“And then to keep on living”
Originally commissioned to accompany ‘A Soft Introduction’, Laura Edmunds’ solo show at Ocean Studios, Plymouth as part of the Plymouth Weekender 22-24 September 2017.
“The air itself is one vast library, on whose pages are for ever written all that man has ever said or woman whispered.”
– Charles Babbage, The Ninth Bridgewater Treatise (1837)
The art of Laura Edmunds offers itself as an overflow – generous maybe or even uncontainable – but also as a site of loss. Each mark exceeds itself, vibrates a little beyond its limits. “Drawing,” says Edmunds, “is a spilling out of my physical body.” Look closely at her work and you can see what she means. Among the gently blurring washes, find a line and focus perhaps on its beginning – the point at which pencil first met paper. How did it get there? A soft press, a sudden scrape: every motion leaves its own mark. The line proceeds as a careful, deliberate movement of the hand, a light sweep, a tentative scratch. What could these be telling us?
But perhaps it’s the sound that hits first. The air vibrates with strange, low hummings like wind through an electric fence. Molecules oscillate to different amplitudes and frequencies, bounce off the rough stone walls of the gallery, enter your nose, your mouth, your ears. They strike the ear drum. In the inner ear, physical vibrations are translated into chemical, then electrical signals, which are passed along the vestibulocochlear nerve to the brain’s temporal lobe. I – but at what point does identity emerge? – experience these internal signals as external sounds.
If rudimentary scientific knowledge tells us that the experience of sound is always already an act of translation, then this is doubly so here in Ocean Studios in Plymouth. A Soft Introduction is Laura Edmunds’ third UK solo show in as many years and marks the first time that the artist has worked with sound. In some ways, the noises washing, pulsing, scrawling through the gallery air are a logical extension of Edmunds’ work. There is a sense of rhythm about all of her drawings – both across a series in the gallery or an individual work in the studio. Edmunds herself speaks of “louder” and “quieter” drawings. Dozens of fine horizontal lines suggest horizons perhaps or speed but perhaps also sheet music. Maybe what once seemed like drawing was actually musical notation.
But these soundscapes also constitute a kind of translation of the process of drawing itself. The sounds in the gallery are in fact based on recordings of Edmunds drawing – subsequently edited and mixed together by the artist. She placed microphones up close to the page to record the motion of drawing that the drawing itself does not capture. “The sound of a pencil grating against the surface of the paper can actually be quite violent,” she says. But the resulting sounds washing over the gallery have been layered and softened to form overlapping waves of ghostly textures.
Traces, translation, the permeability of borders: these soundscapes hold a mirror to Edmunds’ drawing practice. Each drawing is a release: of marks, like molecules, vibrating back through the air between page and viewer. From a distance, each dark cluster appears as the trace of an impact – inky black fingerprints or the smear left by hot breath or a bird against a pane of glass. For Edmunds, each mark bears the legacy of a past moment, stretched out just a little beyond itself. And each drawing is made up of dozens, hundreds of such moments. Edmunds used to work on each sheet individually, but now she produces drawings in groups. She generally begins by making a series of rapid marks, working across between ten and fifteen sheets at a time. After these initial gestures, the works are packed away for a time – Edmunds’ studio is scrupulously tidy – before being brought out again. Marks build as the days layer up: thirty or more for any one drawing, or series of drawings. Over the course of time, Edmunds introduces different materials and techniques. She mixes dust with soft pastel and conté chalk, grinds them together in a mortar and pestle, and pushes into and over the paper with the side of her hand to create soft blurs of shadow. She uses oil sticks and pencils – the sharpness of a pencil line coming back as a contrast, an “anchor” in a boundless sea.
Together each series forms a single body of work, but one that – like the human body – retains its own internal structures and divisions. “They almost bleed into one another,” says Edmunds of the relationship between the individual drawing and the group. Almost, but not quite. From among dozens of such works, Edmunds makes certain selections, arranging them together on the gallery walls in tight-ranked triple rows. Lines are added even at this late stage: drawings are rarely “finished” as such; rather, they take part in an ongoing process of becoming.
The result is a range of works that each exist in multiple modes. Edmunds owes little to automatic drawing or abstract expressionism. No unconscious scribblings, no wild action painting. Like Agnes Martin, Edmunds is an artist of restraint – she does not lose control easily. The length of a pencil is the longest distance between her body and the surface. The result are drawings that exist in a precarious balance between the immediacy of a repeated gesture and a process of preparation and plotting. She talks of “stop points” in the drawing process. I would liken her works to the looping lines of Cy Twombly or, more accurately, the rhythmic, a-rhythmic notational mark-making of Pierrette Bloch. There is no grandeur about Edmunds. Instead, there is a tentativeness, a dance towards conviction and away again.
Edmunds has not always worked like this. She originally trained in textiles and something of that sensibility clearly remains. For one of her earliest works – Remaining Part (2011) – Edmunds embroidered hundreds of tiny marks into silk pillowcases, like the traces of skin cells that we all leave unknowingly behind us. Edmunds even incorporated human hair into the piece. Formally, her work has changed and developed, but several conceptual threads remain: the permeability of borders, for example. Embroidery is impossible without a porous membrane – the needle enters between the weft and warp, taking thread through with it, back and forth. The border remains but is punctured over and over again… Also, a fascination with the potency of the trace. Like Lydia Gifford, Edmunds imbues the crumpled fabrics of the mundane with potent emotional charge. Her work consists of a near-forensic going over of what the human body leaves behind – traces of presence that come, with time, to signify absence. Like the relic of an everyday saint, like the ghostly stains of a certain shroud.
In this light, drawing becomes like the extension of a person, facilitating direct contact with the page and leaving behind a trace of the body in the present for an uncertain future to come. Drawing, like writing, offers a strange supplement to memory. This is particularly pronounced when Edmunds speaks of her sketchbooks, dozens of them filled with notes and drawings. “They are almost like an extension of my mind for a particular period of time,” she says. These sketchbooks remain personal, closed, but certain elements find their way out of the strictly private realm: one such book was exhibited as A site for internal soliloquy in 2016. A fragment of text in black ink reads: “the sun, the fog, the pink, the gold – for me”. This then became the title of a later work.
Edmunds is an artist who constantly pushes at the limits of her own practice. Sometimes, these are technical challenges: a 2016 residency, for example, prompted her to move away from ink washes and challenge herself to make drawings that appear borderless with something as sharp as a pencil. The soft dark blurs in And then to keep on living exemplify this new approach. Sometimes these challenges push at the very limits of contemporary drawing practice. Alluding to Loss (2014), for example, was an eight-metre-long drawing that hung from the gallery ceiling like a delicate sculpture or installation. Edmunds has worked with books, with film, and now too with sound. The aim, she says, is to explore “things that can be felt but not necessarily seen”.
Such things include, primarily, emotion. For, ultimately, there is a sense of loss at the heart of Edmund’s work. There is something of this in the very title of the drawings: “And then to keep on living”. To begin with a conjunction suggests that the significant moment or event or person has in fact already passed. We – the artist, the audience, even the work itself – are compelled merely to exist in its wake. Edmunds talks of drawing itself as inherently related to sadness, and there is some truth in that. Not just in the sombre aesthetic of metallic grey on off-white, but in the nature of the drawn mark as residue of a lost moment. Edmunds speaks of “the invisible thread tracing the marks that someone has made”. Her techniques are bodily – slow, physical, the result of direct or prosthetic (pencil, needle, oil stick) contact with a surface.
But these are generalisations. As we speak over Skype I get the impression from time to time that Edmunds is holding something back. We speak of death and loss, but it remains in the abstract. As with the title of her work, we are only “alluding to loss”. We speak too of diaries – of privacy and modes of drawing and writing that are never meant to be seen. Even among those works that are shown in the gallery in public it seems to me that a certain secrecy remains. Edmunds shows us so much and yet something remains concealed. As close as we look at every tiny mark, as much as we might examine, analyse, take out the microscope, test the paper, measure each mark, record and amplify the very process of drawing, subject the work over and over again to the sustained scrutiny of the detective or the art critic or the lover, nonetheless the hand of the artist remains absent, past, imagined. Gone is the moment the tip of the pencil touches the paper, then trembles, moves just a little this way, or that, pauses, withdraws… Something always evades our understanding: a drawing is not a person in the end. A trace is not a substitute.
Stand back from the rows of drawings on the wall. A kind of looping orbit works its way across the whole, crossing from page to page. The eye follows, tracking sideways. But allure arises from what the eye cannot yet make out. What is the relationship between the one and the whole? Each sheet is separated from the others by its own edges, a gap, a slice of wall. But the drawing itself breathes across, bleeds across, overflows the limit. Does each exist as a moment in time – a frame from a film of the flightpath of a bee? Or have these individuals gathered together at the same time, moving in synchronicity like starlings murmuring across October twilight? In the simple process of description, words already cross from the literal to the metaphorical, from the art to the artist.
Matter bleeds softly into thought. Sometimes you can’t even feel the punctures in the skin.