I wake up late today and run to the gallery as I was expecting it to be busy – it wasn’t. I’d forgotten that Sunday is quiet in Venice, with many restaurants and bars closed, especially in my neighbourhood of San Stefano. A few people come inside and I manage to do a lot of work but it’s cold and damp to the point that my fingers become numb. In the evening I go for a run to warm up and then have dinner and embark on a new project with a fabulous photographer who lives close to the gallery. I met him last year when my friend Mariana pulled him into the gallery – as she did with every passerby. He has since, very kindly, photographed all our performances and events at Anita’s gallery. His name is Mark Edward Smith – British, although born in Morocco – he is full of stories about glamorous adventures with famous artists, dancers, and film directors but he is also an artist himself – frequently exhibiting his photography he has published over thirty books. Mark has lived a nomadic life finally settling in Venice more than a couple of decades ago. He has a strong accent that I can’t quite place, speaks numerous languages and loves hosting large, multinational dinner parties in his quirky home, one of which was a leaving party for me and my friends last time I was here. He lives in his photography studio, in a charming, ancient building that opens into a surprise private courtyard. The building is just opposite the Iranian pavilion and is similar in shape (but of course a tiny version of) New York’s Flatiron building or London’s Cheesegrater (turned on its side) and I pass it every time I take the public gondola across the Grand Canal.
While Mark was taking photographs of my performance with Paul Morgan last week he had an idea for a photography project whereby I work onto enormous rolls of black and/or white photographer’s paper – of which, I discover, he has many. I have been thinking about what I’m going to do with the paper and I come prepared with a travel speaker, a musical track plus a box of pastels.
I like to produce drawings in response to musical recordings because they provide a set duration as well as a structured pattern than I can listen to and repeat over again to produce a series of drawings with a similar size, density, and energetic quality. When drawing music the tension and movements affect the mark-making directly so minimal yet dramatic is a good combination. One piece that exemplifies, for me, drama and minimalism is Steve Reich’s The Desert Music (1983). The title and texts sung by the choir come from William Carlos Williams’ book of collected poems by the same name that gives an impression of some of the fundamental principles of music: repetition, pace, tension, and resolution. In the third movement the lines of the poem ‘repeat and repeat again’ are layered and repeated, ‘as the pace mount’ they sing, ‘the theme is difficult – difficult – dii-fii-cult…’ the choir repeats and the tension keeps growing. The movement resolves at the end of the poem, the last word repeats re-solved, re-ee-solved, before continuing to the next movement.
In Mark’s studio, I perform an automatic drawing in response to The Desert Music, which is approximately 48 minutes in duration. I work in continuous motion using the pastels. The size of the photography paper easily fits my entire body with arms stretched out in all directions, I am able to reach, stretch. stand on my hands and move around on the floor. My movements are spontaneous and impulsive and I use acting and movement techniques, in order to be primal and animal-like. The Meisner technique has been particularly useful in order to influence the character of my gestures while maintaining a level of conviction or truthfulness to how my body wants to respond to a situation in the present moment. Stanford Meisner told actors not to think and not to create but rather to respond impulsively within a set of crafted circumstances. Contact improvisation is another practice that helps me to move in continuous motion using the walls, floor, maybe other dancers, or any object I am in contact with – with my attention on gravity, balance, and movement. The drawing is finished when the music stops. The aim, for me, is losing track of time and space – being in a timeless moment. The gestures involved in this technique have a similar quality of line to the traditional Japanese ‘enso,’ a circular ink drawing, symbolizing enlightenment and the universe. Improvisation in drawing is related to the aesthetics of imperfection, the unfinished and uncontrolled – the accidental and the incidental – themes that I have been exploring for my current exhibition. In my drawings, I think it is clear that improvised gestures have a greater sense of unity and flow than those made with conscious thought. I have also noticed how drawing while deliberately aiming for something ugly can produce beauty; drawing with one’s attention on something other than the drawing almost always produces a balanced quality of line and symmetry, even – or especially – on a large scale for a prolonged period as control slips further away.
In acting classes that I’ve taken it seems clear that allowing ways of being that we naturally prefer to hide – weakness, nervousness, wobbliness – can be the ingredients for the most compelling performances (and drawings). Psychoanalyst Thomas Moore has written about the need to ‘carry the fool’ as an essential ingredient in the creative process. With that in mind, the challenge of mixing chalk and oil pastel, having an uneven wall to draw onto and the paper not being properly fixed to the floor are all embraced. I sometimes even try to make ‘bad’ drawings as a means to make myself think or behave ‘outside the box’ or to create new patterns of behaviour. Surprisingly often, ‘bad’ ideas and situations have turned out to be ‘good’ in one way or another. I feel that allowing imperfections to be not only visible but in focus allows us to consider the life, history, and value of the hand-made object. Although connected to deadlines and death, failure and resolution are both as fleeting as any other point in the flow of time. What comes next is making something new.
After producing this enormous drawing and taking thousands of photographs, which now need editing, Mark produces a decadent dinner of cheese, pasta, wine, ice-cream, whipped cream, followed by a cigar, which seemed appropriate. After a long discussion about life and full of plans for another session later in the week, I walk back to my apartment, which involves another wade through the high tide at San Marco. I also check on my film, which plays in the window of my gallery along the way.