Archive | Tom Overton RSS feed for this section

‘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.