In a somewhat questionable marketing endeavour, the Eastern Cape Region has been sign posted, ‘Frontier Country’ and indeed this is what it is. Historically it is the site of the 9 Frontier Wars and much brutal conflict and living here presently can still seem the edge of nowhere by comparison to many major South African metropols. With Grahamstown at the heart of it, it is also a cosmopolitan space not without vestiges of past pain but - like many colonial outposts in a post-colonial time - it is no longer a satellite to an absent motherland, a mere microcosm of elsewhere, but also a world unto itself.

A potential space of intellectual, debate rather than military conflict – geographically isolated from metropolitan trends – a melting pot of many places, a crucible. In more recent history, this frontier space has been a site of culture, of experiment. Home to an annual arts festival, how is it that Grahamstown with a population of just under 140 000 can command so much creative imagination in novels, plays, poetry and art? Frontier, Border, at the end of the world but not about to fall off – merely at a vantage point to observe a view to come.
- Rat Western

DISCHARGE 2012             COLOUR COLLOQUIUM 2010             SYNTHETIC DIRT 2011

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Dirty hands or hands-off? – the printmatrix in a mediated milieu.

by Dominic Thorburn

Since the very first images were made by dipping hands in natural pigment and pressing them on cave walls in Lascaux and Altamira artists have been getting their hands dirty to make their mark. These simple images have to be some of the most economical, powerful and evocative symbols known to us. I believe it helpful to revisit visual images of this nature, to regain perspective and seek solace in them - especially at times when contemporary questions abound such as those being asked at this colloquium.

Of significance is that these images were transferred from one surface to another – an impression being made by pressing the hand to the rock, and it is this apt term impression that is still used today to describe the action of printing. Essentially there needs to be a surface or matrix that holds the pigment and one that accepts it when pressure is applied – this transfer is central to the notion of print. Also importantly these impressions were repeated many times, a synthesis of sorts – an action resulting in a fusion of sameness. This multiplicity or repeatability is also central to the concept of print and one often refers to printed images existing as multiples, essentially plural images that exist as more than one in an edition or series.

Reflecting on these evocative handprint motifs one could conclude that in reality a printed image was being made due to the transfer of the natural pigment or ‘dirt’ to the receiving surface. In turn one could well contest that in the beginning was not the word but the visual image, and in truth in the beginning was the print. Undoubtedly these motifs were the start of a pictorial language, a visual syntax with far reaching resonance.
The basic desire and need to reproduce visual images traverses from these early hand prints deep in dark caves - to the fast forward some 40 000 plus years later at the other end of the spectrum with our modern high tech digital matrices and endless choice of printed and virtual outputs. There has probably been no invention as unparalleled, as critical, or as influential on the history of civilization as the print - certainly not until the information age of the digital revolution. The history of the graphic print is really the history of innovation in communication - the need for multiple visual images in order to facilitate the transmission and ease of dissemination of information and knowledge, in effect print was largely responsible for the liberation of thought.

As with language the printed image is never static but constantly evolving. Printmedia by their very nature have always been in flux, ever changing in their technologies and thus latent expressive powers, aesthetics and reach. This perpetual shift, this ability to synthesise remains its forte and has ensured the survival of printerly images within our visual psyche. Technical innovation has been inseparable from the creative development and evolution of printmedia over the years – with a number of different printing techniques being invented and evolving over the years – woodcut printmaking, being followed by engraving and etching, then lithography and screen-printing, and more recently photomechanical and digital processes. Often trendy terms for some of the processes were introduced to separate them from the applied art or commercial use – the term serigraph for screen-printing, xylograph for a woodcut, xerograph (from word Xerox) for a photocopy, and more recently giclee for an inkjet print ... the word having derivation from the French verb ‘gicler’ meaning ‘to squirt’ or ‘ejaculate’! Often used colloquially for the way a tom cat marks his territory. 

The shifting ground of prints has though not meant that it has discarded the technologies of yesteryear in order to embrace the new. Consequently traditional mediums have often been integrated and synthesised with cutting edge technology into current art practice. One that has seen an energetic and accelerated evolution of contemporary print from that firmly grounded in modernist, often painting-based aesthetics, to embrace a broader postmodern and post-postmodern territory - an undeniably transformed and expansive artistic landscape. Importantly print is also a mediating messenger with the inherent capability to traffic the intersections between high or fine art and that of popular, commercial or applied arts.

In the past boundaries which defined the activities of printmaking were limited to technical categories – most often the techniques or mediums used to make prints. The print was defined as the map and not the land the map describes. As with language the printed image is not static but evolving. Print today is not a technique, a category, or even an art object; it is a theoretical idiom of developing ideas and dialogue. In the same manner as language cannot be defined as alphabets, words, or syntax , printmaking cannot be defined as a series of technical processes. It is more appropriately defined by its function, its philosophical approach, and the conception and evolution of ideas and images it generates. Print may stake claim to creative territory which goes beyond any map; the meaning of the images produced by printmedia become the expanded terrain, the mediated milieu of the dialogue, the larger picture.

Print “continues to shape shift with alacrity and take on numerous alternative forms”   and increasing numbers of contemporary artists are once again embracing print in its many varied, mutated and synthesised forms - as happened in the late 1970’s and 1980’s in what was known as the ‘Print Renaissance’. There really are a myriad of contemporary artists that use printmedia in one or more expanded manner in their practice today.
Nathaniel Stern is a prolific experimental video installation and time based artist, and writer who also harness’s printmaking to extend his repertoire:

”I combine new and traditional media to create unfamiliar experiences of that which we encounter every day. My art attempts to intercept taken for granted categories such as ‘body,’ ‘language,’ ‘vision,’ ’space’ or ‘power.’ It works to refigure fixed subject / object hierarchies as unexpected and dynamic engagements...
Through performance, provocation and play, my work seeks to infold our unfolding relationships with the world, and with one another. I invite viewers to explore, to embody, and to re-imagine.”

Compressionism is a digital performance and analog archive started in 1996 where Stern straps a desktop scanner, laptop and custom-made battery pack to his body and performs images into existence. He might scan in straight, long lines across tables, tie the scanner around his neck and swing over flowers, do pogo-like gestures over bricks, or just follow the wind over water lilies in a pond. The dynamism of his relationship to the landscape is transformed into beautiful and quirky renderings, which are re-stretched and coloured on his laptop, then produced as archival art objects using photographic or inkjet processes. He also often takes details from these images and reinterprets them as traditional prints: lithographs, etchings, engravings and woodcuts.

Michael Smith comments that “Stern’s entire process expands to encompass fairly traditional printmaking techniques, and a great tension is established by this…. The results are compelling, an amalgamation of visual languages from two very different ends of Western Art that accrues a salacious, lo-fi quality that adds another dimension to Stern’s repertoire”  . It is interesting to note that these works are not only painterly but undoubtedly printerly in their aesthetic; in addition the notion of compression and pressure that is so vital to printmaking is central.

Oscar Muñoz, a revered Colombian artist examines the relationship between image and memory creating images that address the ephemeral nature of human existence, disappearance and history, loss and remembrance. Due to its intrinsic conceptual nature the work defies definition by medium, blurring boundaries between photography, printmaking, drawing, installation, video and sculpture. Although Muñoz has abandoned traditional formats, he skilfully utilises specific technical and conceptual aspects of printmedia – and further occasionally incorporates self-destructive elements to purposely challenge the consistency of reproduction that is synonymous with printing.  The expressive power of his work is as grounded in the inherent qualities of the materials he employs as in the poetic associations they evoke. The ethereal fleeting qualities of images that morph in and out of existence resonate as the artists' signature mark.

Through his innovative processes, such as printing charcoal pigment on water, or using human breath to reveal discretely printed portraits onto ostensibly blank mirrors, Muñoz creates unstable images that oscillate between presence and absence. He appropriates portrait images from newspaper obituaries that include victims of drug trafficking and political conflicts in Colombia. He is fascinated by photographic images as the primary documentation of a person’s physical existence in a culture besieged by the vulnerability of life. Oscar Muñoz manipulates the photographic images in order to question the meaning of identity and to reflect the process of recollection and fading memory, alluding to the transitory nature of human existence, memory and history. The dissolution of an image is viewed and experienced as a manifestation of the person’s disappearance.

Narcissi in Process is a set of self-portraits printed in charcoal powdered pigment on water in shallow vitrines lined with paper - the water slowly evaporates during the course of the exhibition, eventually allowing the pigment to settle onto the paper in a slightly altered version of the original portrait image. The inevitable variability of the process makes the resulting enigmatic image in each vitrine unique. Biographies is a related video installation of images in which Muñoz again creates these video portraits by printing pigment onto water in a sink and then films the disintegration of the portraits as the water drains - the process is also shown in reverse with the result that the portrait continually dissipates and reconstitutes in an haunting ebb and flow.
Xu Bing, probably the most revered contemporary Chinese artist at present, has harnessed and utilised print integrally in much of his work. The process of creation has become a dominant subject of his work, and his interest in process has expanded beyond the work of art per se, to the process of interpretation that follows the work's exhibition.

Xu Bing began possibly his best known work, A Book From the Sky, shortly after graduating from the Central Academy of Arts in Beijing. This work made it obvious to him that art can evoke dissimilar responses when it addresses loaded issues - here the value of traditional culture in a modern society, the trustworthiness of knowledge, and the futility of existence. The work consists of an installation of books, scrolls, and large printed sheets of paper typeset from thousands of small wooden printing blocks into each of which Xu had carved an imaginary Chinese character - between three and four thousand were printed to approximate the number of Chinese characters in frequent use. Through the process driven printmatrix he deconstructed the written word, negating the basis of Chinese culture while simultaneously constructing a solemn, dignified world where the familiar is invalidated – he spent three years of laborious effort to create a superficially meaningless (and potentially frustrating) series of books, scrolls, and posters.

With the well known performance piece, A Case Study of Transference, Xu Bing deliberately combines powerful cultural icons with emotionally laden issues, and leaves the reading open. This work clearly illustrates how, after assembling a group of loaded symbols including nature, culture and sex, he allows them to interact without over-direction and accepts the ensuing evolving interpretations. For this piece Xu Bing selected a male and female pig, and literally printed the boar with nonsensical letters from the Roman alphabet, and in turn printed the sow with the illegible characters he had created for A Book from the Sky – two printmatrix surprises deliberately provoking disparate readings. He then placed the pigs in an enclosure strewn with books in other different languages with the intention that they should mate. A video of the event, also entitled A Case Study of Transference, documents the process leading up to the performance, including the surprising difficulty of obtaining two pigs that would be willing to mate, and the actual work involved in printing on pigs!

Dominic Thorburn is an artist printmaker and Professor of Fine Art at Rhodes University.

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