Notes on RepresentationOctober 19, 2015
If you are a person who likes to think, you probably want to produce an original thought every now and then, even though we all know that most things have been said and done (and thought of) already. Still, when you sit down to think, and work, you do so with the expectation, or at least the desire, of producing an original idea. The question is: how? How can you reach for what you didn’t already know?
Most of us are aware of our strengths and weaknesses, the situations that make us feel safe, and those that challenge us. One of the strategies I put into play is that of placing myself in (literally) unknown terrain, where I then try to draw. In a place so far out of my comfort zone that I cannot have previously conceived of it, in a landscape I have not seen or experienced before, which I observe first-hand for the first time—I try to draw. It is a situation I know nothing about except that I want to draw it, and to turn my observations into a representation.
From the perspective of someone who makes drawings the question is always similar: how do I draw this? Each case requires a different solution, imposes a different set of questions about technique, with respect to the environment and landscape, the change of scale, its interlocutors, the characteristics of the observed topic, and so forth.
One of the first and most striking of my experiences in unfamiliar terrain was a trip to the Antarctic in 2010. The journey—on a sailboat, in the company of seven other people—lasted twenty-six days. I returned with a series of pencil drawings on paper, and a small series of watercolours.
The landscape was strikingly beautiful; it was simply impossible to stop thinking in terms of aesthetics. I wanted to draw everything I saw. The restrictions were manifold; too many for me to be able to establish a working system. Since I never knew what I would be faced with the next day, I tried to abandon even the idea of a system.
Instead, I set up a simple set of parameters: I would do small line drawings in those moments when the boat was moving from one place to another.
I would make a slightly larger and more detailed series of line drawings during those times when I could stay in the same place for few hours.
If weather conditions were favorable, I would work in watercolors, their size depending on my distance to the observed view.
Distance was an important factor in this project. Travelling in a boat entails always being some meters away from land, and drawing an iceberg or a glacier required maintaining a safe distance from the frame I wanted to draw.
The distances were huge, incredibly huge, and I was always observing things from the water, as if from the outside. That is why the view becomes bi-dimensional and, indeed, pictorial. It’s as if there are only two materials: snow and stone. Consequently, there is only one pair of base colours—in an infinite number of gradations.
A few years later I had the opportunity to go to a contrasting landscape, also impressive but in a very different way. The project started with a month-long expedition to the Manu Learning Centre, Madre de Dios, Perú, from May 23 to June 23, 2012. The problem there was diametrically opposed to that of Antarctica. In Antarctica, I wanted to draw every single thing that entered my sight. In the forest of Madre de Dios, it was hard to decide, or even discern, the subjects that I wished to draw. My eye was incapable of perceiving the totality.
Unlike the singularity of a glacier protruding from the open waters, nothing in the forest ever became one image. Rather, there were fragments—many of them, offering countless views—so many of them that, though all the parts certainly comprised a whole, my human vision could not comprehend it. I kept looking and trying to compile, or rather extract, something that could constitute an image.
After days of observation and reflection, I found a way to draw it.
The ‘task’ I’ve continued to assign myself still stems from my feeling of incompetence when confronted with this landscape, and is based on the sense that nothing presents itself as a whole but always gets covered or obstructed by, and entangled with, something else.
The system I’ve come up with literally follows this idea: I draw (follow) a certain line until it’s intersected by another line; here, my pencil will follow this intersecting line, until this one too is intersected by another line, and so forth. The interaction and interruption of parts that don’t belong together direct the line, and the line produces a form, which will constitute the outline for my drawing. Liana intersects with overhanging branch, branch meets twig of another tree, twig cuts leaves, and so on, until I come back to the liana and have circumvented a patch of wilderness. These constructed outlines determined the composition of the drawing. After I had sorted out the system I began to see drawings all over the place.
Years and projects passed, and I was again in the forest, this time in Panama, in Barro Colorado Island (BCI), one of the stations from the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institution (STRI) in Panama.
It was January 2014 and I had planned a month to set myself there and draw lianas. I visually extracted lianas from the trees, and plants used by the lianas, to curve around and loop through in search for light.
To filter the view of the forest using such a specific criterion makes quite a trim. Still, the subject didn´t present itself so easily: looking at lianas, all I saw were knots, angles, curves, rotations, forces, tensions, directions, and thicknesses.
To draw is to decode the environment using a specific set of questions, methods and mediums. I always have a moment of mental visualization before I begin the act of drawing, which turned out to have been an essential part of the liana series.
In order to ‘see’ the intricacies of liana growth in its natural environment, it helped me to first mentally visualize the lianas as drawings.
During the same visit to the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institution (STRI) in Panama, I spent time drawing at a marine station at a beach in Punta Culebra. I was interested in the patterns that crabs create while eating.
The drawing of the crabs’ pellets had to be organized according to the tides, I waited for about an hour after the tide ebbed for the crabs to feed, after which there was a window of approximately three hours left when I could draw before the sea would erase the patterns from the sand.
Besides factors such as the weather and the tide, there was the issue of scale, the size of the paper, the distance from which I observed and drew the patterns made by the crabs.
From the Peruvian Amazonia, to the icebergs in the Antarctic, to a different forest on Barro Colorado Island in Panama, or a marine station at a beach in Punta Culebra, Panama, there are worlds of differences that influence, and in a certain way prescribe, the methodology of each drawing series.
The context triggers a system of representation I could not have imagined in any other situation. Some forms demand flat lines, others depth and shadow. The riddle has to be solved, the brain has to pull out stratagems, and it gets conflicted and confused but eventually the puzzle will get solved by the eye, the mind, and the drawing hand. Eventually the drawing system is also a system of interaction with the landscape, and the series of drawings can begin to exist.