Notes on Bernhard Huwiler's and Gerald Smith's: D is for Drawing

Diane Mullin, 1997

D is for Dictionary
In 18th Century France the thinkers known collectively as the philosophes embarked on a project to catalogue all human knowledge in a book they called the Encyclopédie (1750-1772). This monumental work, edited by Denis Diderot, is comprised of seventeen text volumes, eleven books of plates and illustrations, and 161 separate contributing authors. From our late twentieth century perspective, influenced particularly by the philosopher, Michel Foucault, the Encyclopédie stands as the summation of, if not all human knowledge, the Enlightenment itself.

Gerald Smith’s and Bernhard Huwiler’s collaborative project, The Lexicon of Art, to which D is for Drawing belongs, is, in a sense, a smaller scale reenactment of Diderot’s project. Decidedly of a post-Foucauldian age, however, this lexicon seems to question the very notion of the encyclopedic project. While apparently mistrustful of the ability to summarize such a category as art, The Lexicon of Art intersects at another level with Diderot’s project. While compiling the Encyclopédie, the work was halted on several occasions¹ by censors, incensed by the inflammatory nature of certain entries. Diderot argued that his Encyclopédie was not simply a reiteration of long held assumptions but rather, was meant to change the way people saw what they thought they knew. The Lexicon of Art’s individual categories—drawing, ??, color—seem out of an art history of the past. Through dwelling on the nature of these “givens,” however, we are able to see each concept anew.

 

D is for Drawing
Conventionally, a line is defined as a path taken by a point that is free to move. The point may be a the tip of a pen or a pencil, as in drawing. In the discourses of mathematics and physics, this route between two points can be understood as path.¹  While writing this, I paused to check my spelling of this word. At the touch of a finger, the computer’s internal dictionary not only told me I had spelled it wrong but provided me with the correct spelling, which I corrected with one more touch of the finger. What does Diderot’s project mean in the age the personal computer and hypertext?
independent or path dependent. Path independence is concerned only with the terminus points of such a route. Path dependence takes into account not only the points of terminus, but also information about how the distance between these two points was traversed.²  Because of the centrality of the performance in this work, Huwiler and Smith’s D is for Drawing is path dependent.
For this work, the artists, leaving a trail of blue pigmented sand behind them, draw a line that crosses physical landscapes—both urban and rural—through and over streets, yards, frozen lakes, open spaces, rough terrain. As Huwiler leaves the trail of sand, Smith follows him videotaping the line left in his wake. In describing the work as drawing, the artists focus on the problem of drawing itself.

 

D is for Decision
A drawing, we are reminded by this act, is made from a process motivated by deliberate and accidental decision. As the artists move through each space they are confronted with options and obstacles. Each new element prompts a specific decision, which will set the course en route to another problem. This enactment of the processes involved in drawing makes us aware of drawing as a cognitive performance that involves both psychological and bodily components. Like the way that the blue line literally describes, or even indexes, the movements of Huwiler’s body as he treks across a particular landscape, a drawing marks the movements—both voluntary and involuntary—of the hand making the mark.

 

D is for Delineation
Huwiler’s and Smith’s drawings in space also illuminate the ways our spaces are marked, regimented, and mutable. If we were to see this line from above—say from a satellite—we would see it as a delineation of space. That delineation of space would appear like both the natural and the manmade barriers that define the spaces we inhabit, visit, do not² I am indebted to David Wulfman for introducing me to these concepts and for checking my usage of the terms.
visit. The line left in the artists’ wake could contradict (as in lines cutting through yards), echo, (as in a line along the path of a sidewalk), and violate (as in that left in the pristine snow of frozen lake or the barren landscape of a glacial valley). In confronting the ways in which the landscape is drawn, we are able to see how we might counteract, flesh out, erase, or even more consciously live within those lines and borders.

 

D is for Duration
Emphasizing the performative act itself, the work asks us to consider a drawing—or any mark—as the result of a process occurring over time. Walking for miles, carrying equipment, the artists enact the difficulty of the seemingly simple task of making marks. Once exposed as an object with a narrative—a narrative of its very making—we might begin to question the definition of a drawing as a commensurate object, existing in a separate realm from the act of its making.

 

D is for Display
In each space of exhibition, a trace of this performance—the video of the line being made—is projected down onto the floor where viewers can enter the image, walking around and on the line as it appears to move across the frame of light. The space also might include a recording of the artists’ footsteps and the noises of the surrounding environment, connecting the abstract image of the line—beautiful and isolated—with the action of its making. In each display the artists might project filmed fragments of the action. These films, like the sounds, are traces or memories of the action, not a documentation. It is fleeting and fragmentary, as in memory, and suggests, rather than describes, the processes of drawing, moving in space, and remembering.

 

D is for Daily
In its simplicity, this act of leaving the trace posits the act of drawing as an everyday occurrence. Each day, we make marks that are filled with meanings—both personal and social. Consider the act of signing one’s name. Like the artists’ drawings, this act is it once mundane and extraordinary. Calling up both, the performances suggest not a
transformation of the ordinary act of marking, but rather the richness of ordinariness itself.

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¹While writing this, I paused to check my spelling of this word. At the touch of a finger, the computer’s internal dictionary not only told me I had spelled it wrong but provided me with the correct spelling, which I corrected with one more touch of the finger. What does Diderot’s project mean in the age the personal computer and hypertext?

 

²I am indebted to David Wulfman for introducing me to these concepts and for checking my usage of the terms.

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