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Letter to J.

Ansuya Blom

in: Touch on a hard surface, 2009
Thursday 9-10-08

So where to begin, I suppose at the beginning!

I can only speak in fragments, loose thoughts. Right now, thinking and looking back at what I have done, I realize that when I chose the title for the exhibition — The Fall — I pointed intuitively at that moment of stumbling when reality is not what it was thought to be. I realized that the writers referred to in this exhibition and publication, Robert Walser, Søren Kierkegaard and Ezra Pound, had all fallen in one way or another.

Walser was always on the run. It has been reported that he moved house seventeen times in one year.

Kierkegaard completely lost it at times, walking or even prancing around, I believe with a quite extreme hairdo. He was so unhappy in love and suffered from his own emotions to such an extent that it probably forced him to investigate the phenomenology of emotions.

Then there is Ezra Pound, whose lucidity is nearly blinding. Reading his poetry, it struck me that if you just read what he writes, without interpretation but just what he says, it is so beautifully lucid, pointing at mental states that are totally recognizable.

All three are experts on anxiety. Walser wrote a story with the title 'Nervous', Kierkegaard wrote The Concept of Anxiety, and Ezra Pound wrote a letter to a friend when he was in imprisoned in Italy, where he describes his fear of being invaded, of an ‘absolute anonyme’, in a disjointed layout, ending the letter with ‘aiuto’ (help).

These three writers were sometimes totally defenseless. Their work is not about concealing but revealing, about a state of transparency.

States of anxiety are what concern me and have concerned me for a long time, and also what I recognize in others. Being is being in a state of impermanence, of fluidity — a trembling sense, the incapacity to focus visually.

Friday 10-10-08

9.37 a.m.
One of the things which has been on my mind is a question about art and the symbolic. Whenever art is discussed it is assumed that what is being presented is something which has been ‘translated’ into the symbolic. The implication being that without the symbolic there can be no universal understanding. Moreover certain types of analysis focus on hidden meanings, to which there is a key that opens up all understanding. I would never want to claim that I know what I am doing, that I know what has been put into the work, and I don’t mind that. When I am affected by the work of others it is often the directness of the work itself which moves me, rather than what it might refer to.

I find myself drawn to those who do not conceal but reveal. Walser’s writing is beautiful in its directness, which is never simply blunt. He is completely able to evoke whilst being literal. With him literalness gets another meaning. So the question perhaps is: can the poetic only be achieved through the symbolic or might it also be possible for it to be ‘simply there’ — however vague a description that is.

I have been thinking about directness, poetic capacities in directness, about what the limits of the symbolic could be, and most of all: why I am so inexplicably moved when I read Walser’s stories, or when I see Philip Guston’s early and late paintings.

More and more I have become aware that the very fact of something in existence, something that is, is for me already a poetic notion. So when I look at Mondrian’s brushstrokes I am moved that someone was searching for this very concrete way of making an image and still succeeded in making a poetic impact. It is the dry combined with the blues perhaps.

12.02 p.m.
Some time ago it struck me that the element of touch seems more and more to be eradicated. When I made films on celluloid the materiality of it, and sticking it together, came close to collage. Editing is collage. Computer editing is that too but the physicality is lost, and the question becomes whether virtual touch can ever be the same as physical touch.

For me drawing is touch on a hard surface. The element of resistance is embedded: paper is supported on a hard desk, or on a solid wall. Drawing is thinking through resistance, however light this resistance might be. 

It is opposite of Tai Chi, I need this resistance, and to approach something either quickly or slowly, soft or hard. Hitting the surface of the physical boundary makes it possible to think. It has been said that drawing is thinking, which I think is true, but for me what differentiates this thought from other modes is that it comes about through touch.

12.49 pm
Did I tell you how I got to Kierkegaard? I had ordered his book The Concept of Anxiety shortly after my father died. Some months later I started to read in it, and came across the sentence ‘What is it then, nothing. Nothingness constitutes anxiety’. Immediately all fell into place, I recognized what he meant. Anxiety was for me until then disguised as an impossibility of something, but now the existential element of the experience of ‘nothing’ gave these realities a different context.

It is the feeling of being on the edge of something. When I read it I felt recognized and understood what he meant about those moments when anxiety sets is.

Six years later I re-read parts of the book, and this time my response was completely different. On re-reading I had problems with the moralistic undertone, the sense of dread within the book. His hammering on about the necessity of surrender is double-edged and this time I recognized that protestant notions of predestination, eternal sin and guilt were clearly present, and I needed to respond to them. The book became a book of doom. So I got my army of ants to revise the text and to cover the dangerous words: an attempt at disarmament.

15.45 pm
The thing with ants is that as soon as you see one, you know there are many others. They never travel alone very far, except for the scout on the lookout. Their organizational skills as well as their means of communication are fascinating to me. As you know J, I drew them a lot between 1986 and 1990.  They seem to have vanished after the Stedelijk exhibition. That’s what life in public does to you.

It is strange to read a text which analyses the phenomenon of anxiety and which is capable of provoking it in bucket loads! It also provokes a sense of irritation, mixed with admiration for Kierkegaard's clarity on the phenomenon itself. His solution, the surrendering to faith as a way out, is something alien to me. There is something of the grandiose in his thinking, which becomes comical. The idea of surrender is a tricky one anyway: to lose oneself in the great, in something vast. Walser, expert on the minute, would think differently perhaps.

In making my own version of The Concept of Anxiety I came across something that Stuart Morgan had written about texts in art: the act of rendering a text as ‘something which cannot be read but can only be thought about’.

Often in art the idea of a text is something that people immediately seem to understand. What intrigues me is the power of a word, devoid of context. It would suggest meaninglessness, as context makes meaning. Without the reason of the word before or after, a word can become something within itself, beyond itself. As a child I used to repeat a word time and time again, until it lost its meaning and only the sound remained. I always wanted to understand how this sound became connected to that specific object, and imagined there was once a secret conference where this was all agreed upon.

Madness is an enigmatic thing. Was Walser mad? I wonder if Ezra Pound was mad, whether Kierkegaard was only eccentric when he pranced about Copenhagen with his hair in a quiff. When Walser was in mental hospital, later in life, a friend came to see him and wondered why he was not writing any more. He answered: I am here to be mad.

For two years I have been living with these madmen. Good company. I have always felt that in art I found my proper family, and in that sense it is a safe haven. It seems we all talk to each other and I am trying to record the conversation on paper with my pens.

In our room hangs a painting which reads:
I’m afraid of you death.
The ‘d’ of death is only partly visible, and it is beautiful that the letters get bigger the closer we come to the dreaded end.


What interests me about language is what it cannot convey, where it fails. It is intended as a means of communication but to me it is equally a device of miscommunication. When syntax fails, words begin to lead lives of their own.

Polyphony, simultaneity has always been of interest. There is a multitude of impressions taking place at the same time, which is also what drew me to free jazz (Ornette Coleman, Mingus in The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady), and to Cage. Something which seems to stand still as it moves. It is very close to cacophony, but it is not that, instead it shows again a different kind of clarity which is not organized around symbols, but around an opened-up structure. Javanese gamelan has the same qualities. In the collages it was this I wanted to convey: a simultaneity, a vibrating restless plane. Always for me the flatness of things has a beauty. Early beginnings have that flat, planar structure. Cave paintings, archaeological excavations, a different kind of hierarchy — one resembling a slice of currant loaf.

The most important situation to find myself in is one of not knowing, where intuitive thought, a real synthesis between intellect and emotions, can live. It cannot be willed. Will being, perhaps, the biggest enemy of all.

It becomes strange to think about intuition, as it is exactly that kind of thought it defies. It can be so beautiful when a clear direction seems absent, whilst another structure takes over.

Like a broken up line which is drawn without ‘knowing’ its direction and which, ignoring the seduction of certainty, simply goes.
Ansuya Blom ©2022