Over the past couple of months, I’ve been prodded into thought by several questions about, and responses to, my sketchbook posts. In a sense, none of these required any real rejoinders from me, but they have made me ponder the nature of both sketching and blogging, and the effect of the marriage of these two activities, particularly around the notion of truth.
For an early post (16.03.10), I’d stuck four small drawings I’d made of my dog Possum into a Moleskine notebook that I’d begun five years earlier on a trip to India and then abandoned on my return, occasionally to reuse its free pages for random sketches and lists. The drawings of Possum were made on the day of the post, and the page on which they were stuck contained a list of starter shrubs I was considering for my garden two years ago. A friend in Portugal, Manuel San Payo – whose terrific example (http://mirichesneg.blogspot.com/) had spurred me into posting sketchbook pages in the first place – quipped on Facebook: “hey - collage??? That’s odd...” I hadn’t given a thought to my use of collage as it’s something I often do, so I was struck by this unexpected response and the exchange that ensued. Manuel certainly didn’t dig his heels in: on the contrary, he self-deprecatingly called himself ‘stupidly orthodox,’ but I was intrigued by the presuppositions underpinning his comment.
I understood that those presuppositions referred to the activity in the sketchbook rather than to the online posting of it. It was as if the collage were somehow a cheat, for it had enabled me to essay many different sketches of Possum, and out of those, to choose the four that most pleased me, the four that I considered in some way successful. Rather than providing interest, the temporal layering – drawings done today, on a list made two years ago, in a book begun five years ago – seemed evidence of some kind of inauthenticity and strategic manoeuvring. This presumed inauthenticity is also linked to an element of choice and judgement: collage allows you to play and plan, decide and revise, and in this sense, it is much more forgiving than drawing. If you make a mistake, you can just stick something else over it. Drawing demands that judgements be made immediately and without premeditation. It is far more implacable than collage: you either get it right or you don’t. And although correction is ‘permitted’ and even encouraged in sketches (correction shows our viewers that we are being spontaneous and ‘in the moment,’ looking and assessing and measuring and looking again, and in that sense, it epitomises the sketcher’s activity), there is something about cutting and pasting that might seem like an easy way out. If Manuel was, indeed, being orthodox, that orthodoxy presumed that the sketchbook was the site of an original and direct practice, a working through whose immediacy is registered in full view on that support.
The second thing I noticed was that people sometimes commented not so much on my post, as on the subject that the drawing and the post covered. Several times, London based friends exclaimed: ‘you were in London and you didn’t tell me!’ Or ‘did you enjoy Pina Bausch?’ ‘How’s your husband?’ ‘I see you have a shoe fetish!’ The drawing was presumed to be evidential proof: that I really had been in London on the day the drawing suggested I was; that I do really love shoes, not only the drawing of them. I wondered why this was so: no one would assume that Louise Bourgeois’ sketchbooks recorded her daily reality; nor would anyone look to Annette Messager’s sketchbooks to know what she’d seen on a particular day. The sketchbooks of these two artists would certainly be a source of profound information about them, their lives and concerns, but they would not be assumed to be making any testimonial claims. Is this because their work doesn’t set itself up to be mimetic, empirically realistic in any way? Or is it because of how they conceptually frame their activities in their notebooks? Bourgeois has used stylised, repetitive, obsessive scrawling as a way to while away hours of insomnia, and the autobiographic content of these drawings is coded and articulated through a range of formal inventions. Messager channels personal experiences into collections of drawings, photographs and objects that create teasing webs of association that resonate with a wide (female?) public.
Most of us, I would argue, don’t really want art to be an uncensored outpouring of the personal, and in that sense, we don’t expect a figurative work of art necessarily to reflect a true experience. We want confessions to be shaped into images or narratives that interest us in more ways than the merely voyeuristic. Published diaries have often been written with a view to publication; any other kind may be of historic interest, but is often boring. In the visual arts, I feel uncomfortable with the self exposure of Frida Kahlo’s paintings: it smacks of a kind of narcissistic self indulgence that makes me lose my patience with her pain. But I am drawn to the expressivity of her iconic single eyebrow, interested in her pictorial roots in ex votos and other items of popular culture, her thematic roots in Catholic and native Mexican iconography. And I love the drawn/written pages of her diary, where such a personal touch is much more fitting, and handled with a greater sense of élan and experimentation.
For while we expect works of art to filter and mediate an artist’s personal experience, the sketchbook holds a special position in the practice of artists. Whether used to scribble ideas, to plan future works, or as an archive of myriad observations, the sketchbook has traditionally been private. In that sense, it is diaristic. Moreover, two conceptual templates offer the notion of personal testimony: the travel sketchbook, and the visual diary. Both assume drawing from observation, and therefore a truth value, although in them, the artist is recording what she sees and experiences in opposing situations, the remote and the close to hand, the exotic and the familiar.
The testimonial assumption is one I make too. When I look at Manuel’s posts, I am struck by how different his life is from mine. The urban environments he inhabits make me a bit nostalgic because they are familiar to me – they evoke a city where I once lived – and the easy conviviality of cafes, restaurants and open-air esplanades in Lisbon provoke a resonant twang of recognition. I look at his sketchbook spreads and, aside from admiring his immense talent, I am fascinated by the world he portrays, and with it, by the self he seems to be in that world. I think: ‘hmmmm, he’s very sociable... he’s much more sociable than I am!’ Concomitantly, if I try to look at the pages of my sketchbooks through the eyes of someone else, what I see is a less extroverted life, a life more domestic and with pleasures taken in objects that my circumstances and class offer me. At least, that’s how we each portray ourselves in what we choose to draw. Based on my drawings, no one could say I have an unprivileged life... unless I am flagrantly lying, fantasising my comfort and counting on my friends not to spill the beans. So, a cosy, perhaps even bucolic life in the English countryside, certainly punctuated by disasters and sadnesses, but essentially it’s all gardening clogs and sunglasses, iPod, asparagus and dog walks. I feel becalmed and amused – but also uneasy – about this image of myself. After all, no one likes to think of her own life as twee.
If you’re reading this, you’ll have been kind enough to look at my drawings, and some of you who don’t know me might think you’re getting to know the sort of person I am through these posts, drawings and words. Of course, in a sense, you will be absolutely right. But at the same time, though it might be an odd thing to declare here of all places, I have no desire to bare my soul in public, no wish consciously to share or expose any kind of interiority. So what am I doing here?
There are, I’ve been arguing, presumptions of truth present in the work of the sketcher. In the sense that I cheat (I collage, I sometimes draw from photographs, I stencil letters in the studio and so on), I am not really a ‘sketcher,’ though I keep sketchbooks. My response to Manuel’s observation about my use of collage was to tell him I wasn’t necessarily (and certainly not always) a sketcher on the hoof: ‘I'm drawing at home, remember, where it's much easier: I have a table rather than a knee, and pencils and scissors and glue too!’
What I didn’t say was what I’ve come to understand more recently: that the blog format itself puts pressure on the sketchbook. If we select what does and doesn’t go onto the blog – and there are those who have circumvented this by pledging to post every single page of their sketchbooks – we’re already practicing a form of collage or assemblage. I also wonder to what extent one’s knowledge that one is in the process of blogging makes demands on the sketches themselves, asks them to be better behaved, nicer looking, more legible to others. Like those diarists writing for posterity, do the sketches of bloggers take the viewer just a little bit into account?
And then, there is the fact that the blog itself shares with both the travel sketchbook and the visual diary a promise of truth. The blogger aims to offer intriguing thoughts, an everyday life presumed to be fascinating merely by virtue of being captured, filtered by that particular subjectivity. We are enjoined to hearing political opinions, tips on mothering or gardening or mourning, recipes, pearls of practical and spiritual wisdom. If in blogging, we become ethnographers of the banal, in subscribing to the blogs of others, we are often (not always!) invited to be complicit voyeurs of such banality. This we find reassuring. In return for such a wealth of sapience and succor, such satisfaction to our nosiness, in subscribing to a blog, we subscribe to having our own privacy invaded. For if the blogger is a real pain, there’s a new post every day, insinuating itself into our mailbox, if only as spam. As bloggers, we are seen to be waiting for response; as subscribers, we feel we may be expected to comment from time to time, just to show we are paying attention. So blogger and blogee are locked in a kind of romantic dance, where each is wagering how much or little privacy he or she is willing to give up. It’s a very strange thing to do, yet for artists, who are of course exhibitionists of sorts, blogging has opened amazing new avenues.
As a blogger (though that word sits uncomfortably on my shoulders), I’m concerned with what aspects of my life I reveal or conceal, how much I ‘fess up or cover up. As a sketcher, I don’t think about these things, I just do what I do. So I’m drawn to the idea of a fake travelogue: snippets not only from my old photographs, but also perhaps of somewhere I have never travelled... who knows. It’s a possibility, though I suspect the immediacy and ordinariness of daily life is more compelling to me. Perhaps my objective with these posts isn’t so much to draw you in and share with you my true self as to offer you observations that tender the possibility of truth and that resonate in some fresh way with what you already know.
17 May 2010.