The Topography of Mark-Making Manifestos: A la recherche du temps perdu

(In search of lost time)
Once upon a time there was a cave.
And there were men.
And they drew their escapades with the mammal kind.
Once upon 13 000 years later, their relatives in the fertile crescent began to count their cattle. And as they counted, they tapped. Not only did they tap, but they pressed hard.
Into clay tablets. To keep records.
And their counting became signs. And these signs became symbols.
Some were numbers. Others were sheep. Still other goats.
This was in Sumeria.

Example of Cuneiform writing | Sumeria circa 3200 BC

The Sumerians traveled to Egypt. They traded there.
And the Egyptians too recorded transactions.

Engraving stone they left to the eternity of the dead. For the trade of the living, they concocted dried sheets of mashed papyrus pulp.

Papyrus of Ani | Egypt circa 1240 BC

On this paper, they marked symbols. Unlike the Sumerians’ cuneiform, their scribes evolved a more intricate script, hieroglyphs.

Pictograms we call them. Abstracted drawings that represent nouns, verbs, numbers.

An art to which the Chinese remain loyal to this day.

Along came the Hebrews. A nomadic nation. Until their enslavement. And upon freedom. In the dusk of their liberation they came upon a mountain, where word has it they received two tablets, containing five scrolls. And on those scrolls. The first phonograms.

Aleppo Codex: oldest extant manuscript of complete Hebrew bible | Aram Tzoba (Syria) circa 930 AD

Symbols that represent sounds. The sounds that Humanity makes to compose words. The words that we use to communicate thoughts, verbs, nouns, adjectives and beyond. There, the desert witnessed the birth of the first abstract language. The genesis of abstract thought.

While the Hebrews transmitted their laws from mouth to mouth, parchment to parchment, Egypt and Babylon saw their empires crumble. Greek philosophers gave way to Roman orators, Barbarian warriors to Christian emperors. The greatest libraries and temples of knowledge surrendered their treasures to destruction and warfare. And western civilization entered an era of ignorance and illiteracy.

Many the anonymous man was entrusted once again with the task of depicting scenes on walls. Not on the walls of caves or Roman villas, but on the walls of houses of worship.

Mosaic | Ravenna, Italy | circa 550 AD

Byzantine mosaics, paintings, sculptures, and friezes replaced the letter, removing from the masses an instrument of transmission. Now, they were left to commit history to memory, to collect their identity and recite it daily in song and in tales, lest it should disappear.

That is. Until. A man named Guttenberg appeared.

And slowly, a path was carved.
Man’s voice regained the means to run, fly, soar, far beyond expression, over a vast uncharted system of dissemination.

Democracy was re-born. The exchange of knowledge and experience threatened to render all men equal.

Hyperconnected by Hugh Macleod | circa 2008

Today the means of dissemination have become accessible to more people than ever before. Democracy looms large and is accompanied by the broadening of identity [with the exception of certain bastions of academia, frontiers of knowledge, which remain sealed to those who cannot pay the price – but let’s not get sidetracked – we’ll save that for another article].

Once upon a time there was the artist.

Every man was the artist.

Art Blog by Hugh Macleod | circa 2010

The artist was born out of a need to master the visual language of expression. He did so loyally. To him we owe our collective memory. To him we owe the ability to document history. To transmit identity.

But today. What will he document today?
Blurred territories? As the geographies of our identities merge into one.
Blurred soundscapes? styles? tastes?

As we pat, taste, see hear smell, pick and take, forming composite identities out of our mixed appreciation for culture … the global culture that includes every man’s history, every man’s geography … We are greedy in our quest for self.  We trample the topography of time, leaving no rock of knowledge unturned, for perhaps underneath hides … our true identity.

And the artist watches. No longer every man.  Rare now, among the myriad time travelers who would forgo documenting identity – the distinction between the self and other – to dredge the information highways for profit and adventure.

The artist abstracts to describe the blending of form until it no longer describes figures. He searches for a common, global iconography to describe how we’ve merged into one.

Some artists refrain from representation. They use time. Just time. Like Guiseppe Penone.

Alpi marittime: Continuerà a crescere tranne che in quel punto ("It Will Continue to Grow Except at that Point") by Giuseppe Penone | Italy | 1968 - 1978

Alpi marittime: Continuerà a crescere tranne che in quel punto ("It Will Continue to Grow Except at that Point") by Giuseppe Penone | Alternate view

Who embeds a bronze cast of his own hand in the side of a tree and returns over and over, through the passage of 10 years to photograph, observe, and document the imprint he has left. Now only observable by piercing x-rays, that render transparent the tree’s mature membranes.

The layers of bark have embraced and enveloped Penone’s imprint and made  him part of them.

Identities merged. Tree and man.

Other artists seek out ancient, universal languages of marking time. Like Doni Simons.

One. Two. Three. Four. Vertical lines. And Five. A diagonal bar.

Untitled by Doni Silver Simons | circa 2007

Untitled by Doni Silver Simons | circa 2007

A universal designation of the unit “Five”.

Perhaps derived from a thumb held, folded in, against the palm, with the remaining four digits stretching above it, erect, reaching straight upward.

She marks. Layers paint, ink, fabric. And unmarks. Removing paint, ink, thread.

She marks while allowing time to affect the marking.

Via the aging of the marks. Or the accumulation of them.

Untitled by Doni Silver Simons | circa 2007

Or hers and others movements, as their gestures permute the markings in time, creating variations on the theme of “Five”.

Still other artists try to redefine the boundaries of our identity. Many of the distinguishing factors that separate cultures have disappeared.

Yet some artists-slash-chroniclers-of-time-slash-identity have happened upon a boundary that remains relatively less surmountable.


0 through 9 by Jasper Johns | circa 1960

60 years ago, Jasper Johns, embarked upon a journey of such discovery, superimposing one number after the next. Digits. 0. 1. 2. 3. Through 9.

La Tour Eiffel by Jean Cocteau | circa 1939

Creative ingenue Jean Cocteau, who would use film, in addition to drawing, to navigate the uncharted waters of the 20th century, said “I am neither an illustrator, or a painter. My drawings are handwriting untwined/un-knotted and re-entwined/retied otherwise”.

Le Testament d'Orphée by Jean Cocteau | circa 1963

Enter the late Cy Twombly, artist and advocate of the evolution of the scrawl. The transformation of marks of communication, left by the human (versus robotic) hand. From legible and literate to scribble and doodle, Twombly drew our identities as they lost their ability to communicate with their most direct and immediate means, known even to pre-historic man.

Cold Stream by Cy Twombly | 1966

Twombly perhaps perceived the written or drawn phonogram as lost. Or perhaps, his drawings conserved human touch, defiant, even in doodling, never accepting an end to the marking of the hand.

from Untitled (Bacchus) series by Cy Twombly | circa 2005

His work seems to ask: Has human identity surrendered to the machine?

But despite Twombly’s despair and defiance, in the face of Penone’s realism … Although Johns and Simons would find unified human identity in counting, transcendent of language, and Cocteau would manipulate  photographic and cinematographic representation to play with every man’s illusion of the newly-irrelevant of documenting, some artists would remain faithful to an ancient identity.

And Now Holy Lamp ... by David B Wolk | 2009

If the Court by David B Wolk | 2011

David B. Wolk, a scribe of religious texts, in the tradition of the Hebrews, remains an artisan of tradition. Jewish kabbalah maintains that the Hebrew letters themselves are the building blocks, or the “DNA”, of the universe.

Hasten my Beloved by David B Wolk | 2009

Blessed is He who ... by David B Wolk | 2010

To Wolk, his work is simply that of all humanity, the emulation of the act of Genesis. A re-creation of creation. Not unsimiliar to the prayers uttered and re-uttered over the past several millenia, as Jews,  dedicated and re-dedicated the Universe to its original creator.

Speaking of the universe, here’s a universal human habit: identity is transmitted by repeating similar vocal patterns, and manipulating one’s hand to trace, precisely, the same symbols for these sounds as one’s father’s did.

We find ourselves at sea in the relentless and uncharted waters of Globalization. This, our era, simultaneously proclaims every man an artist, while reserving the industry’s [yes, art – like everything else – has become an industry] greatest spoils for the masters of celebrity status and cult persona.

A short history of this phenomenon will segue us into the “coming soon” next article in this series.

During World War I, and again in World War II, scrawled drawings appeared behind enemy lines. ” X was here”, they said. The names varied from place to place. But one name stood out and re-appeared more frequently than the others. Kilroy.

Kilroy was a U.S. military ship parts inspector. A he inspected, he would scribble in chalk  “Kilroy was here”, taking credit for a job well done. Soon, soldiers happened upon his autograph deep within the belly of these machines of war.

Kilroy Was Here | Anytime | Anyplace | Anyone

Earning their respect for having made his mark, in hard to reach places and garnering admiration for the multiplicity of his marks, Kilroy’s graffiti engendered the highest form of flattery: imitation. Soon a voyeuristic image accompanied the motto, “Kilroy” was drawn peeking over a wall, proclaiming that no place was beyond his dominion.

Today’s graffiti artists have taken on that challenge. Their work broadcasts the right of every individual. Ours is the right to mark where we’ve stood, sign our autograph, take credit or take blame.  The most accessible way to personalize our mark in time and space? Our signature. No other like it.

As the speed of dissemination accelerates, it seems there is little room for Proust’s nostalgia. It seems that time past is indeed lost, and exponentially so with every moment it recedes in our collective rear-view mirror memory.

A question remains, lingering, not long, like a taste on our tongue, smell in the air …
Can we calibrate our individual rhythms to dance in harmony with one another? Can we replicate the same grace and agility with which we mark our own passage through time, territory, life in our interactions? Synchronize our passage with others’?  As we leave our individual imprints on the topography of facebook, twitter, google +, and the very real streets of our cities, can we handle the output of 7 billion more “us”es?

Can human respect and dignity sustain the manic pace of our simultaneous output and  preserve the heritage of the billions of lives lived and transmitted hence?

I warrant it can … but only time will tell.


One thought on “The Topography of Mark-Making Manifestos: A la recherche du temps perdu

  1. Thank you Sarah for your erudite and poetic synopsis of the genesis of the visual language of expression and its intimate defining relationship to time and remembrance. In particular I was attracted to your premise that identity, premeditated, and thus defined by collective memory, is transmitted by means of artistic expression. Recognizing the artist as chronicler of time/chronicler of identity is a wonderfully revitalizing proposition! Pace Proustian nostalgia, your exploration of the often-overlapping themes of time, space and memory as represented by the living visual arts was as illuminating as it was skillfully summarized.
    The fixation with the past as the only place of authentic feeling or significant action has always struck me as somewhat romanticized. It seems that this idea, which so dominates today’s literary landscape reflects a disdain for the present, as if the present lacked the purity of the past and is thus somehow corrupted.
    I especially found your brief exploration of Guiseppe Penone’s merging of man and subject very instructive and hopeful as to a potential cure to the dreaded ails of globalization: in short a reevaluation of the process by which we become self. An organic give-and-take that magically alters both partners (male/female) and practitioners (animal-vegetable-mineral) in the act of REcreation. By emphasizing the tree, a living organism so closely resembling the human figure in appearance, Penone’s work suggests that by relating different entities and forces of memory, identities are touched and irrevocably altered.
    “The Topography of Time: A la recherche du temps perdu” takes us on a magical overview – from Ancient Sumeria and Egypt to MacLeod, Silver, Johns, Kilroy and beyond – reexamining and at times discovering the myriad paths of artistic expression as universal language of marking, and thus defining, time. This interface recalls a story of the great 18th century mystic and luminary, Rabbi Yisrael Ba’al Shem Tov: According to one version, finding himself and his daughter, the saintly Adele, shipwrecked on an island, they both discover much to their shock and dismay, that they have forgotten all their knowledge and have no books with them to recall. After much soul searching, one turns to the other and says, “I remember Aleph” while the other says, “And I remember Bet”. They continued thus until they had restored their entire recollection of the Hebrew alphabet and ultimately, all their previous knowledge. By remembering one letter, they were able to access all memory and existence: all of the letters/building blocks of creation are in the Aleph, the primordial encounter between man, the Divine, and their chosen medium of expression: that place where memory, and the everlasting marking of time and space collude ever so uniquely.

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