Thinking through painting by thinking of something else
Thinking through painting is to me to think of something other than painting. If one defines painting as itself, painting is painting, there is still in that relation a leakage; something that is not painting will trickle into what is defined as painting. The thinking of my painting does not think of painting as merely practice and history; also other histories and practices are worth thinking about through paining.
Thinking about something else than painting through painting is to think of the other of painting. This applies to all sorts of relationships between a medium and its object, between a practice and its subject. When I paint, I can relate to this difference in a pragmatic way. I do what I do, the other is the other. With such a method it is however easy to naturalize the one and the other, both what is painting and what is its other. In reality the painting gets connected to questions and themes, and vice versa, with the result that neither the painting nor its other can be understood as something obvious.
”Mental life (memory, imagination, fantasy, dreaming, perception, cognition) is mediated, and is embodied in the whole range of material media. Thinking does not, as Wittgenstein put it, reside in some “queer medium” inside the head. We think out loud, at the keyboard, with tools and images and sounds. [---] Artist Saul Steinberg called drawing “thinking on paper”. But thinking can also be a kind of drawing, a mental sketching, tracing, delineating.”1
Thinking through painting and thus thinking of other things is also to think about painting. To me it has been important to soften up relationships that would otherwise risk becoming set, and not to forsake what is apparently my closest partner – painting, and the other.
To think of other things than painting could be to think about Amanda Kristina Pedersen: a photographer and actress, who was convicted in the early 1900s of fraud and forgery in my hometown of Falun, and who assumed various names and identities. When released in 1904, the prison authorities staged a forced portrait of her. Unlike male prisoners she was not wearing convicts’ clothes when being photographed but was neatly dressed up as a bourgeois woman, perhaps in the hope that she from then on would fit that role?
Amanda Kristina was convicted for her crimes and served her sentence in a time when legal and medical authorities frenetically photographed their inmates and patients in the belief that the body has the outer signs that reveal the hidden essence of personality. The photographs physiognomically classified the patients, but it was also about tracing the individual’s qualities, personality and character, thereby to create her life’s story and predict her future. Amanda Kristina Pedersen once worked as a hospital photographer and in the archives she perused a large number of medical photos. Photos where individuals represent something other than themselves, photos that designate bodies in terms of what is normal and what is deviant, that conflate the ugly with the sick and beauty with health.
To think of other things than painting through painting can be to paint the way medicine around the last turn of the century read the living body as signs. A reading that doesn’t see the whole person and her story but sticks to the details. A gaze signified by clinical scrutiny and discernment, revealing and searching, noticing and separating, with a capacity to discover the little fine nuances. In Amanda Kristina Pedersen’s Physiognomic Inquiries (2010) the painting was filtered through the gaze of medical semiotics, and the medical environments were painted as if they were body and gesture, face and mimics.
“A body transformed into a topographical map with edges and points, rises and drops, gorges and crevices and all can be seen and interpreted, the shifts in the surface motion of a torso, a sudden dimple or cavity, the shape of a rib, the bowls of the clavicles, barely noticeable knots and craters under the skin, various kinds of bulges and their cover in the form of white or yellowed or gray and granulated skin [---] everything was signs in the interpretation of the character and outcome of the disease.”2
I paint myself into the role of the scrutinizing doctor and “every unusual dislocation, every abnormal flattening, all prominent edges, protrusions and contours must carefully be inculcated by the gaze.”3 I envisage myself into the institutional rooms’ architecture, interiors and instruments that are transformed in the fluid of the watercolours into tactile surfaces that flow, crack and burst in a penetrating light.
The same model of seeing I tried to transfer to the beholder through the installation. The paintings lay on bed-like steel constructions, which prevented the beholder to see them as a whole. Instead, the paintings were revealed in fragments.
“The clinical (and male) gaze fragmented and reduced the female object to such a degree that it almost disappeared in shadows of its constituent parts.”4
“One doctor describes the procedure of visual examination of the female torso as a kind of choreography of uncovering on a very high level of consciousness. Perhaps inspection in particular was especially threatening since it is explicitly based on looking. The principle is partial uncovering, a tactic of peu-en-peu.”5
The above quotes remind me of my own fragmentary close examinations during the creation of the paintings. Bit by bit is painted with my face inches from the surface of the paper until the puzzle is completed. In the exhibition, the beholder was invited to my dialogue with the bodily and material qualities of the paintings by him or her bending over the paintings like a doctor doing the rounds. The horizontal placing of the paintings didn’t allow the beholder to fully enter the room of the motives, but did instead focus the attention towards the installation as image. The beholder found herself in a sort of hospital room, but compared to the hospital room where the patients had laid loaded with symptoms and signs only the doctor and hospital photographer could read, the beholders of the exhibition got to examine and interpret painted excised parts of the institutional rooms where the clinical gaze had dwelled.
To think of something else than painting through painting could be to think about how medicine has constituted images, notions, and models for seeing. I appropriate a gaze that comes from a certain mode of seeing – a grid – that the painting both passes without friction and is stopped by.
Suppose my work is critical of physiognomic portraits per se. One could imagine that I would relate to these by destroying or dismantling them. But I don’t. The physiognomic portraits are not at all present as motifs in the paintings I make. In Amanda Kristina Pedersen’s Physiognomic Inquiries the gaze is turned away from the physiognomic portraits and turned towards the rooms where the gaze the investigation criticizes was made possible. At the same time I use the clinical gaze when I portray the architecture and instruments of the medical environments. I incorporate the model of seeing that is the foundation of the physiognomic portraits. In 1860 a doctor observes a face in a certain way; I erase that face but transpose his gaze via my body to the room of the institution and the room of the exhibition. It is about taking over the hegemonic way of seeing and making it yours.
Shifts within the image of subjectivity
To think of something else than painting through painting could be to think about photography. I rarely think that I am painting in relation to the history or canon of painting. Instead, it is in relation to photography, its way of creating images and its history, I paint. To be sure, the histories of photography and of painting do overlap, and in many ways I find myself in that overlap. But my projects most often begin with the meaning that photography has and has had in society, how photography creates identities and plays a role in the construction of institutions.
Rejecting the particularly strong bind between art and its maker that painting holds is tempting to many, to me as well. Painting does not always have to reflect man, that doesn’t mean I see myself as a machine, but sometimes an alter ego represents my practice. In reconstructions of photography there are streaks of dissolving my subjective expression and mix it together with something else or someone else. Painting approaches the registering camera and my gaze carefully follows the play of light and shadow, a moment frozen by Amanda Kristina Pedersen. At the same time, painting takes over. The process oscillates between on the one hand the subjective expression, and on the other hand the subjugation to a certain portion of history and the role of photography in the depiction thereof.
“Photography […] began, historically, as an art of the Person: of identity, of civil status, of what we can call, in all senses of the term, the body’s formality. Here again, from a phenomenological viewpoint, the cinema begins to differ from the Photograph; for the (fictional) cinema combines two poses: the actor’s ‘this-has-been’ and the role’s […]”6
When Shifts within the Image of a Name (2009) presents a con artist’s various names and the different places where her fraudulence took place, shifts of roles are represented, shifts of originator, and shifts of images through the method of the work. In handling the archival material I take on a dubious role. I forge the fraud’s photographs and the court protocol of the legal system and try to describe her crimes not as crimes but as intrepid attempts to expand the boundaries of what a woman can become. I try to see the gaze of the legal system through hers. See what she saw, and enter and leave the rooms where she has appeared, as woman and man, as upper class and lower. The tricks she found in the methods of fraud, theatre and photography, are returning references in the installation.
Shifts within the image as image and the image as room
In Shifts within the Image of a Name the paintings hang freely in the room on wires in an arch. I imagine the installations as if the paintings were slides in a carousel projector, a slide show set in motion by the beholder moving between the paintings, movements that replace the mechanical arm of the carousel. The gentle arch indicates a sequence of a circle, the size of which could contain hundreds of pictures and crush the walls surrounding the installation. The forged court protocol about her history is played as a soundtrack in a room that’s been transformed to a theatre stage of watercolours that in a 1:1 scale show a spotlight hitting a black curtain.
“The viewer experiences a phenomenological and situational presence related to his or her direct involvement in the ‘here and now’ of the work. This kind of involvement is a dominant mode of reception in installation art as it is usually based on an ambition to awaken the viewer’s awareness of embodied perception. Involvement in ‘here and now’ of the work directs the viewer’s attention to his or her bodily and performative navigation through the space of the installation. On the other hand, the viewer also experiences a sense of absorption, of being embraced by a fictitious world that introduces other time-space relations, and pushes corporeal gravity and navigation through space to the back of the viewer’s mind.”7
The dream of letting the beholder physically enter the image I share with artists like Jessica Stockholder and Katharina Grosse. Time and again I have tried that fantasy through my installation concepts, which are often the first inspiration for new projects. Can the two-dimensional paintings’ motifs and placements direct the beholder’s experiences and movements in the room? Yes, but the spatial design is immediately apparent as set pieces and props. While Grosse and Stockholder work in a more direct fashion with the relation of colours, material and surfaces to the architecture I hold fast to the figuration and narration of the image. “Being embraced by a fictitious world” is in other words something that happens in another way in my installations. Where Grosse and Stockholder work with the room as image in a totalizing way I work with both image as restricted surface and with the room as image, and there remains a sort of tension between the image as image and the image as room.
Returning by recycling – the archive as a possible search engine for transcriptions
When I paint archive photos there are hopes of developing memories I have never experienced. It can be a room, a prison corridor, a foyer, a theatre, a church hall, where I imagine that Amanda Kristina Pedersen has appeared under different identities and names. It can be physiognomic portraits the gazes of which I encounter in archives and that Amanda Kristina encountered during her time as a hospital photographer. It can be the environments of medical institutions I imagine that she observed as if they were props and set pieces in a play about the power of gazes. She becomes my extended eye, an optical instrument connecting me to a time I have not lived but whose notions of healthy and sick, female and male, normal and abnormal, produced images that still influence our identities. Through her, this shrewd and cunning con artist whose name is close to mine, and whose astute smile caught my attention in a dissertation about forced portraits, I can affix my fantasies and desires, and try to understand and reshape a fragment of our modern history.
The analogue photographs from places and times I know only through the archive are seducing. The grease of an index finger that has stopped the photographic developer in the dark room; the stripping of a Christmas tree that motion blur and failed developing has been turned into a two-dimensional pattern; the overexposed photo the light of which erases objects and walls. Of thousands of pictures I browse, these are the ones that stick. At the same time it is this very thing that stops me from entering the illusion of the image and to “remember” the time I myself has never experienced.
“The strange place that is the spatiality of the image is the very place for fabrications, paraphrases, games, antics as well as the most serious of theatrical furrowing of brows. In time’s connection between spatialities, the room of the image is part of an untiring narration of stories, and the beauty of it (however ethically-politically delicate) is that it never finishes telling a single story.”8
I try to unfold the archive in spatial installations that makes stories visible. But what does the artistic rendering do to the material of the archive? The aim of the photographs has been to depict reality. At the same time, these images construct a reality of their own in meeting the institutions’ construction of reality. There, between the realities of photography and of the institutions, the artistic rendering can act.
The light that is shared and divided – ideas shaped by and from the material
In watercolour painting I butt against the limitations of photography. The dissonance between analogue photography and the conditions of painting is something I seek out so as to investigate it. Motion blur is intensified or reduced by the flow of water-colours, shaded parts bloom into dark blots of colour, the degree of abstraction is increased at the same time as the tactile qualities of painting emerge and I follow the shadows and make new ones.
In 2007 I tried to freeze the light in an actual space and create a three-dimensional photography by painting shades onto real objects and walls. Photographic Shadows Imprinted consisted of a sink in a project space, which at the time was used for the spring exhibition at Valand Academy in Gothenburg. The inner of the sink I hid with slabs of Masonite. Glued-on slabs of Masonite and knobs served as cabinet doors. A coffee pot, a glass, and a cup were placed on the sink. The objects and the constructed sink were covered with white acrylic paint and lit up by a spotlight, the shadows of which were painted in black watercolour. The silent white surfaces of the glass and the faucet were given back the reflections of steel and the transparency of glass in the illusions of painting. In the sink and along the vertical surfaces the watercolour flowed freely which created a more animated expression than in the watercolour paintings on paper, painted in a horizontal position. The dark shadows behind the coffee pot and the cup and the glass were painted jet-black while the tile surrounding the sink, and parts of the cabinet doors and kitchen board remained chalk-white. Like in a fusion of an underexposed analogue photograph and another overexposed one, nuances were erased. The lights and shadows of the objects were painted into being in a way that developed a cut-out of another time and space, an opening towards another history.
“[…] in 1904, the first year of the ‘war of light’. For it was then […] that a searchlight was used for the first time in history […] Trained on the heights of Port Arthur, the focused incandescence of war’s first projector seemed to concentrate all the torches and all the fires of all the wars before it. Its beam pierced more than the darkness of the Russo–Japanese war; it illuminated a future where observation and destruction would develop at the same pace. Later the two would merge completely in the target-acquisition techniques of the Blitzkrieg,the cine-machineguns of fighter aircraft, and above all the blinding Hiroshima flash which literally photographed the shadow cast by beings and things, so that every surface immediately became war’s recording surface, its film.”9
Paul Virilio writes about how the technological advances of photography are linked with the development of weaponry and war. The effect of the atom bomb is both annihilation and photographic preservation, it signifies the indexicality of depiction, and the question to me became whether one can paint oneself into these shadows in order to thus engage in a dialogue with this index.
Photographic Shadows Imprinted led me on to the slide show Counter-memory (2008), in which documentary photographs – and watercolour reconstructions – of the permanent shadows created by the radiation of the Hiroshima bomb were mixed with text fragments from Hiroshima mon amour by Marguerite Duras. These images were alternated with a sequence of stills of an ink drop detonating in a spot of water.
I remember that the ink expanding and contracting in the puddle to the beat of the sound of the projector were perceived as either the bomb, an eye, paper burning and creating a blue light, or as a flower – the latter perhaps because of Duras’ text:
“Like you I have struggled with all my might not to forget. Like you, I forgot. Shadow of a handle. Morning glories and day lilies born again from the ashes with an extraordinary vitality unheard of flowers before then.”
The reading was opened up when the colour in the water was isolated into one unit/instance. The blue stain was spilled on the wall and the first and smallest constituent parts of my watercolour paintings were shown. The question is whether the water’s and the paint’s movements in surfaces that are part of a figurative painting can unfold new images and other histories. I don’t mean that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, on the contrary: The individual parts can become greater than the whole. The water blots’ qualities and interaction – can they tell of other layers than the motif of the image? Can they expose a tactility bearing witness of a corporal experience, both my own and the image’s?
Is there here? – Passages from a room closed on itself
Environment and setting still have a great influence upon one; there is something about them which stamps itself firmly and deeply in memory, or rather upon the whole soul, and which is therefore never forgotten. [---] The living-room is small, comfortable, little more than a cabinet. Although I have now seen it from many different viewpoints, the one dearest to me is to see it from the sofa. [---] On the table stands a lamp shaped like a flower, which shoots up vigorously to bear its crown, over which a delicately cut paper shade hangs down so lightly that it is never still. The form of the lamp reminds one of oriental lands, the movement of the shade of the mild oriental breezes. [---] For the moment I let the lamp become the keynote of my landscape. [---] At other times I let the osier rug evoke ideas about a ship, about an officer’s cabin–we sail out into the middle of the great ocean. When we sit at a distance from the window, we immediately see the great circle of the horizon. This adds to the illusion. When I sit by her side, then I describe these things as pictures which pass as lightly over reality as death walks over one’s grave. Environment is always of great importance, especially for the sake of memory. [---] If one does not find them as one wants them, then one must make them so.”10
Thinking about something else than painting through painting could be to think of a room in literature. When a literary room replaces photographic models, it is the memory of a room on page 38 in the first Swedish edition of Marguerite Duras’ novel The Lover that I paint. But in my sketches it disappears as soon as something visible appears, and the room on the paper is another; new and strange. Eventually I close my eyes as I draw, and the drawings get to serve as models for perspectival constructions.
The walls separating the room from the street feel thin as paper from the deafening noise. The exposedness of the situation grows the room into a hall and multiplies the window openings. But the calm of the room is as intrusive as the masses on the street outside whose presence pushes in through the light intakes. It is a place where you are exhausted, paralyzed by time standing still, and as long as you stay the situation may still be a dream.
“Her [Marguerite Duras’] books […] bring us to the verge of madness. They do not point to it from afar, they neither observe it nor analyze it for the sake of experiencing it at distance [---] To the contrary […] they fuse with it, are on the same level with it, without either distance or perspective [---] It leads us to X-ray our madness, the dangerous rims where identities of meaning, personality and life collapse. With Duras we have madness in full daylight [---] It is the reverse of clinical discourse.”11
When I remember the room on page 38 it is populated by people’s bodies in the form of shadows wandering across the floor. But when the memory is painted bright fields replace the people. The text describes the room as dark but I remember it as bright, and as memory meets the material of the watercolour, room after room are painted brighter than I have ever painted. The sharp contrasts between the whitest of whites and the blackest of blacks that are characteristic of my watercolour paintings ebb away and yellow wash drawing further dulls the already subdued contrasts.
The first attempt is finished and all the edges of the room are sharp in clearly delineated fields. The surfaces look as they’ve been made with ease and in a single shot. The expression I usually try to achieve and which the painting has achieved I am not happy with. I push plenty of water across the whole painting and rub away paint with the brush. I go on even though the paper gives way and leaves traces of dissolved bits of paper. I usually would rather toss a finished painting and start over than using this solution when I have made a mistake. Only when the paper has dried after the rough treatment can I see the result. The walls and floor of the room are undulating and the warm yellow tone that simultaneously cools the room is there. The sound of the text pulsating outside has been translated by the water of the aquarelle and the materiality of the paper into transparent walls and rippling water. The bed flows out on the Mekong River and the topography of the sheets switches places with the waves. In new attempts to paint the room I become aware of the character of the colours depend on the context, that is to say the disposition of the room, the expression of the surfaces, and my colour samples are of no benefit.
“The illusion that leads from one to the other is subtle. Is it to seduce, or be seduced that is seductive? But to be seduced is the best way to seduce. It is an endless refrain. There is no active or passive mode in seduction, no subject or object, no interior or exterior: seduction plays on both sides, and there is no frontier separating them.”12
Thinking about something else than painting through painting could also be to forget the other. When the image from memory is being painted it is another picture than the one remembered. The remembered is forgotten between the washes as the one image makes a visit at the other. The painting that picture six similar rooms stacked on top of one another has the title Here rather than there, alone in the crowd, never yet alone by themselves, always alone in the crowd. My description of its coming to be does not at all give the impression that the thinking of painting thinks about other things, on the contrary it seems to be highly absorbed with itself. The act of painting can both seduce and deceive, and some detours are dead ends from which one returns, repeating the obvious. I thought I was thinking of something, but I was thinking if something else. Does the painting take on a life of its own? No, but in the relation between control and chaos, between pre-understanding and chance, the intuitive levels are put at risk.
I see before I see. That is to say, I see before the perceived is visible in clearly discernible details and levels. Is it these intuitions – views of something before that something has emerged in a clearly distinct form –that are the most elementary component of the thinking of painting? My body, and the materials and tools of painting, form a singular body by on the one hand carrying out a common movement, on the other hand stopping this motion by picking up the gaze of an outsider and reflecting on the result. The reflection means I am taking the position of the other via the possibility of a certain distance towards painting, a position that is not outside or beyond painting but a moment belonging to the activity of painting. Reflection does not exceed the practice of painting, but reflection is a moment inherent to painting. At the same time reflection is informed by what it knows and what it wants, and filtered by something else, all that which is the other of painting.
1 Mitchell, W.J.T. What Do Images Want? The Lives and Loves of Images. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 2005. p. 215
2 Johannisson, Karin. Tecknen: Läkaren och konsten att läsa kroppar. Stockholm: Nordstedt, 2004. p. 125-192
3 loc. cit
4 Nilsson, Ulrika. Det heta könet: Gynekologin i Sverige kring förra sekelskiftet. Stockholm:Wahlström & Widstrand, 2005. p. 55
5 Johannisson, Ibid p. 164
6 Barthes, Roland. Camera Lucida: Reflections On Photography. London: Vintage, 2000. p. 79
7 Ring Petersen, Anne. “Painting Spaces” in Contemporary Painting in Context. Eds. Ring Petersen, Anne, Bogh, Mikkel. Dam Christensen, Hans and Nørgaard Larsen, Peter. Køpenvavn: Museum Tusculanum Press, University of Copenhagen, 2010. p. 134-135
8 Ehlin, Fredrik. “Fem meddelanden till Counter-memory” in Another space. Göteborg: Valand Academy University of Gothenburg, 2008
9 Virilio, Paul. War and Cinema: The Logistics of Perception. London: Verso, 1989.p. 68
10 Kierkegaard, Sören. Either/Or: A Fragment of Life. London:Princeton University Press, 1944. p. 323-324
11 Kristeva, Julia, Black Sun. New York: Columbia University Press, 1989. p.127-129
12 Baudrillard, Jean. Seduction. New York: St. Martin’s Press, p. 81
Studio Talks: Thinking Through Painting 2009-2014
Kristina Bength, Jonatan Habib Engqvist, Jan Rydén, Sigrid Sandström
(Monika Marklinger, Kristina Jansson, Matts Leiderstam, Håkan Nilsson, Fredrik Liew, Jessica Kempe, Malin Pettersson-Öberg, Thomas Elovsson, Susanna Slöör, Matts Leiderstam)
Jonatan Habib Engqvist
(Magnus af Petersens)
(David Reed, Marc Handelman, Wendy White, Camilla Carlberg, Johan Widén, Jens Fänge and Thomas Broome)
Jonatan Habib Engqvist
(Magnus af Petersens, Marc Handelman, Lars-Erik Hjertröm Lappalainen, Monika Marklinger, Kristina Jansson, Jonna Bornemark, Jessica Kempe, Håkan Rehnberg, Jens Fänge and Thomas Broome, Thomas Elovsson, Lina Bjerneld)
(David Reed, Wendy White, Håkan Nilsson, Susanna Slöör, Fredrik Liew, Camilla Carlberg, Malin Pettersson-Öberg)
Thinking through painting by thinking of something else
by Kristina Bength
Translation: Kalle Mellberg
Publicerad i Studio Talks: Thinking Through Painting 2009-2014
Eleven models of past and future painting installations, 20 x 30 cm. 2014
model of Withdrawn covers embedded in a draft, ink/watercolour paintings, 117 x 250 cm, 2008
model of Sliding side-scenes, ink/watercolour objects, 117 x 250 cm, 2008
model of Shifts within the Image of a Name, watercolour paintings attached on steel wires, 117 x 152 cm, 2009
model of Shifts within the Image of a Name, watercolour paintings attached on steel wires, 330 x 75 cm, 2009
model of Amanda Kristina Pedersen’s Physiognomic Inquiries, watercolour paintings on steel beds, 90 x 200 cm, 2010
model of Within Cuts and Bends, watercolour on paper attached on steel wires, 62 x 78 cm, 2011
model of Att dölja för att låta det dolda synas, watercolour on paper, 250 x 148 cm, 2013
model of Passage of a Void, video projection (200x 247cm) on the water colour painting Amanda Kristina Pedersen’s Physiognomic Inquiries (90 x 200 cm). 2014.