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Common Property 3: Urinal, Pipe, Balloon Dog

15 Feb

by Tom Overton

Jerwood Encounters: Common Property is an exhibition about contemporary artists and copyright curated by Hannah Pierce. While it’s installed in the Jerwood Space on Union Street, London (15 January – 21 February 2016), I’m going to use this blog to publish a series of three interconnected essays about One Direction, magic eye pictures, Marcel Duchamp, John Berger, Kirill Medvedev, Alexander Pope, and how copyright law and creativity have been intertwined for at least the last 300 years. This is the third.

‘Wanting a different copyright’, Cory Doctorow argues in Information Doesn’t Want to Be Free (2014), ‘isn’t the same as not wanting copyright at all.’ Some parts he likes, others he doesn’t:

I like the part of copyright that says my publisher can’t print this book without getting my permission, because I won’t give my permission unless they pay me. I don’t like the part of copyright that says that I, the author, can’t authorize you to break digital locks that are put on my works by an intermediary.

An example would be the Kindle I just typed that up from. This sort of device is a ‘roach motel’ in Doctorow’s terminology, a dead end onto which material can be moved, but never moved off.

Doctorow’s prose style makes his attitudes sound inevitable, but they’re not. One of the major contemporary examples of this is the Russian poet, translator and activist Kirill Medvedev. In 2004, Medvedev renounced any claim to copyright on his work. Explaining himself in 2015, he reflected that

I was increasingly aware of the fact that in order to make a political statement an artist must not just work with “political” themes in his poetry, that is, on the level of content, but he must develop a structural, institutional alternative to the current order.

Medvedev made this gesture at a time when it looked as though copyright legislation in Russia was about to be ‘rationalized’ by Russia’s accession to the World Trade Organization (this didn’t actually happen until 2012, after 19 years of negotiations.) It was an appeal to a different sort of internationalism, a ‘gesture of yearning for the international progressive intellectual, artistic and political movement that seeks a way out of neoliberal capitalism.’

The action came to a head when the Russian publishing house NLO took Medvedev up on his declarations, and published a book called Texts Published Without the Permission of the Author (2005). Though some of Medvedev’s statements on his ‘Actions’ read as though they could have been written at any point in the last 150 years, his response to the NLO publication belonged more specifically to the twenty-first century:

I think the idea of separating the author from his text makes a certain amount of sense in the context of the internet-author, who really doesn’t have a name or a body – that is, in a situation when only the author knows of his connection to the text.

I know about this because I read it in Fitzcarraldo Editions’ English-language collection of his work It’s No Good (2015): a book which has ‘Copyright denied by Kirill Medvedev 2015’ where it would ordinarily state ‘© Kirill Medvedev 2015’.


Rob Myers, from the Shareable Readymades Series (2015), photograph by Hydar Dewachi

Rob Myers, from the Shareable Readymades Series (2015), photograph by Hydar Dewachi


Probably the closest analogues in Common Property are Rob Myers’ Sharable Readymades. In the gallery, they appear as bone-white models: a urinal, a pipe, and a balloon dog, respective transformations of Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain (1917),René Magritte’s La trahison des images [Ceci n’est pas une pipe]) (1928–9), and Jeff Koons’ Balloon Dog (1994). Myers had designers turn the works into open source files which can be printed and used anywhere so long as they remain freely licensed and are accompanied by the correct attribution.[1] Interestingly, the idea itself shares some aspects with the small terracotta mock-ups of canonical art-historical works Luke McCreadie  made for the Jerwood Project Space last year.

In Information Doesn’t Want to Be Free, Doctorow advises his readers to change their attitudes to copying: rather than investing time and resources in a small numbers of copies ‘like a mammal’, think ‘like a dandelion’ and scatter a more than you can keep track of, in the hope that one or two will take root. The idea behind this is commensurate with his idea that fame won’t get you paid, but you can’t get paid without it: the broader publicity it gathers for you as a creative entity will in the long run earn you more money than the short, editioned run of artworks would. Is this what Medvedev is doing? I’m not entirely sure that I would have read It’s No Good if he hadn’t staged his action. But at the end of the Guardian article which accompanied the launch of the Fitzcarraldo edition, he wrote

Of course the question of publishing poetry and manifestos is unconnected with earning a living – you wouldn’t be able to earn a living that way in any case. If anyone’s curious, however, for several years I was a stay-at-home father; more recently I have worked as a delivery man for several companies as well as a freelance book editor.


Rob Myers, from the Shareable Readymades Series (2015), photograph by Hydar Dewachi

Rob Myers, from the Shareable Readymades Series (2015), photograph by Hydar Dewachi


Despite, or maybe because of this action, Medvedev can get extremely exercised about cultural ownership, more broadly understood. In 2007 he protested at a theatre which was staging a production of a Bertolt Brecht play. The theatre’s director, Alexander Kalyagin, had signed a letter in support of the imprisonment of Mikhail Khodorkovsky. Khodorkovsky had been the richest man in Russia; an oil company executive who stood up to its increasingly totalitarian President, Vladimir Putin. In 2012, Masha Gessen wrote that

No single cause has done more than Khodorkovsky’s to inspire Russian speakers everywhere. Three of Russia’s best-selling writers have published their correspondence with Khodorkovsky; composers have dedicated symphonies to him; a dozen artists attended his trial and put together an exhibition of courtroom drawings. In July, a group of Soviet-born classical musicians traveled to Strasbourg to mount a concert in honor of Khodorkovsky.

Because of Brecht’s anti-totalitarianism, Medvedev felt Kalyagin’s production violated not something so bourgeois as copyright, but something more important. His manifesto on copyright, after all, was ‘an ethical, not a legal document.’ It comes closer to a subtly different, non-economic area of intellectual property legislation called moral rights. The Berne Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works states that

Independent of the author’s economic rights, and even after the transfer of the said rights, the author shall have the right to claim authorship of the work and to object to any distortion, modification of, or other derogatory action in relation to the said work, which would be prejudicial to the author’s honour or reputation.

Is a production by a Putin-supporting director ‘prejudicial’ to Brecht’s ‘honour or reputation’? It’s the kind of subjective decision which the judge in Luc Tuymans’ case was called upon to make, finally deciding that his attempt at parody wasn’t funny. Perhaps, then, it’s better you go and see the Common Property while it’s still up, and decide for yourself. I’m not sure if these blogs count as journalism, but according to Medvedev,

in art the reader or viewer subjects any ideology to a kind of resistance test for believability, whereas with journalism you can poison a great number of people with you yourself see that they are false, dangerous and disgusting.


Rob Myers, from the Shareable Readymades Series (2015), photograph by Hydar Dewachi

Rob Myers, from the Shareable Readymades Series (2015), photograph by Hydar Dewachi

[1] I copied some of that text directly from Hannah Pierce’s catalogue to Common Property.

Common Property 2: Fame and Money

15 Feb

by Tom Overton

Jerwood Encounters: Common Property is an exhibition about contemporary artists and copyright curated by Hannah Pierce. While it’s installed in the Jerwood Space on Union Street, London (15 January – 21 February 2016), I’m going to use this blog to publish a series of three interconnected essays about One Direction, magic eye pictures, Marcel Duchamp, John Berger, Kirill Medvedev, Alexander Pope, and how copyright law and creativity have been intertwined for at least the last 300 years. This is the second.

Because Alexander Pope was a poet, we’d think of poetry as his intellectual property; because One Direction are a band, we’d think of theirs as being their music. But as I explored in my last blog, it was Pope’s letters which helped shape copyright law in the Eighteenth Century, and there’s a long history of audiences being as interested in biography as in the work itself. One Direction are a product of the X Factor; they were “manufactured” live on TV, and further promoted through social media. They themselves, in addition to the social relationships between them and with their fans, are as much the saleable product as their music. This is what forms the substance of Fan Riot, Owen G. Parrys work in Common Property.

The term here is ‘ship’, an abbreviation of ‘relationship’ which entered the Oxford English Dictionary in June 2015 as a transitive verb:

To discuss, portray, or advocate a romantic pairing of (two characters who appear in a work of (serial) fiction), esp. when such a pairing is not depicted in the original work.

Owen G. Parry, Fan Riot, 2015, photograph by Hydar Dewachi

Owen G. Parry, Fan Riot, 2015, photograph by Hydar Dewachi


The example the OED uses is from 2005, for fiction which imagined a relationship between Ron and Hermione in the Harry Potter books. A large subsection of One Direction’s audience (the term is ‘fandom’) is dedicated to imagining a relationship between the band members Harry Styles and Louis Tomlinson, much of which is expressed through Tumblr-based fan art. Anna Leszkiewicz’s piece in the New Statesman pointed out that despite the skill involved in developing the ship by producing, say, an extremely lifelike computer animation of a pregnant boyband member, this is work that exists outside art galleries; despite the fact that it probably has an audience larger than much that does get shown in art galleries. These, Leszkiewicz points out

are often young women who are intellectually and creatively dismissed. But fanfiction often provides a space for young artists who might be marginalised in the mainstream to create artwork that reflects their experiences, whether it be by racebending or reimagining characters in different power structures and dynamics.

Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie were portmanteaued into the press as “Brangelina”, Styles and Tomlinson were shipped into “Larry Stylinson”. As the New Statesman and Telegraph reported, Parry staged an event as part of Common Property which featured the ‘ship’ being performed by two members of a 1D tribute band.

In that context, tribute bands seem a very twentieth-century phenomenon. They largely helped the original band and their record company; keeping the name alive and encouraging record sales so long as it didn’t get in the way of the original’s ticket sales. In theory, we might extend the same logic to shipping and “fandoms”. A key part of the story is that the band’s management are forcing Styles and Tomlinson into keeping their relationship secret, so as not to disappoint their fans. It’s just as likely that the management are happy with the development of this subculture, as it sustains the market on which they can sell the records and merchandise over which they do exercise intellectual property rights. The situation is different for the band members themselves, who clearly find the whole thing quite traumatic; it’s changed the way they behave in public.



The text used as the catalogue essay for Common Property reflects on the relationship between fame and the market. It’s an extract from Cory Doctorow’s Information Doesn’t Want to Be Free (2014), a kind of self-help textbook; a primer in ‘the critical skills required to have a non-zero chance of making a living today’ which gives a potted history of copyright laws before arguing for their reform. Doctorow’s central insight is that ‘we can’t stop copying on the internet, because the internet is a copying machine’. Many of the other works in Common Property riff on this essential idea. Antonio Roberts’ Transformative Use, a work commissioned for the show, takes on some of the most powerful and litigious copyright holders in the world, Walt Disney (the catalogue’s typeface riffs on Disney, too). Roberts also has works in the show which start with songs famously involved in copyright infringement cases, and runs them through purpose-built software: a copying machine of sorts. According to the first hit on Google,

A derivative work is transformative if it uses a source work in completely new or unexpected ways.

Something similar is going on in Edwin Burdis’s POLYTUNNEL-BANGERZ, a series based around the sampling ethos which came out of hip-hop: copying elements of pre-existing music and combining them into something new. Doctorow in fact talks directly about how this technique became enormously popular with Public Enemy’s It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back and the Beastie Boys’ Paul’s Boutique, and then was massively curtailed by copyright law. If Paul’s Boutique was made now, clearing the samples would have cost $19.8 million. The same is true of imagery: John Berger’s collaborative TV series on the work of art in the age of photographic and televisual reproduction, Ways of Seeing (1972), can’t be released on DVD because it contains so much uncleared imagery of artwork. Burdis’s paintings in Common Property have probably transformed their sources enough avoid prosecution.

Edwin Burdis, from the POLYTUNNEL-BANGERZ series (2015), photograph by Hydar Dewachi

Edwin Burdis, from the POLYTUNNEL-BANGERZ series (2015), photograph by Hydar Dewachi


The same is true of Hannah Knox’s wall-sized installation Reproduction (2015). The technical term for a magic eye picture is an ‘autostereogram’, and specific examples of achieving the effect are copyrighted. Knox’s work plays at the legal boundaries of what’s possible, partly through her own autostereograms, and partly through painted clay urns which seem to steal from the Han Dynasty vases Ai Wei Wei variously overpainted, smashed, and branded with the Coca-Cola livery.

But as the exhibition’s curator Hannah Pierce points out in her introduction to the catalogue, it doesn’t always come off: the Belgian painter Luc Tuymans recently lost a lawsuit against the photographer Katrijn van Giel, whose work he had copied. Tuymans attempted to defend himself by pointing to his parodic intent; the judge ruled it was too humourless to count. Perhaps this exhibition about the relationship between art and law is necessarily also about the relationship between critical appraisal and law.

Katrijn van Giel is an individual. Cory Doctorow makes a distinction by arguing that giving in to the demands of large copyright-holding corporations amounts to allowing censorship to be established – a point also made by the black rectangles on Guarana Power, the work by the collective SUPERFLEX which led to Copy Right (2006), their work in Common Property. From here, he argues that such censorship can’t be achieved without allowing what is essentially wholesale surveillance of everyone on the internet.


Detail from Hannah Knox,  Reproduction (2015), photograph by Hydar Dewachi

Detail from Hannah Knox, Reproduction (2015), photograph by Hydar Dewachi


The full phrase used in the title is ‘Information Doesn’t Want to Be Free, People Do.’ Doctorow dismisses the critique of everyday internet use as merely about wasting time chatting and social media: these are deeply human, important activities.

But as much as anything else, Information Doesn’t Want to Be Free is Doctorow taking his own advice: a kind of autobiography and advert for the author’s previous work – perhaps most famously the Boing Boing website – and a platform for it in the future. And this is maybe where we get the closest to the separation between fame and intellectual property involved in the Larry phenomenon. Really, it’s a baroque illustration of Corey Doctorow’s dictum ‘fame won’t make you rich, but you can’t get paid without it’. Fandoms and shipping might not make One Direction or their management any money directly, but they help create the necessary conditions.


Common Property 1: SUPERFLEX and Tristram Shandy

3 Feb

by Tom Overton

Jerwood Encounters: Common Property is an exhibition about contemporary artists and copyright curated by Hannah Pierce. While it’s installed in the Jerwood Space on Union Street, London (15 January – 21 February 2016), I’m going to use this blog to publish a series of three interconnected essays about One Direction, magic eye pictures, Marcel Duchamp, John Berger, Kirill Medvedev, Alexander Pope, and how copyright law and creativity have been intertwined for at least the last 300 years. This is the first.

I’m writing this on a stackable chair with four steel legs. The wood-veneer seat is of one, curved piece with the back, and there are symmetrical cutaways roughly where my hips are. Something very like it – Arne Jacobsen’s 1952 ‘Ant chair’ – costs £296 from the Danish furniture company who own the design. If the one I’m sat on were worth anywhere near that, the previous tenants of my flat wouldn’t have left it behind. The differently shaped, less severe cutaways allow it to have most of the functionality of Jacobsen’s design without infringing upon his intellectual property. Copy Right, a 2006 piece by the Danish artists’ collective SUPERFLEX which features in Common Property, takes on this precise story by sawing the silhouettes of similar chairs back down to something close to an Ant Chair. The sawdust and excess wood sit on the floor just below; giving a physical, and appropriately messy form to the concept of ‘intellectual property’. In a few grams of otherwise worthless material, it represents the grounds for what could be an extremely expensive law suit.

SUPERFLEX, Copyright (2006). Photograph by Hydar Dewachi (

SUPERFLEX, Copy Right, 2006. Photograph by Hydar Dewachi (

The work pinpoints the almost metaphysical question at the core of copyright: even if you pay your £296, you own a chair, but not the right to reproduce it. There is a clear separation of idea and object at work here. Interestingly, and perhaps unsurprisingly, the Washington State University page on plagiarism connects the philosophy of René Descartes (1596–1650) – and his  famous assertion ‘I think therefore I am’ – directly to the development of intellectual property legislation.

Whether or not there’s anything in that, the laws which govern SUPERFLEX’s activity began to take shape in the century after Descartes’ death, as a way of responding to the copying abilities of the printing press. The British Government’s 1710 ‘Statute of Anne’ is generally recognised as the first real piece of copyright legislation. Visual artists like William Hogarth (1697 – 1764) were demanding greater commercial control over their images; a law was passed in 1735 in response.

As I’ll explore in later posts, Common Property is partly about artists responding to digital reproduction by blurring the boundaries between artistic and legal creativity. Centuries before, mechanical reproduction stimulated the same energy and cunning.

In a delightfully grubby episode entirely of his own engineering, the poet Alexander Pope (1688–1744) anonymously released a cache of his letters to the publisher Edmund Curll (d. 1747), a long-standing adversary who was soliciting material for a pirated Pope biography; Curll ‘took the bait’[1] and published them in 1735. Pope’s hand now appeared forced into publishing a ‘correct’ edition of his own letters. By 1737, an undeterred Curll had published five volumes of Pope’s correspondence from a Covent Garden shop that used the poet’s head as a sign.[2] When he published Dean Swift’s Literary Correspondence in 1741, a volume including letters between Pope and Jonathan Swift, Pope took him to court, claiming rights over both those he’d sent and those he’d received. According to the academic Mark Rose, Lord Chancellor Hardwicke’s decision marked ‘an important moment in the production of the concept of intellectual property […] in the court’s response, the essentially immaterial nature of the object of copyright was born’:[3]

It is only a special property in the receiver, possibly the paper may belong to him; but this does not give a licence to any person whatsoever to publish them to the world, for at most the receiver only has a joint property with the writer.[4]

As the academic Tim Padfield points out, Lawrence Sterne put it more concisely in Tristram Shandy (1760–7): ‘the sweat of a man’s brows and the exsudations of a man’s brains, are as much a man’s own property, as the breeches upon his backside’.[5]

Now we’re back on the subject of seating, SUPERFLEX made Copy Right as a continuation of the themes of another 2006 work, Guaraná Power. This work was made for the Sao Paulo Biennial, but barred at the last minute at the insistence of the multinational drinks company whose copyright it infringed. SUPERFLEX’s web page incorporates the story into the work by obscuring brand names with black rectangles. It’s the aesthetics of censorship we associate with a twentieth-century state at war, put in service of fizzy pop. The intention had been to work in collaboration with the farmers of guaraná, the energy drink ingredient, to highlight how manufacturers were increasing their profits while reducing what they paid the farmers. If eighteenth-century poets or painters needed to be supported as the originators of works which then went through various technological processes as it is mass-produced into the market, aren’t guaraná farmers the originators of the drink in which their produce is the active ingredient? That’s clearly not how it works. The deciding factor seems to be what part of the process we decide to value more, and for what reasons. It’s an issue I’ll try explore in my next post in relation to Owen G. Parry’s work in the exhibition, which draws on the relationship the band One Direction have with their fans.

SUPERFLEX, Copyright (2006). Photograph by Hydar Dewachi (

SUPERFLEX, Copy Right, 2006. Photograph by Hydar Dewachi (

[1] Howard Erskine-Hill, ‘Pope, Alexander (1688–1744)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, ed. by H. C. G. Matthew and Brian Harrison (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008) <> [accessed 17 August 2011].

[2] Raymond N. MacKenzie, ‘Curll, Edmund (d. 1747)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, ed. by H. C. G. Matthew and Brian Harrison (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008) <> [accessed 17 August 2011].

[3] Mark Rose, ‘The Author in Court: Pope v. Curll (1741)’, Cultural Critique, 21 (1992), 197– 217 (p. 198).

[4] PRO C11/1569/29, cit. Irene Tucker, ‘Writing Home: Evelina, the Epistolary Novel and the Paradox of Property’, ELH, 60 (Summer, 1993), 419–39 (p. 419).

[5] Laurence Sterne, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman [1760-7], ed. by Ian Campbell Moss (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), p. 177.

‘I’d rather be there if I could’

9 Oct

by Tom Overton

I wasn’t at ‘A Singular Line’, a panel discussion of the two video works in the Jerwood Drawing Prize 2015 chaired by Elena Hill. I eavesdropped a couple of days later on SoundCloud. Scribbling notes down on a pad in front of the screen, I watched the recording roll by from left to right, the audio represented by a row of vertical equaliser bars which started as white for unplayed, then slowly shaded into orange.

The recording lasts fifty-one minutes and fifteen seconds; a nicely palindromic number, mirrored by the way the greater height of the bars at the beginning and the end show the audience’s applause. The only thing which gets in the way of the line’s symmetry is a taller bar showing the moment one of the artists, Elisa Alaluusua, moves closer to the microphone suddenly increases the volume. Finer details – the gentle, rain-like sound of cars passing along Union Street and past the gallery – are generalized out, registering on headphones, but not on the screen.

Alaluusua’s film, Unconditional Line, won second place in this year’s Jerwood Drawing Prize. It’s a record of a journey by plane from her home town Luusua, Finland to London, where she now lives and works. Rather than the line of progress the Indiana Jones films use to show flights on a map, the details here are abstracted into a seven-minute record of the grids and patterns on the runway: hieroglyphs from a writing system she admits not to understand beyond the abstract sense that they communicate safety.

Unconditional Line

Elisa Alaluusua, Unconditional Line, 2015 Video, duration: 7mins (still illustrated)


I don’t understand the original meaning of these symbols either. Nor do I remember, when I watched it for the first time a couple of weeks before, trying to. Each of them is intersected by the sound of her daughter drawing out notes on the cello – not so much the lines of a melody, but the varying tautnesses of the strings and the bow, slowly and resonantly scraping against each other. I thought about the texture of the tarmac, and the texture of the strings, and how each was a core, running from pegs to bridge, wound round and round with a thinner, spiralling wire. The sound telescopes a distance of a couple of thousand miles into a couple of millimetres, all the more intimately for being a recording by a mother of a daughter.

‘I don’t like looking out of the window’, Alaluusua said of her attitude to travel at one point during the discussion; ‘I’d rather be there if I could.’ If her piece shows a journey through the things at its periphery, Cleaning Up by Sean Maltby very specifically shows the journey itself. The journey, that is, of a rake with a camera attached to it, across different surfaces – the gravel is the noisiest – rattling through the gallery headphones and coming to a stop after one minute and six seconds.

Sean Maltby, Cleaning Up, 2014 Video, duration 1min 6sec (still illustrated)

Sean Maltby, Cleaning Up, 2014 Video, duration 1min 6sec (still illustrated)


In a review mentioned at various points in the evening, which compared Chinese and European practices of drawing, the Guardian’s Jonathan Jones picked up on Alaluusua’s piece: he ‘would probably be more purist about what constitutes drawing’, and not allow it in. ‘Doesn’t video get plenty of space elsewhere?’ he asked.

What would this purity look like? Reducing things to the marking tool, the marked surface, or support, and the act of making the marks, with whatever motive and design which sits behind it? In the open discussion before the applause at the end, Oliver Fuke – the gallery manager – addressed the first by mentioning Alexandre Astruc’s concept of the caméra-stylo; the idea that directors could use their cameras like a pen and cinema could be a kind of writing. It is easy to imagine how Astruc might have arrived at the analogy: he was both a director and a critical writer about film.

Though often illuminating, comparisons between disciplines – film, writing and drawing in this case – tend to get off the ground by generalising about the constituent parts. Like a hot air balloon, we’ve undoubtedly thrown some important things out as ballast, but we wouldn’t have this usefully elevated perspective if we hadn’t.

Comparing drawing to writing has a tendency to pull both back to the innovations in writing technology and print reproduction around the European Renaissance; the point in history, Maltby suggested in the discussion, when we started to think of the default substrate of drawing and writing as being paper or card. As Jones himself pointed out in both his review and another of the British Museum’s Drawing in Silver and Gold exhibition, the technologies have actually always been more plural than that. His own piece in mind, Maltby mentions the mark-making involved in the Nazca lines in the Peruvian desert, the Chauvet caves in France, or more recently, the stamping and yomping involved in Richard Long’s work.

Having addressed the tool and support, this leaves the act itself. Around 38 minutes in to the recording, Alaluuasua hands Professor Anita Taylor, the Director of the Prize, a marked-up transcript of an interview Taylor gave the British Library’s Artists’ Lives series, and asks her to read it out. Like Maltby, Alaluusua considers her work to be about drawing, and balances the film work with more traditional pieces on paper; Taylor’s definition was instructive for her.

Professor Anita Taylor, Elena Hill, Sean Maltby, Elisa Alaluusua

Professor Anita Taylor, Elena Hill, Sean Maltby, Elisa Alaluusua


Except it isn’t really a definition at all; it interprets, suggests, and invites contradiction and addition. Taylor argues that drawing is something that articulates a surface and a space, involving a bare ground and a residue moved across it, which can just as much be the light on the surfaces of Alaluusua’s piece as the rake on the surfaces of Maltby’s.

‘I like the word dragan’, Taylor says, ‘which is about dragging something’. For her, this Old Saxon term ‘is at the root of drawing’ as much as the Renaissance Italianate ‘disegno’, which the National Gallery call ‘the ability to make the drawing and the intellectual capacity to invent the design’. The physicality – the action of moving from one point to another – is at least as important to her as the planning behind it. But isn’t the same true of the study of the origin of words? Isn’t etymology also a kind of steady, rolling motion through the unknowable number of people who’ve used a word like ‘drawing’, and off into an equally unknowable future?

‘I seem very mixed up today’: notes on three drawings

16 Sep

by Tom Overton


At the bottom right-hand corner of Sue England’s entry to the Jerwood Drawing Prize, a line of pencilled text reads ‘I am sorry to be like this…I seem very mixed up today.’ The words – almost imperceptible when you look at a reproduction –  are at the densest part of the drawing, looped around and woven into the texture of the irregular grid which covers the centre of the paper. A thicker line runs around the overall shape; because it’s just inside its margins, it doesn’t quite define the edges. The warp and weft of the resulting grid seem to billow out above it, suggesting a sense of depth, or of something contained. It looks like a brain seen in profile through an MRI scanner, facing to the right, the cerebellum slightly lower on the left; perhaps the thicker line is an artery.

The title – The Productivity of Absence (Hairnet) – nearly, but not quite proves this initial impression wrong. The hairnet is the one worn by England’s mother every night, keeping what I imagine to be a neat perm in place: a comforting, regular routine among the slippages, gaps and disappearances of dementia. Other lines are variations on ‘I went for my pension now I can’t find my money’; ‘please help me’ turns up a few times. When England describes the net as ‘holding in her anxieties, while the connections unwind’; the pronoun is meant for her mother, but it can’t but stand for the artist too. And for most of the people looking at the drawing – the Alzheimer’s Society estimate that one in three people in the UK will suffer from dementia.

The lines that gently suggest the owner’s sadness and fear at people losing patience with her are almost unbearable, precisely because of their involvement in such a delicate structure. But when England calls it the ‘the gradual unravelling of a mind and life’, and metaphorically weaves these threads back into family history in old, cotton-weaving industrial Lancashire, there seems to be some kind of consolation in the ‘Northern work ethic’ she talks about inheriting. It’s everywhere in the understated meticulousness of this drawing.

702 England

Sue England, ‘The Productivity of Absence’, 2015.



Emma Douglas’s Cato Marble Graffiti (2014/15) is a rectangle of marble, propped landscape-format between the floor and the wall, as though it hasn’t been hung yet. Like England’s piece it doesn’t reproduce very well, but as the name suggests, it’s covered in graffiti. On seeing the name Cato – I knew he was a Latin poet, but Wikipedia says grammarian too – the Roman numerals, and the arrowed love-heart, I started guessing. Was it a wry comment linking drawing to the hubris of toilet-door or school desk graffitists, underlined by the classicising touch of the material. Now this will last, I thought  it might be saying, deliberately telescoping millennia of history by anachronistically scratching a mobile phone number next to Cato’s name. (I remembered, at this point, a story about a mausoleum commissioned by Silvio Berlusconi complete with grave-goods for a contemporary Pharaoh; there was apparently a marble mobile phone in there.)

Just look at the solidity of the marble; it was too weighty to be mounted on the wall alongside those other, flimsier works. But even then, just when such a gesture might seem a little pompous and self-satisfied, it might refer over to Shakespeare’s Sonnet 55, with its confidence that it’s the well-constructed declaration of love which will endure, not the expensive material.

Douglas’s statement in the catalogue reassured me at first, explaining her interest ‘in the graffiti you see carved into park benches […] I always fantasise about the lives of people who put it there.’ Then, doing this a little in the space of the line breaks, I read that the hubris had actually been mine. I’d not looked carefully enough at ‘25.12.1988 – 14.12.2010′, in Roman and Arabic numerals:

When my son, Cato, died suddenly at the age of twenty-one, we were building a kitchen for him. This piece of marble was cut out to make room for the stove.

The marks on the marble are part of his story, my graffiti about him.

77 Douglas

Emma Douglas, ‘Cato marble graffiti’, 2014/5.



I don’t think I misinterpreted Lee John Phillips’ The Shed Project so much as interpret it in the light of Douglas and England’s pieces. For reasons that will become clear it seems important to be as accurate about the materials used as possible: an A4 Moleskine-type black-covered, cream, plain-papered notebook, and what I imagine to be a series of very fine-tipped pens, running out of ink in succession of each other. With these materials, Phillips has begun a drawn, numbered inventory of his late grandfather’s tool shed, piece by piece, including multiples: there are page upon page of washers, nuts and bolts; some of the pliers and compasses look traced onto the paper. This is only volume 1; he’s completed 4,000 of an estimated 80,000. Thickness and texture are suggested with hatching or, occasionally, an asterisk indicating an unusual material; they have a playfulness and sense of eccentricity which means that, despite the accuracy of the drawings, they look closer to a very precisely executed cartoon than a Haynes manual or set of assembly instructions. Phillips calls it ‘an exercise of discipline’ and ‘a record of my own cultural and industrial heritage, reflecting on a social ethos I feel is being sadly eroded.’ The effect is of an outline of his grandfather: a careful, exacting presence suggested through the surfaces of things he touched and arranged.

2152 Phillips

Lee John Phillips, ‘The Shed Project: Volume 1’, 2014/5

The Jerwood Drawing Prize is open until the 25th of October.