by Professor Stephen Farthing RA
Leonardo’s drawing books contain as many words as images, probably more. When words failed him, images took over and when an image did not do the job adequately, his pen moved on to shape words in support.
Both writing and drawing involve the translation of multidimensional events and concepts into readable two-dimensional matter. In the case of drawing, directions and instructions are turned into lines, volume into contours, sounds into shapes, shadows into tone, colours into words, and words into marks. Marks that can be drawn using sets of established conventions, built from on-the-spot improvisations, or constructed from a combination of the two. In the case of writing and as it happens, Morse code, the entire world is translated into lines and dots.
However complex our identities may seem to be, most of us have just one passport, and as a result one identity. Some have two, but any more than that we know from the movies usually means trouble. We are born with racial, ethnic and national identities, family names, dates of birth, fingerprints, footprints, retina that can be scanned and DNA that can be swabbed. Some of these identifying features we can wrestle with, with pencil and paper in the life room; the rest are either too subtle, too complex, or too difficult to pin down in that way.
We travel through life with a birth certificate, a given name, and what were known on the old UK passport as distinguishing features. After those primaries we have height, weight and a hair colour, a postal address, various ID, photographs, a signature, pin numbers and bar codes, which as time progresses we update. All of these are designed, in one way or another, to establish and act as proof of our identities.
At no point in our lives are we more aware of the importance of being able to establish proof of our identity than when we cross a regulated border. This easily measurable side of our identity, the side that post 9/11 government agencies call biometrics, is what we now use to authenticate identity. At a governmental level the art of recognition is now software-driven – it is the scannable, matchable, digitally stored images and data, not the memory of a time-serving policeman that today will detect a forgery and catch a thief. Artists, I suspect, are less interested in facial recognition software, national security and fraud than they are in the intangible, the difficult to measure and the constructed. Identities need not, after all, be for life – they can, as any brand adviser, crook or member of the clandestine service will tell you, be manipulated, reconstructed and fabricated.
At this point it may be worth reflecting on what we remember of the stories of some artists’ lives: Marcel Duchamp, Salvador Dali and Andy Warhol all make interesting reading – each I suspect was fully in control of their “brand” identity.
Pepsi, Shakers and Tattoos:
Writing and drawing does not have to be all tied up in schools, pens, pencils and paper. You can write and draw just about anywhere, with just about anything. You can work with a needle in flesh, a diamond on glass, even an aircraft in the sky. What is good about taking writing and drawing on this kind of excursion is that the medium becomes an active carrier. It no longer sits in the background as a probability, but becomes involved in actively constructing meaning. If, for example, we take the phrase “Drink Pepsi-Cola” and tattoo it on to someone’s forehead, then engrave it onto a mirror and finally write it into a perfect blue sky, each time as you re-read the phrase written into its new location and medium, its meaning is conditioned by that context.
Sky-writing is created by vaporising fluid in a plane’s exhaust system to form a white trail. Flying at about ten thousand feet the pilot uses the plane as a drawing instrument to complete an image that is usually five to ten miles across. During the 1930’s Pepsi-Cola became the first corporation to write its name “onto” the skies of America. It is said that the campaign was so effective that incredulous people would sometimes phone the company to tell them that God had written the name of their product in the sky.
This is how the branding of Pepsi-Cola started and how its identity, as a fresh all American product, was established. A red plane in a blue sky leaving a white vapour trail that gave the impression of having arrived just, like the clouds in the sky, by virtue of the hand of God.
Two hundred years before the Pepsi campaign got under way the United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing, established a community in Manchester, England. By 1774 the “Shakers”, as they became known, had relocated under the guidance of their spiritual leader Anne Lee to rural New York. The Shakers were responsible for inventing the spring clothes peg, rotary harrow, circular saw and wheel driven washing machine. They are best remembered today for their rational furniture design, loathing of art and their advocacy of celibacy. The former being the reason they are best remembered, the latter being all most certainly the cause of their demise.
Their views – not just on painting and drawing – but all two-dimensional imagery were unambiguously broadcast in an 1845 ordinance.
“No maps, charts and no pictures or paintings, shall ever be hung up in your dwelling-rooms, shops or offices. And no pictures or paintings set in frames, with glass before them, shall ever be among you.”
In spite of the ordinance, a small group of shakers made over a 20-year period just short of 200 drawings. Variously referred to in Shaker literature as “sheets”, “lines”, “rewards”, “presents”, “gifts” and “tokens” any connection with drawing or art was studiously avoided.
These images were completed by just 16 members of the sect between 1839 and 1859, on ordinary stationery in pen and ink, which were sometimes coloured in. Known not as artists or scribes but as “Instruments”, the 16 makers of these drawings, 13 women and just three men were positioned within Shaker society as “conduits”. They were not expected to be thinking, imaginative people, with personalities and identities that conditioned what they drew. The expectation was that they were disinterested translators of messages from the spirit world. Sometimes they translated their own ecstatic visions into two-dimensional images; more often the visions of others. Their drawings developed their appearance from the vernacular visual traditions of: needle point, quilting, family trees, Sunday school texts and home made maps. They were, however, neither made to decorate houses nor hang on walls, more likely they were intended to be kept as records, and used as teaching aids in conjunction with the spoken word to retell stories and underscore the community’s spiritual beliefs.
Both named and designed to circumnavigate the ordinance that forbad their making. Each “Gift” set out to become a factual account of an experience or event. Each however was a failure, not because it told the story badly, but because as a free translation it failed to conceal the individuality, resourcefulness and identity of the maker. Authorship, I suspect, is most visible when the draftsman or draftswoman is forced to improvise. While strictly adhering to a set of conventions, authorship is masked. So it’s not simply that we know the names of the “Instruments” who made these “Gifts”, it is that there was no given or shared drawing convention they could either work within or hide behind. This resulted in the “Instruments” unintentionally showing their hand and revealing something of their
personality and identity beyond their name. Drawing is good at that.
When Paul Cézanne said: “The man must remain obscure. The pleasure must be found in the work”, he was I suspect, trying to explain a belief many artists have, which is that their identity as artists is less involved with their physical appearance than the appearance of their work.
But what Cézanne clearly had not foreseen when he made this statement was the degree to which a modern audience would have just as much interest in the identity of artists as the appearance of their art, a situation that Warhol anticipated when he said, “Don't pay any attention to what they write about you. Just measure it in inches”.
When the Mexican artist Frida Kahlo painted, Self-Portrait as a Tehuana (Diego on My Mind), (1943) she went beyond just making a likeness by giving the audience an opportunity to reflect on the possibility that her identity was more than the product of her genetic make up, nurture and a chosen career path. It was also her choice of primary partner. Married to the older and at the time, infinitely more successful Diego Riviera, Kahlo clearly appreciated the degree to which her own identity and status as an artist was, for better or worse, linked to and conditioned by her artist husband.
Self-Portrait as a Tehuana brings together two faces and two identities. The first and primary image is a likeness of herself dressed in a kind of bridal costume; the second, an either a ghostly or tattooed image of her husbands face, on her forehead. The subtitle of the painting “Diego on my mind” suggests Kahlo intended his “presence” to be understood as a ghostly thought or memory and not as it may first appear a tattoo. She employs a simple solution to the highly complex problem, that of going beyond appearances, and the visible to establish absence or invisibility. As an assertion of identity, this is to my mind, most impressive.
Ta moko (Maori tattoos) are carved like furrows into the flesh with uhi (bone chisels) they are mid way between drawings and carvings. In pre-European Mori culture all high-ranking persons received moko, as a part of their rights of passage and as a permanent indicator of social status and rank. Men generally received moko on their faces, buttocks and thighs, women on their lips and chins. Within Maori culture moko are the wearers’ ID and passport. Beyond the confines of Maori culture they were most probably “read” as incomprehensible disfigurations or as a form of “war paint”. The degree to which the complexity of the line drawings over rode or masked readings of facial expression and physiognomy, will I suspect, always remain something of a mystery. What they certainly serve to illustrate is the degree to which identity can be constructed and exist in layers. First, the face, then the drawn-on narrative, the “back story”.
In Maori culture male facial tattoos are made according to a strict sense of order. Although at first sight they appear symmetrical one side of the face is subtly different from the other, each side telling a different story. The left describes the wearer’s patriarchal ancestry, the right the matriarchal half. Together they tell a story of descent. If, on the father’s side there was no significant bloodline of either power, status or achievement the left side of the face would be left as a blank.
Prior to European first contact there was no history of drawing let alone pen and paper, the Maori wove and carved and as near as they got to producing anything that could be called drawing were the Ta Moko.
Probably the earliest surviving examples of pen and ink drawings made on paper by the Maori, are the drawings they made of their own faces, not of their physical features but the linear patterns chiselled into the surface of their face, the Moko. These “made from memory” line drawings were executed at the bottom of land deeds as signatures and proof of the identity. Today they emerge as images that are somewhere between self-portraits, fingerprints and signatures. Moko are designed to combine with the genetically given features of the wearer to produce an image of identity that is not simply driven by inherited physiognomy or conditioned by mood. Moko work seeks to integrate inherited cultural identity with individuals in the present. In doing so it makes an individual’s inherited identity visible at first encounter.
In the context of cultural legacies and present dilemmas, my research seeks to explore the interface between drawing and identity.