleist,20 who, in an extraordinary essay entitled, ‘On the Gradual Production of Thoughts Whilst Speaking’ (1805–6), wrote:
Speech is not then at all an impediment; it is not, as one might say, a brake on the mind but rather a second wheel running along parallel on the same axle. It is a quite different matter when the mind, before any utterance of speech, has completed its thought. For then it is left with the mere expression of that thought, and this business, far from exciting the mind, has, on the contrary, only a relaxing effect.21
We might regard drawing as Maher’s ‘second wheel running in parallel’ to the gears of the mind. Her films often begin with a sheet that is not blank, but rather already shows the erased traces of previous beginnings; and the moment of their completion is never known in advance (indeed, the idea of their ending is already complicated by their looped projection). The logic of the transition from one motif to another is guided less by narrative or coherent symbolic association, than by a more basic formal rhyming and rhythm: oval shapes beget oval shapes, heads become eggs, forms persist and mutate in a kind of topology of continuous self-deformation.22 Strange metaphorical and metonymic substitutions, plays with the repetition and difference of visual language, recall Roland Barthes’ characterization of the erotic universe of Georges Bataille’s novel, Story of the Eye: ‘The world becomes blurred; properties are no longer separate; spilling, sobbing, urinating, ejaculating form a wavy meaning, and the whole of Story of the Eye signifies in the manner of a vibration that always gives the same sound (but what sound?).’23 A sequence is set in train, with a particular emotional or affective tenor; the life of forms is as close to guiding this journey as any iconographical programme.
It is tempting to think of Maher’s film drawings in terms of an écriture feminine, a ‘style’, as French philosopher Luce Irigaray called it, more adequate to the expression of specifically feminine forms of embodied experience:
This “style,” or “writing,” of women tends to put the torch to fetish words, proper terms, well-constructed forms… It is always fluid, without neglecting the characteristics of fluids that are difficult to idealize: those rubbings between two infinitely near neighbours that create a dynamics. Its “style” resists and explodes every firmly established form, figure, idea or concept. Which does not mean that it lacks style, as we might be led to believe by a discursivity that cannot conceive of it. But its “style” cannot be upheld as a thesis, cannot be the object of a position.24
One such form of ‘discursivity’ in the visual arts that would surely be unable (or unwilling) to accommodate Maher’s supple figurative vernacular would be Modernism Formalism. Important exponents of Modernist criticism such as Clement Greenberg and Michael Fried championed radical forms of abstraction as the only forms of visual art capable of delivering authentic aesthetic experiences generated solely by those elements proper to any given artistic medium.25 A later stress on literalism and objecthood (by Donald Judd, Frank Stella and others) again voiced an emphatic resistance to mimetic representation as a viable concern for ambitious contemporary art.26 By comparison, Maher’s work, like, for example, the elaborate philosophical fantasies of Scottish artist Charles Avery, remains broadly accessible; both artists choosing to employ a relatively familiar language of figurative drawing.27 However, while Maher herself identifies largely with ‘postmodern’ production (‘no central “subject,” no “great” conclusion, vast amounts of borrowing, sampling, emphasis on the margins, use of vernacular language, deconstruction of meaning…’),28 works such as Flora are, as I have elaborated, both formally inventive and self-reflexive in ways which also make them attractive to those concerned with the question of medium specificity. Her practice in general, and her film drawings in particular, constitute not a strict but nevertheless a sustained exploration of both the history and potential of specific materials and technologies, and their resonance with her thematic and affective concerns.
In this case, the erased traces of Maher’s drawings, residues of action and effort, take on something like the weight of thought and phantasy.29 And if we think of Maher’s page as corresponding to the mobile spaces of the mind—the flexible gymnastics of the imaginary, and the investments of memory and desire—then this is also a kind of thinking quite far from the processing of an intangible and frictionless code, as on the model of the digital computer.30 Rather, this is thought caught up in the body’s purchase and interference: thought felt and taking place against the backdrop of a more or less intense body. As Canadian theorist Brian Massumi has argued:
There is no thought that is not accompanied by a physical sensation of effort or agitation (if only a knitting of the brows, a pursing of the lips, or a quickening of the heartbeat). This sensation, which may be muscular (proprioceptive), tactile, or visceral is backgrounded. This doesn’t mean that it disappears into the background. It means that it appears as a background against which the conscious thought stands out: its felt environment.31
To finish I want to return to some myths surrounding the origins of drawing. The narratives that informed the accounts of Renaissance art theorists, of Apelles and Parrhasios for example, tended not to have so much to do with origins as with demonstrations: of technical virtuosity, of signature refinement, of incomparable skill in mimesis.32 Yet behind these Greek tales, which involve male protagonists in competitive feats, there are stories which harness drawing not to virtuoso display, but to aspects of affective life: to love, loss, memory, repetition and trace. The protagonists here are women: the daughter of Butades the potter traces the flickering shadow of her lover on a wall, in an attempt to counter loss before he departs on a journey. Or Ariadne, whose thread will lead her lover Theseus out of the perilous subterranean Labyrinth and enable his escape from its monstrous prisoner. Or Penelope, who, also working with line, weaves her thread by day and unpicks it by night, a work of creation and destruction, forming and unraveling, which forestalls time, keeping a window open for the return of Odysseus. Such stories, which lead the line in the direction of the psyche rather than towards the representation of visible reality, resonate with Maher’s own: a line becoming, unbecoming, leading to and from an inner repository of images freighted with the weight of affective life.
1 The series was first shown at the Green on Red Gallery, Dublin (The Music of Things, 12 November 2009–16 January 2010). Importantly, for this first installation the viewer sat in the centre of the gallery space while Flora and The Double (also 2009) were projected very large and simultaneously on opposite walls; Maher has spoken of how the two works therefore ‘interrupt’ each other, both visually and aurally, in such a scenario (email to the author, 2 October 2011). In 2010 a new work, The Godchildren of Enantios was commissioned and exhibited by Galway Arts Centre (Alice Maher: Godchildren of Enantios, 12–25 July 2010). That exhibition travelled to David Nolan Gallery, New York, where it was accompanied by an insightful essay by David Lloyd, ‘Enantiodrama: On Alice Maher’s Metamorphoses’, 2011, unpaginated.
2 Here I am thinking of Kentridge’s celebrated series, ‘Drawings for Projection’ (1989–2003), and of Tsuji’s Trilogy About Clouds (2005). The latter is particularly pertinent to Maher’s work, given Tsuji’s insistent coupling of the palimpsest with dream, sexuality and imaginative transformation.
3 For more on the relationship between drawing, cinema and digital media, see my ‘Cinematic Drawing in a Digital Age’, Tate Papers 14, Autumn 2010.
4 In the aforementioned essay, David Lloyd describes an ‘oneiric unruliness’ at work in Maher’s film drawings, where forms ‘yield other forms as if evolution were a process determined not by the rigors of scarcity and competition but by the intimate violence of metamorphosis itself.’ A useful reference point here is Marina Warner’s Fantastic Metamorphoses, Other Worlds: Ways of Telling the Self, Oxford University Press, 2002.
5 Maher makes reference to Hieronymous Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights in this respect: ‘Bosch’s phantasmagorical painting also has this transgressive quality in its placing and contorting of the human body… [And] if I take a close look at the procession of animals / humans / fruit around the pond in the centre of the Garden, I see the beginnings of animation.’ Email to the author, 2 October 2011.
6 See Mignon Nixon: Fantastic Reality: Louise Bourgeois and the Story of Modern Art, MIT Press, Cambridge (Mass.), 2008; Jon Bird (ed.): Other Worlds, The Art of Nancy Spero and Kiki Smith, Reaktion Books, London, 2003, and Rosemarie Trockel: Dessins, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris, 2000.
7 Julia Kristeva’s writings on the ‘abject’ have been a powerful influence on the artist’s thinking in this respect. Of Kristeva’s exhibition catalogue Visions Capitales (Musée du Louvre, Paris, 1998), Maher says: ‘[Kristeva] writes of the ‘abject place’ as one where the in-between reside: the outsiders, trans-gendered, unseen, unwanted; like the margins of society or the margins of books, the edges of fields, the weed in the corner, the snail under the stone, the filth in the ditch.’ Email to the author, 2 October 2011. For Kristeva’s engagement with Mikhail Bakhtin and the ‘carnivalesque’, see her ‘Word, Dialogue and Novel’ (1966), in Toril Moi (ed.): The Kristeva Reader, Blackwell, Oxford, 1986, 34-61.
8 In its iconography and in the tactile and material diversity of her sculpture, then, Maher’s work constitutes an alternative to artistic practices that stress the pervasive saturation of contemporary life by sign and spectacle. The latter, it might be argued, address the conditions of urban living more powerfully than to other, more marginal locations of experience. See Lloyd op.cit. and Gill Perry: ‘Tales, Trails and Transformations: The Work of Alice Maher’ in Alice Maher: Natural Artifice, RPL+M, Brighton 2007, 10–19.
9 See, for example, Alice Maher: Ombres, Green on Red Gallery, Dublin, 1997; Alice Maher: Gorget and Other Works, Nolan/Eckman Gallery, New York, 2000; and Alice Maher: Bestiary, Royal Hibernian Academy, Dublin, 2007.
10 Indeed, the first was drawn on a wall by the River Clain, Poitiers, France (L’Arpent: The Long Acre, 1997).
11 For details of installation, see footnote 1.
12 See Fionna Barber: ‘Familiar: Alice Maher’ (1995) in Fintan Cullen (ed.), Sources in Irish Art, A Reader, Cork University Press, Cork, 2000, p.157
13 André Breton, ‘Max Ernst’ (1921), Les pas perdus, Gallimard, Paris, 1970, p.81.
14 Alice Maher: Knot: Alice Maher Draws from the Collection of the Hugh Lane Municipal Gallery of Modern Art, Dublin, Dublin 1999.
15 A compelling relationship between Klee’s oil transfer drawings and Freudian motifs is, however, established by Tamara Trodd in ‘Drawing in the Archive: Paul Klee’s Oil-Transfers’, Oxford Art Journal, vol. 31, no.1, March, 2008, pp. 75–95.
16 Even if ‘latent’ contents might be signaled iconographically in Maher’s work, her mark shares little with the automatic scrawls of Masson or Miró. On Surrealist automatism, see David Lomas, The Haunted Self: Surrealism, Psychoanalysis, Subjectivity, New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2000.
17 In aesthetic and technical terms, while Kentridge draws with a squat stick of charcoal and on a large paper surface tacked to the studio wall, Maher works a much smaller scale, producing drawings which are cleaner and more linear. Maher also ‘samples’ the progress of her drawing far less frequently than does Kentridge, leaving much more of the transitions to the viewer’s imagination, and she works in very close dialogue with Trevor Knight in the production of specific sounds for the soundtrack. In thematic terms, Kentridge’s series constitutes a sustained address to the recent history of South Africa, albeit a complex and often oblique one. Maher’s thematics are more plural and open, less overtly engaged with specific historical and political narratives.
18 Kentridge in Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, William Kentridge, Brussels 1998, p.68.
19 Kentridge writes of fortuna, that it is ‘something other than cold statistical chance, and something too outside the range of rational control’. ‘‘Fortuna:’ Neither Program nor Chance in the Making of Images.’ in Christov-Bakargiev et. al., William Kentridge, London 1999, pp.118–9.
20 Heinrich von Kleist, ‘On the Gradual Production of Thoughts Whilst Speaking’ (1805–6) in David Constantine (ed.), Heinrich von Kleist: Selected Writings. London, 1997, p.406.
21 Ibid. p.408
22 For a suggestive meditation on the relationship between topology, imaginative mobility and analogue processes, see Brian Massumi, ‘On the Superiority of the Analogue’ in Parables for the Virtual: Movement, Affect, Sensation, Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2002.
23 Roland Barthes, ‘The Metaphor of the Eye’ (1963) in Georges Bataille, Story of the Eye (1928), London 1982, p.125.
24 Luce Irigaray: ‘The Power of Discourse and the Subordination of the Feminine’, in This Sex Which is Not One, Ithaca, New York, 1985, 79.
25 For paradigmatic texts Modernist art writing see Clement Greenberg and Michael Fried.
26 See Judd’s ‘Specific Objects’—Alex Potts?
27 See Charles Avery, The Islanders, An Introduction, Walther Koenig, 2010.
28 Maher in an email to the author, 2 October 2011.
29 Of the visible erasures in Kentridge’s drawings, Rosalind Krauss has written, ‘There is a sense in which the body’s rhythms have penetrated [the drawing’s] support, to slow it down, to thicken it, to give it density.’ (Krauss: ‘The Rock,’ October 2000, p.20) While Kentridge’s ‘Drawings for Projection’ are aimed more squarely at the traumas of social and political life than are Maher’s films, the question of this mnemonic and emotional weight bears powerfully upon her own project.
30 Friedrich Kittler: ‘The general digitalization of channels and information erases the differences among individual media. […] And once optical fibre networks turn formerly distinct data flows into a standardized series of digitalized numbers, any medium can be translated into any other. With numbers, everything goes. Modulation, transformation, synchronization; delay, storage, transposition; scrambling, scanning, mapping—a total media link on a digital base will erase the very concept of medium. Instead of wiring people and technologies, absolute knowledge will run as an absolute loop.’ Gramophone, Film, Typewriter, pp.1-2.
31 Massumi: Parables for the Virtual, pp.138-9.
32 See David Rosand on the lines of Apelles and Parhassios.