The pencil descends onto the paper and begins its path. It glides along vast curves, turns around unexpectedly, moves intensely back and forth, and all of a sudden obtains a conscious mind. For a moment it learns the viewer’s language and the mute line transforms into a power line hanging over an alley. The wires crisscross like rafters between the sky and the street. They run along a crooked lamp post that stands by an old brick wall. It has been a while since the trash can was emptied. Perhaps a crow has pulled the styrofoam boxes onto the pavement. One might almost ask whether anybody lives on this street where a melancholic cluster of cords has collapsed between the wall and the lamp post, where the basement window is covered with a sheet of plywood, and an apartment window shows only a reflection of the opposite wall and the shred of clouds… Then the clouds disperse into traces of graphite on paper, the pencil switches to a strange language and speeds to and fro until it encounters a new environment. The draughtman’s hand tilts the pencil and presses it against the paper, rubs it forcefully, and the pencil loses parts of itself every time it trips over bumps on the uneven surface.
But this was a while ago. As one studies Outi Koivisto’s installation Hämärä huone – Dusky Room in Hippolyte, a photographic gallery in Helsinki, the pencil is nowhere to be found. Yet the viewer is immersed into an imaginary speed and its bumps. One reads the scrolls of drawing filling up the room as if an ancient scripture were describing the landscape.
The exhibition is already gone. It was on view in the beginning of the summer of 2018. At times, I still come across the scrolls drifting around Koivisto’s studio. They are really scrolls in the literal sense of the word. The components of Dusky Room were created in Chicago during the years 2016–2017. Koivisto used to carry with her a roll of paper and made notes of the outlines and textures of urban spaces she encountered. The rolled-up landscapes travelled back to Helsinki where the artist studied the traces, made additions, imagined, reminisced, built a whole out of fragments. Indeed, although drawing is usually paired with perception, one could claim that it is guided by memory.
Jacques Derrida makes a similar interpretation while analysing the 1st-century Roman historian Pliny the Elder’s story about the origin of art. The story goes like this: There was once a Sicyonian potter called Butades whose daughter had fallen in love. Her lover was travelling away, and so she traced the outline of his shadow on the wall lest she should forget her lover’s face. However, absence creeps into the scene despite the lover’s continuing presence, because while drawing the daughter is not looking at her lover but at the stroke she is making. Therefore, a drawing is always a recollection of perception.
In the book Viivan filosofia (“Philosophy of the Line”, 2014) Martta Heikkilä rephrases this idea from the viewer’s perspective: the representational effect of a line does not emerge from the line itself. Rather, it is the viewer’s memory that draws the connection between an image and its subject. Inside the Dusky Room, I study the pictures as traces of a past I do not know. Made with a technique called frottage, the imprints rubbed against uneven surfaces of a city start to build another world in my mind, a world that might still recall being touched by a sheet of paper. For a moment, I imagine a wire fence I could lean against with the sign FOR SALE attached to it. At this point, the autonomous line cuts through my illusion.
Dusky Room cannot be repeated, or, to be precise, its reinstallation would need a space that would be identical to the original one. Outi Koivisto has covered the gallery walls from top to bottom with her landscape drawings. On this new canvas, she has drawn a life-size image of her living room in Chicago. There is thus a row of windows sketched on top of the little landscapes. And what do the windows show? Nothing, or just lines streaming across the windowpane and its frames. With her pencil, Koivisto has achieved the impossible. She has projected a room onto a landscape. It is an inverse camera obscura, a trick whereby the view from outside is reflected through a tiny hole onto the walls of an otherwise dark room.
In drawing, the impossible is commonplace. This is because drawing is a system of signs that constantly cheats the viewer in one way or another. It is an image made on a two-dimensional surface, but the viewer’s eye learns to perceive space within it. The flexible human mind translates the areas outlined by pencil marks into the forms and materials of nature. A stroke of a pencil does not try to repeat a line from the world but to create an illusion of reproduction. It is the only explanation for the fact that the art of drawing is dominated by the outline: by an abstract sign that does not occur in nature.
French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty has characterized the line as bringing instability on the paper. In abandoning mimesis as its premise, this definition brilliantly characterises Outi Koivisto’s line that drives me around the gallery. I want to get to know this puzzling line. Jacques Derrida notes that an outline is invisible as such because it merely marks a border. The trace disappears into the surroundings that it causes to appear. In Koivisto’s art, the line has reinvented itself. It has formed an autonomous identity. It is precisely this feature that puzzles the viewer in Koivisto’s landscapes. One’s mind tries to invent the object that the line is representing, but yet the mind hesitates.
The semiotic nature of drawing implies that an identical line can, according to the context, signify a cloth, a shadow, a blade of grass or a cloud. One’s mind can discern materials, spaces and even colours from the black strokes, dots and blotches spread around a sheet of paper. Koivisto has created a sliding scale of representation onto her scrolls: they contain scribbles, traces, strokes and photographic landscapes. Therefore, the viewer begins to suspect that all the other pencil marks may represent something as well, and the frottage seems, all of a sudden, somehow familiar. Martta Heikkilä explains this uncertainty as the gap between a drawing and its model. A representation and the world do not correspond without a residue, and therefore the signification of an image stays open to interpretation.
The gap within signification implicates not only a shortage but also an unending production of new meanings. Derrida extends the idea of the linguist Ferdinand de Saussure who stated that systems of signs are constituted by the differences between signs, not by their properties. These differences enable signification. The line that separates and connects things creates relations between the areas on paper. That is how signification or representation is created. At the same time, Derrida points out that there is a movement of differences at work, a postponing that constantly shifts the meaning as well.
As the outline in itself does not exist, as it disappears into representation, the line of a drawing includes a sense of undecidability. An image begins to represent when the viewer begins to acquaint oneself with it, but in order to interpret the meaning of its lines the viewer is forced to experience undecidability. According to Derrida, undecidability is not just a wavering between two possibilities. He describes this vacillation as an ellipsis. In linguistics ellipsis is the omission of previously mentioned words that are nevertheless understood in the context of the sentence. It is like a signifying nothingness. On the other hand, the word “ellipse” means a circle that is, in a sense, thrown off balance. Its centre has divided into two focal points. What is notable here is that the focal points are not located on the circumference of the ellipse. Similarly, a fixed meaning is something that one can only circle round from a certain distance. Undecidability entails a need to make a decision, and it is the experience of its impossibility that makes it float. After choosing a meaning, undecidability still haunts the back of one’s mind.
In front of an artwork, or inside one as in the case of Dusky Room, the viewer’s mind constantly negotiates where the boundary between representation and abstraction lies. The most emotional factor in Koivisto’s drawings is her medium that has become emancipated from all the rules and regulations of representation. It shifts with ease from full representation to an inkling of meaning and then shoots into other realities. The viewer searches for scenic impressions in the strokes and patterns and makes suggestions of significations to the traces on the paper. When one finds something representational amidst it all, the nearby lines also start to seem more familiar. The image that emerges from the pencil traces is a brief interruption of negotiations where one arrives at a temporary meaning. The viewer begins to suspect that the other lines are representative as well. The same mechanism works also the other way around: the link between a house and a drawing of a house becomes brittle because it is brought about by that same unruly line, and the FOR SALE sign turns out not to be writing, or not only writing, since it is also a drawing on a paper.
Dusky Room gives precedence to the line as an autonomous and material being. In Outi Koivisto’s installation, the line is not just a sign – the pencil strokes disappear into a representation of a landscape but then reappear without warning. The piece takes away the idea of a direct bond between a drawing and its object. It reveals the process of signification that is active in the deciphering of images. It demonstrates the fact that representation is always learned and ambiguous. At times, giving up that skill can be liberating.
This text is part of a series of articles presenting texts developed after a writing workshop organised by mustekala.info in late 2018.
in the ’kritiikkisilta’ workshop, new ways to write about art in fresh and sustainable ways were sought out. The course was taught by PhD, researcher in aesthetics martta heikkilä and critic matti tuomela.
You can read the text in Finnish here.
Outi Koivisto’s exhibition Hämärä huone – Dusky Room was on display in Photographic Gallery Hippolyte from 25 May to 17 June 2018.
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