The following interview took place after a seminar at the London Metropolitan University for the MA Curating the Contemporary module Writing about Art.
Tamarin Norwood is an artist and writer. Recent commissions include Tate Britain, ICA Philadelphia, AC Institute New York; recent artist books published by (U)LS Marseille and Modern Art Oxford. She trained at Central Saint Martins and Goldsmiths and is now completing a studio-led PhD in fine art at the Oxford University Ruskin School, working with video and sculptural installation to examine gesture and pictorial figuration in drawing and writing.
Amy Brown: In your recent presentation on writing about art, you talked about how a thing might be changed by its description. How does the description of a thing change it? Is it the description that shifts it from ‘thing’ to ‘object’?
Tamarin Norwood: That’s more or less how I’d see it, but I’d want to be very broad in my definition of ‘description’. It might be better to use words like gaze, regard or assimilation. When some thing is assimilated into a given system of understanding (say, a system of human thought), it’s not the thing itself that’s assimilated but another version of it: a version you might refer to as an ‘object’ because it’s the object of a gaze. So as a thing is subjected to assimilation (by looking at it, understanding it, describing it) the thing itself recedes and a new object comes to the fore as a kind of trace of the thing that has been pushed away. I find these ideas useful in my own work, but they’re not my own ideas. Heidegger[i] distinguished between thing and object, and the distinction remains in more recent writing on thing theory and object-oriented philosophy for instance—Bill Brown, Graham Harman and Jane Bennett have been writing in the field more recently.[ii]
AB: Does describing a thing take away some of its power or mystery?
TN: Following this line of thought, when a thing is subjected to assimilation, its power or mystery as an unreachable, uncapturable, unthinkable other is not depleted. This is because the thing itself is never successfully assimilated; the trace object is assimilated in its stead. By its nature, this object is reachable, capturable and thinkable: it is describable, and moreover it exists only within the system of understanding it’s been assimilated into. So we could say that from the outset the object lacks the power or the mystery of its antecedent thing.
There’s a related sense in which familiarity with an object depletes its power or mystery. During the seminar we talked about Heidegger’s and Breton’s broken utensils: the way the tools seem to disappear into their use, only reappearing when they break. Returning to that expanded definition of description, the habitual familiarity we have with everyday functional objects might be thought of as a kind of description: an intimate smoothing or circumscribing of the object’s peripheries and possibilities which renders them utterly quotidian and without mystery. When this daily descriptive act is interrupted as the object breaks, something of its originary strangeness rushes in.
AB: If we are saying that naming something narrows the possibility of it, or captures it, does the same thing apply to the naming of an artwork?
TN: An artwork is not a normal thing, or a normal object. In some ways it needs treating as a special case. I’d argue that this is principally because of the artwork’s inscription into an art context — an art practice, an art gallery, an art discourse — but the difference has also been argued in terms of art’s broad function of evidencing the gap between the thing and the object. Again, Heidegger examines this idea in The Origin of the Work of Art; Viktor Shklovsky[iii] ventures that ‘Art exists that one may recover the sensation of life; it exists to make one feel things, to make the stone stony’: effectively to break familiar objects through a certain kind of artistic description that shakes them from their quotidian familiarity and reminds us of the underlying mystery and power, as you’ve put it. The idea of artworks releasing objects back into the wild by means of description is compelling, but I find the argument rather circular because it remains dependent on discourse: on language which, as we discussed in the seminar via Pinheiro Machado[iv], is not so much a bridge between thing and object but a contributor to their separation.
Untitled video projection Linz #6 (2013) video installation
AB: How do you approach the naming of your work? Is it something you do early on or something that comes along after the thing has taken shape?
TN: Although artworks emerge here as a special category, I think in a number of ways the same thing does apply: naming an artwork can capture it or narrow its possibility. But again I’d want to be careful with my definitions. In this context, ‘naming’ an artwork might mean giving it a title, but it might equally it might mean regarding it in a certain way, or even finishing it. I remember many years ago I’d been working on a painting for some time, and once it was finished and the paint was dry the first thing I did was throw it onto the floor. I didn’t have a reason for doing it at the time, but thinking about it afterwards I’m quite sure it was to test it out as an everyday object: to see how it fared among ordinary things or even to make it (back) into an ordinary thing.
The connection between naming an artwork and finishing it is interesting also because of the recurrent links between inscription and death, as we talked about in the seminar. Inscription is linked with death both in terms of words ‘murdering’ things (Peter Schwenger) and in terms of things being inscribed as artworks in the deadening ‘mausoleum’ space of the white cube art gallery (Brian O’Doherty, Allan Kaprow, Theirry de Duve write about this).[v] In these senses ‘naming’ the artwork (titling it, finishing it, regarding it, siting it in an art context…) might well be seen as narrowing its possibility. There is a sense in which an artwork is alive while it’s being made and dead once it’s finished, though you could argue the opposite too.
As for titling my works, the titles tend to come once the works are finished, and make heavy use of punning and wordplay. Some of the titles are very secondary to the works, and mainly exist so the works can be referred to succinctly—I have on occasion scrapped names and just used numbers. But in some cases the names are integral to a work and even initiate it. In Drawing (2013) I wanted to press together a set of meanings associated with the title, and taken without the title the work reads very differently. The titles also serve to indicate or reinforce relationships I intend among works: when Drawing was exhibited for example, I titled other works in the show Line and A Line Describing a Curve, and the exhibition as a whole was called Well You Have To Draw the Line Somewhere. The titling is part of a single integrated ground upon which the works interact, allowing for questions like ‘if this is a drawing, what is a line?’ or ‘if these are lines, how might they be drawn in a drawing like this?’ In these cases the titles are not distinct from the works but part of them, and so it’s difficult to see them as descriptive—as being apart form the works and acting upon them.
AB: I greatly enjoyed the story of your drawing on the bed sheet, Line. The action you performed was so tangible that it seemed to be preserved not simply as a line in the book where it began but as an action turned object.
TN: Here’s the story I told you about drawing on the bed sheet, as I wrote it in 2009:
“One night a few weeks ago I was in bed writing something about the day. I tried to describe the room just as it was. The harder I tried to describe it the more exact it became and consequently the more inadequate my description. I wanted to catch the room on the paper so I could have it again later on, when it was gone and the book remained. I was aware of the power of writing to outlive its object, but also of the gaping distance between the things I wanted to keep and the words I was using to capture them. It was like making a net with holes too loose.
“Then I noticed the words were jealous of the book they were in. The book was real, and it pressed down with real, present weight on the blanket, and the blanket touched the bed and the bed the floor and the floor the other furniture and the furniture everything else in the room I was trying to write down. Yes, the words took up space on the paper of the book, and yes, the paper pressed down on the rigid cover of the book that touched the blanket, and so on, but the words betrayed themselves. They betrayed themselves in their way of directness, which claimed to cut through the physical things in the room and intimately name them, and yet naming can never be intimate because a name is so different from a thing.
“A line in biro is a thing just as a chair or a hat is a thing. But the extra quality I was giving my biro lines by shaping them into words caused them to depart from the world of things. Each time I tried to look at a biro line I just ended up reading what it spelled. The words weren’t going to be able to keep the things in the room, and so the things in the room would fade.
“Then I drew a biro line from my paragraph to the edge of the page and from the paper onto the bed sheet, and all the way across the sheet to Anton as he slept. One day he will die, but I have kept in my book a line that touched him.”
I later found Michael Taussig describing the very same experience of writing his field notebooks—as though his writing were erasing its object rather than pinning it down.[vi] And it turns out these experiences enact the argument described and somewhat constructed by Peter Schwenger in his article on words murdering things.
AB: You have since re-enacted this piece, after washing away the original line. Why did you wash away the line? Do you feel as though the line itself is secondary to the action?
TN: It was very simple. I washed the line away because it was on one of our bed sheets, and we needed all our bed sheets as bed sheets. I wasn’t thinking of the line in terms of my studio practice; it was more of a practical measure, for which I used practical resources. And I wasn’t particularly concerned about keeping that portion of the line: I still had (and still have) the portion of line I’d drawn in my notebook, and that sufficed as a line that had touched Anton. I didn’t need to keep all of the line; in any case I couldn’t because he’d washed the third part of it from his face to go to work.
But this says something about the relative importance of the line and the action. Neither is exactly secondary to the other: in fact there’s a third element which I think is more important. What I wanted was to keep a line that had materially touched its object in a way that the written description was failing to do. The resulting line was fragmented. It was interrupted by each crease and fold of the sheet, by the transitions from book to sheet to skin, and finally by each surface moving away from the next: the book closing, Anton moving in his sleep, folds in the sheet rearranging themselves. Graphically what I’d drawn was not a continuous line. But neither was the action continuous: because of all the interruptions I’d had to keep stopping and starting the drawing in order to keep the tip of the pen in continuous contact with the surface. And this is the crucial third element: the point of contact between drawing implement and surface, which was at all times continuous. The line continuously linking the page and the object is not strictly the graphic line marked across the various surfaces, nor is it the action of drawing or the trace of that action: it is a line of contact. A single unbroken thread of contact which is infra-thin but still physically real, and which effectively threads from page to mouth independently of the various surfaces en route. So really, the material ‘line’ that resulted from the whole episode was a line in the sense of a plumb line or better still a fishing line: a material thing that tethers another thing to a third, ‘drawing’ them together.
AB: Why did you feel the need to re-do it on another sheet at another time? How many times has this piece been re-performed? And would you count it as a performance at all?
TN: I’ve only drawn the line twice. I drew it for the first time in 2009 and washed it out, then I redrew it in 2012 for my exhibition Well You Have To Draw The Line Somewhere. For the exhibition I wanted to present the original episode, but moreover I wanted to present the prospect that naming or inscribing what was originally a spontaneous act as an artwork (and accordingly siting it in a gallery) has something in common with the very act of written inscription I was trying to avoid when I drew the line in the first place. Here we come back to Kaprow’s and O’Doherty’s remarks about the deadness of the museum and the white cube: the sheet was folded tightly and posed on a tall, narrow plinth that gave the sheet the look of a memorial or a relic—something that is no longer live but that has been kept as a marker of the currency it once held. Part of the reason it made sense to wash the original line off the sheet was to avoid memorializing the episode by naming it as an artwork. I washed the sheet and put it back into circulation to avoid this inscription.
So when I drew the line for the second time it was with this new context in mind: it was to force the inscription back into play. It was certainly a re-enactment rather than an attempt to recreate the original gesture, and accordingly it was carried out in a perfunctory and even comical way, quite different in tone to the original act. I waited for Anton to go to sleep so I could draw the line to his mouth, but he knew I was waiting and he knew what I was going to do once he was asleep. It was ludicrous really. But I got my line and I exhibited it. I wouldn’t call it a performance though. That would suggest the drawing of the line was itself an inscribed act, and I don’t believe that was the case. It might also suggest the act of drawing was autonomous or distinct from the resulting line or rather the resulting tether, and I don’t think that was the case either.
AB: Do you believe that writing and drawing are one and the same? Or entirely separate entities?
TN: They pertain to very distinct modes of representation. All the same they share sufficient formal and conceptual coincidences to make interplay between the two interesting and worthwhile.
olololo (2012) Artist book, signed edition of 150. Published by Modern Art Oxford, produced by Book Works Studio
AB: Your book, olololo, on first appearance seems to be all about the pencil or pen in hand but is instead all about the actions of the hand that moves the pages of the book. Is this drawing?
TN: I would describe it as drawing, yes. But I’d also want to keep in mind the multiple meanings of the word. In the same way that the line on the bed sheet finally turned out to be a tethering or drawing-together rather than a drawn line, I think olololo conflates the act of drawing with the act of drawing pages away about the central pivot. Each page needs careful drawing away from its original position by one hand as the other hand keeps the ground steady by holding the tip of the pencil still against the page. It’s an invitation to imagine the process of drawing from the perspective of the tip of the pencil—lines spooling outwards from a static point—rather than from the perspective of the finished drawing.
AB: Is the dot, like Line, a record of the actions you performed?
TN: I don’t think Line is exactly a record of actions performed, but I think you’re right about the dot. Generally in drawing, the array of marks on the page is more or less a record of the actions performed to produce it. But in olololo the action that marks the page is the one performed by the static pencil while drawing (drawing-away) goes on around it. Meanwhile the dot is only revealed once all the other pages have been drawn away, so it appears as the conclusion of all the complicated manoeuvres it took to get there. A full stop.
Amy E. Brown
For more information on Tamarin Norwood please visit: http://www.tamarinnorwood.co.uk
[i] Heidegger, M. (1950) The Origin of the Work of Art. In: Young, J. & Haynes, K., eds. (2002). Martin Heidegger: Off the Beaten Track. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 1-56.
[ii] See, for instance: Brown, B. (2001). Thing Theory. Critical Inquiry, Vol. 28, no. 1, Things, Autumn 2001, pp. 1-22; Harman, G. (2002). Tool Bring: Heidegger and the Metaphysics of Objects. Chicago: Open Court; Bennett, J. (2010). Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things. Dublin CA: Duke University Press.
[iii] See Schwenger, P. (2001). Words and the Murder of the Thing. Critical Inquiry, Vol. 28, no. 1, Things, Autumn 2001, pp. 99-113.
[iv] Pinheiro Machado, R. (2008). Nothingness and the Work of Art: A Comparative Approach to Existential Phenomenology and the Ontological Foundation of Aesthetics. Philosophy East and West, Vol. 58, no. 2, April 2008, pp. 244-266.
[v] See: O’Doherty, M. (1976). Inside the White Cube. London: University of Chicago Press; Meyer-Hermann, Eva et al. eds. (2008). Allan Kaprow: Art as Life. London: Thames & Hudson. p 70; De Duve, T. (1994). Echoes of the Readymade: Critique of Pure Modernism. October, 70, pp. 60-97.
[vi] Taussig, M. (2011). I Swear I Saw This: Drawings in Fieldwork Notebooks, Namely My Own. Chicago & London: University of Chicago Press.