Like no place known


Like No Place Known, a collaborative curatorial exhibition project and catalogue essay with Katarina Frank. Works by Kieran Boland (Australia), Cecilia Darle (Sweden), Gunilla Hansson (Sweden). Patrick Nilsson (Sweden), Jin Shan (PR China) Andreas Soma (Sweden). Project component of the international Drawing Out Conference conducted through RMIT University and the University of Arts London. The School of Art Gallery, RMIT University, Melbourne, Australia.

Originally published at

Is there such a place? Can we think of a place not known?

“Do you see anything? It seems I am trying to tell you a dream–making, a vain attempt, because no relation of a dream can convey the dream sensation, that commingling of absurdity, surprise, and bewilderment in a tremor of struggling revolt, that notion of being captured by the incredible ..." 1

Patrick Nillsson’s drawing Screen suggests a figure simultaneously hidden and exposed, silent behind a screen. What ‘unknown place’ does this figure reside in? A place that can only exist in art.

Peculiarly the idea of something unknown, whether based on reflection or imagination, must come from a source of knowledge and understanding. Envisaging the idea of an unknown place suggests the possibility of a prototype or a proposition, and is about trying to step outside what we know in order to propose a conception of the world through the language of metaphor and image, or alternatively heuristic conclusion. However in conjuring an ‘unknown place’ one must work through what is known.

‘Everyone who draws or writes knows that they retrace lines of thought that have already been taken’2 and that the act of drawing, like writing, has traditionally been the most practical and exploratory way of trying to form a proposition. Henry Moore embodies this quality within drawing in his statement that ‘drawing is a way of finding one’s way’. Drawing is not merely a means to represent, but is also a way to think and ideate within a space that is relatively unfettered and diverse.

Next to spoken language, drawing and writing are primary human impulses of communication with the origins of writing in drawing, and drawing in writing, each capable of invoking direct or circuitous meaning. However, drawing and writing also conjure a sense of opposition located in childhood as we learn to write between lines and to read between lines.

Through drawing Andreas Soma and Kieran Boland dissolve and question the distinct roles and characteristics of drawing and writing. Both artists work within a ‘literary aesthetic’ that helps with accessibility, making drawings that have a notational appearance that imply free association. Soma’s word drawing Description (Not stupid, Careful, All right, Good friend, Headstrong, Good, Unfair, Very good, Good ideas) employs words that seem to convey meaning through the use of descriptive lists. However, the words remain incongruous and evade meaning. Soma’s list fails to deliver, sitting at the perimeters of semantic meaning, the content residing in the drawing itself, a nervous and jittery, yet purposeful avowal. The failure of Soma’s words to convey semantic content implies an anxious and humorous apprehension about our inability to communicate. His selection of a seemingly archaic font, pixilated and finished in smudged ballpoint pen shifts, as do Boland’s drawings, between being proclamation and a displaced or unassuming note.

Drawing and writing are intimate activities although both distinctively influence the public domain. Through fictional simulation Boland exacts a series of enlarged notebook pages that suggest school workbooks in a style echoing illustrated narrative. His drawings invoke past and confusing times, a world of children, television and fragmentary notations, a time of trying to grasp what type of place the world might be.

Can any of us locate the moment in our childhood when text replaces image as our primary means of understanding the world?

Boland suggests a type of encounter between drawing and writing, where scrappy and puzzling notes clash with refined illustrational drawing in an attempt to reassess the hierarchies surrounding drawing and writing, and the role of personal or individual expression. Oddly magnified in scale to decrease our sense of intimacy and to position his drawings in a more public domain, Boland’s notebook pages heighten and expose an antagonistic struggle between text and image, addressing the childhood shift away from drawing towards writing. Yet with hindsight and aware of our common primary impulses, we believe in drawing in much the same way as we believe in writing and spoken language. Boland identifies a place of doubt and confusion, a moment in our lives, through his depiction of an illustrated world, where children grapple to find clear meaning and are challenged by perplexing and absurd convictions – Vegetarians who compromise are people who lose faith.

‘The surface of the drawing is the site of involuntary traces, just as the surface of the body is the scene of involuntary muscular motions – blushing, tics, twitches – the play of internal effects across the surface of the body.’3

Gunilla Hansson’s small drawings are like mappings, or the result of drifting within unknown places. Her works involve transparent watercolour and a precise use of graphite. They link to each other as part of an investigation about place, location and a physical and mental topography.  She works with chance and exacting elements to form drawings that evoke maps of land and sea, edges and boundaries. She uses dots as points of location, a marker of reference in a new territory, while larger shapes form boundaries separating and linking places and various positions.

‘A coastline is a generalisation of geographical particulars … the trace of inductive reasoning … representing an empirically verifiable “Fact” but, in reality, it is the graphic counterpart of the “similitudes”  … geographers use to bring order to the landscape … joining up unlike things, it is a graphic symbol “inviting thought” …’ 4

‘Coastlines could be records of passage [that are] … traces of technical errancy, saying more about the navigator’s own movement than about the physical relation of things.’ 5

Hansson changes and varies her strategies in her drawings playing with a variety of visual languages to imply the subjectivity necessary in seeking to understand imagined or ‘unknown’ spaces, recognising that the use of homogeneous methods may simply limit greater or accurate interpretation. While Hansson’s drawings are primarily provoked by imagination, they also reflect a polemic about the interpretation of space and the ‘flawlessly’ accurate devices we use outside of art to interpret reality.

Art has the capacity to deceive in relation to reality. We are often complicit in this deception and willingly partake in the pre-requisite suspension of our disbelief. Cecilia Darle utilises verisimilitude to challenge the way we consider reality.

Darle explores space working with three-dimensional paper forms to delve into the often-burdened relationship of illusion to reality. Handmade everyday objects – a shoe, wooden sticks, a small radio, a shadow, a ball and a flower are rendered in paper and more or less covered with graphite.  Through these forms Darle emphasises the ‘idea’ of drawing as a model of reality, a simulation that places emphasis on the relationship of models and what they represent, an isolating position of clarity, supporting reflection, interpretation, perhaps even hypothesis. Through her three-dimensional paper forms Darle encourages a type of parallax when thinking about the way we perceive reality in the world.

The drawings of Patrick Nilsson and Jin Shan connect us to an atavistic world that contains depictions of impulses we recognise as having existed throughout time. Nilsson’s often-violent depictions of everyday life remind us of a place that we prefer not to know, a society in the stages of moral decline. Nilsson depicts the world from a distance almost as illustrated reportage, seemingly representing everyday life in a manner akin to the violent Images of war in newspapers. Often under gathering and ominously dark storm clouds Nilsson’s fine and delicate drawings of figures enacting violence and depravity of every type increase the sense of a studied presentation of an almost unrecognisable society.

‘He has to live in the midst of the incomprehensible, which is detestable.’ 6

Nilsson’s delicate and refined drawings are characterised by an almost abstract formalism represented through the seamless perfection of modernist architecture, a backdrop for presentation of the oddities and peculiarities of societal dysfunction. Nilsson’s drawings are noticeably concerned with strange and unconventional perceptions of reality. In some ways Nilsson utilises formalism as a metaphor to describe an overarching societal repression and subjugation.

Jin Shan similarly hints at ‘… the fascination of the abomination you know.’Shan’s animation Kill presents a formalized and ordered society where people uniformly smoke and slaughter animals, repetitively chopping the heads of black and white sheep alike. Each uniformed figure salutes with a meat axe, their hats brandishing medical crosses in a world where activities of this nature simply must take place. Shan equally utilises formalism and repetition to reflect an inhumane but organised society, his angular use of line echoing the lithographic and etched lines of Otto Dix, reflecting the harshness of the societal machine.

Looking at contemporary drawing is a little like travelling on a Eurail Pass. As you get off in each location you encounter difference. However, the condition of contemporary art is such that you can’t sit back as you can in an air-conditioned carriage and simply enjoy the view. There is no ‘grand tour’ as the ‘here to there’ of contemporary art asks so much more of us because we are never clear of the destination, we never know where we will end up – whether or not the territory will be schematic, perceptual or authorative, whether there will be maps that don’t exist or spaces that are featureless and flat, or whether we will encounter worlds that are not ours. Many of the places we go to in contemporary drawing are psychological spaces rather than physical places.

Peter Westwood, 2010

    1. Conrad,J., Heart of Darkness, Part 1, Penguin Publishing, 1973
    2. Carter, P., Dark Writing: Geography, Performance, Design, p3. University of Hawai’i Press, 2009
    3. Clark,J., “Smudges, Smears and Adventitious Marks”, Interstices 4: p1- 8
    4. Op cit, p50
    5. Carter, P., Dark Writing: Geography, Performance, Design, p51. University of Hawai’i Press, 2009
    6. Conrad,J., Heart of Darkness, Part 1, Penguin Publishing, 1973
    7. Ibid

© Peter Westwood 2020