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Promises Of Distance

Patrick Flores

In: Below the Underground, 2024, Jap Sam Books, Prinsenbeek

In 2019, I travelled to France in search of the Philippine artist Nena Saguil in the archives of art history. She left Manila in the fifties to study and live as a solitary artist in Paris. Saguil was intermittently present in the annals in the same way that her work receded into elusive realms of circles and lines of their own. When she was asked about the will that underlies her form, she answered via the fellow migrant artist from Russia Wassily Kandinsky: ‘le necessité interieur, the necessity to express your inner self through your work, to be true to this inner self and not to fight it. It is a voyage into the absolute ... a search for the ideal. ... The things that you see are mere “accidents” of the feelings made manifest by the mind — the spirit — through the medium of your hands.’1 I was struck by the phrase ‘internal necessity’, the necessity of the interior or the interiority of the necessity; and the will not to fight it but to let it wander into the absolute and the ideal, made sensible by Saguil’s cosmic landscapes done in ink and alluding to vortex, follicle, tissue, web, vein, and kindred minutiae. There is wistfulness and longing in this urgency of the artist to draw as if in a trance and alone in the attic.
        In the same year, Ansuya Blom took part in an exhibition in Utrecht at the CASCO Art Institute in the exhibition Het is of de stenen spreken (silence is a commons) in which she, like Saguil, lingered on ‘the partially concealed interior scenes of psychiatry clinics on collages (to) draw a hazy line between confusion and clarity’.2 And in 2021 in Breda at Club Solo in her solo exhibition, she proposed ‘the incompleteness of the fragmentary nature of her work’ and prodded the audience to ‘set out to look for their own inner experience. When this happens, it enables a “first person plural”, as she refers to it, to emerge.’3 The tropes and motifs of interiority furnish a nexus between Saguil and Blom, the very poetics and politics of repossessing modernist autonomy with the copious ground of woman and migrant, and the figure of artist.

        In the series of Blom titled The Concept of Anxiety (2007-2008), all the pages of Søren Kierkegaard’s 1844 eponymous book are infested with delicate drawings of ants. To strain to read the text, therefore, is to also work through the creatures that crawl across the surface. To look at the drawing is to similarly struggle with the text that distracts as it stands its ground. The reciprocal energy between the drawing of either schematic or fulsome ants, on the one hand, and the unyielding printed word that settles on paper, on the other, performs Kierkegaard’s anxiety about awareness and ambiguity, graphic legibility, and resolute writing (whether drawing or text) that interferes. It is intriguing that the words have been written by a philosopher who was not sure himself about what the aesthetic form really is, at least not to the extent that he would assign it the privilege of singularity. For Kierkegaard, the aesthetic may mean art, but also a sensuous and impartial indecisiveness towards the lifeworld, and finally the inevitable, if not irresistible, inward experience. The refusal to quickly decide, alongside a visceral alertness to the surrounding social ecology, would sustain his faith in the aesthetic inquiry.
       And so it is for Blom, who revisits Kierkegaard through the passage of ants, which swarm the philosophical tract leaving preponderant traces to outstrip its punitive script of sin, guilt, fear and dread. This luminous inscription of drawing on found text creates layers of writing and reading, prompting observers to liken the mediated slate to a palimpsest that may well rustle like language, in the words of the literary theorist Roland Barthes, when it is seen and then sensed. Rustling is a sonic sign. It is as if we ‘listen to the image’, as the theorist of visual culture Tina Campt would put it, as ‘a conscious decision to challenge the equation of vision with knowledge by engaging photography through a sensory register’;4 and in Blom’s sensorium, the whirl of ants taking over a vulnerable book hints at either an edginess, or the abyss, the cut or the depth: ‘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.’5 The ethos and the craft of the artist are thus informed by the contingency, even the dizziness, in the trajectory of the line and not the mastery of the stroke or the finality of the scene. The artistic intelligence, in fact, disavows focus and insists on trembling.
        The artist furthers this method of creating a translucent veneer in the series begun in 1988, titled ...daß dieser Mensch... (...that this human being...), for which she worked on acetate on which she would draw with a pen; she then affixed this thin film to a printed photograph of organs: liver and kidney of a sheep, heart of a lamb, brains. Blom bought these vital body parts from the market, wrapped a string around each organ, and hung these on the wall from nails within the drawn silhouette of a woman. She then took a picture of this assemblage, which became a template for various iterations where she would proceed spiritedly from the reconstructed biology. She reasons that these organs are largely invisible, though these overlays are actually meant to lay bare what ultimately is an inter-species constellation of animals, human figures and evidence of artistic annotation. It is noteworthy to mention that this configuration was made for the film Ysabel’s Table Dance (1987), which then would be transposed into drawing, the inspiration for this cinematic work having come from Charles Mingus’s early sortie into music for dance of the same title in 1962. In the work, Blom summons the presence of someone by adorning herself with attributes to effect a re-animation, a return to life of this perceived void. The character Ysabel bundles up, as it were, with small bags that contain elements of offal, which she places on those parts of the body where the heart, liver, brains and kidney are found. Then, she dances with her absent but now potentially existential friend. This relay from sound to moving image to pigment survives the paraphrase of style or signature, as it enacts undoing, becoming, reliving in flux.

        Indeterminacy and invisibility are prominent aspects in the oeuvre of Blom that lead her to reflect on the paths of her body and subjectivity through the different phases in her milieu and experience. She states that ‘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.’6 This axiom on drawing may remind us of the art historian Aby Warburg, who was curious about the relationship between the source of resistance and the agency that thinks through it as resistance. Warburg wanted to know what it means to orient oneself in space, which is adjacent to Immanuel Kant’s question on what it means to orient oneself in thought.7 Dorothea McEwan, writer and archivist of the Warburg Institute Archive, London, would argue that this attentiveness to locus and the stance towards it points to ‘excavating those thought processes that led people to a spatial grasp of orientation in the cosmos, not unlike a geological map, which shows strata, rock formations, faultlines, and routes of subterranean water courses that exist yet are invisible to the eye’.8 Surely, Blom’s way-finding is her form-making, but cartography might not be the discipline and the desire that governs the gesture, as she is more keen on capillaries than coordinates. In this regard, colour might prove central not only because it introduces dimensionality and ornament, but also because it is the vehicle of variation. In one suite, for instance, she would interplay slight variations of scarlet from gouache pens as she builds up a room’s carapace, which upon first sight looks like a network of tissues, a bark surrounding a core, or some morphology of life that becomes skin, which is the very essence of architecture as shelter.

        The multiple layers that at once thicken and reveal is key in understanding the agency of Blom. That said, her biography proposes yet another stratum of inflections. Born in the Netherlands to parents of Surinamese and Dutch heritage, she spent a part of her childhood in Aruba, which she cherished for the vastness of its natural environment as well as the cosmopolitan character of its society. With Aruba looming in her precocious imagination, the Netherlands would seem miniature to her, in many ways parochial. Her brother studied sociology and was involvedin politics; she remembers putting up anti-colonial posters with him. The mixture of worlds coming together in her unique personal geography and the protest movement that resonated globally was acutely formative for Blom. When she looks back at this creative and political history, or the narrative of her emerging consciousness, she would say that the civil rights movement was her homeland, the conceptual space of her necessary birthing and becoming.
        It is at this crossing of material and political formations that the ‘drawing of the line’ becomes a wistful and punctual phrase, one that ensures the space for memory as well as a position from which to make ethical judgements about rightfulness and discrimination. In this regard, anthropologist Tim Ingold’s ecological conception of form consisting of a line and a blob, a boundary and a membrane, a distinction and an incipience, is germane in understanding the extent of Blom’s investment in drawing. As he puts it:

My thesis is rather that in a world of blobs, there could be no social life: indeed, since there is no life that is not social — that does not entail an entwining of lines — in a world of blobs there could be no life of any kind. In fact, most if not all life-forms can be most economically described as specific combinations of blob and line, and it could be the combination of their respective properties that allows them to flourish. Blobs have volume, mass, density: they give us materials. Lines have none of these. What they have, which blobs do not, is torsion, flexion and vivacity. They give us life. Life began when lines began to emerge and to escape the monopoly of blobs. Where the blob attests to the principle of territorialization, the line bears out the contrary principle of deterritorialization.9

        Through the lattice that is formed in the iteration of the line, Blom is able to produce a matrix, a body or an armature. It is through this that she alludes to more familiar settings like a room, or a human figure. Generally, however, what we see is a screen or a sheer textile that partly discloses and conceals. It is for this reason that a semblance of membrane defines the drawings of Blom; it is the basis of the tension between mark and ground. Because of the porosity between these two integrities, the spontaneity coalesces and the deliberation slackens simultaneously. Consider this experience of hers as she walks in the woods in which the supposedly unyielding land beneath her feet is actually precarious:

As I was awakened by a crack it happened again, and again, and I discovered I had come to an end of the path. While focusing on a point seemingly in the distance I tripped and felt something slip under my right foot.10

        Blom’s faith in drawing begins at slippage, the moment when the human trips. While the density of this setting was remarkable, it was through another quality of situatedness that more sharply delineated her perspective. It was the feeling of not being from ‘here’, or springing from another soil, evoked by the word allochthone as it is used in the Netherlands, the opposite of the authentic or native autochthone, that raised for her the problem of refusal and the possibility of reconstitution.
        This translates so poignantly, and also so urgently, in the mode of Blom’s drawing. In her corpus, drawing is not only indexical of her investigative, inquisitive ethos, but a form of inhabiting space, akin to how the ants cohabit with Kierkegaard as if wandering and mutating in the fourth dimension.
        The fundamental form in Blom’s graphic practice is the cell, which simultaneously abstracts and evokes. The cell in her imagination is a dwelling, whether a house or a room, reminiscent of the bareness of the abode of her grandfather’s brother. It is etched in her mind: the austerity of the architecture of existence of an almost solitary individual. Therefore, besides the layer, it is the cell that helps clarify the structure of her persistent drawing and prompts her to ask: ‘What is a house and what is a human being?’ The point that ricochets in the question protracts Blom’s engagement with innerness or inwardness through the various fictions of internal life.

        In this regard, the enigmatic series on the poet and critic Ezra Pound is emblematic of Blom’s aesthetic. From the transcript of Pound’s case, in which he was accused of alignment with fascism in the Second World War, she configures the contours of the poet’s hospital rooms where he had been treated for a psychiatric illness. These panels of large drawings executed through Mômopens, can fill up walls, thus mirroring the effect of drapes that depict the blueprint of Pound’s personal room and the communal space of the patients of St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in the United States.

In 1957 The New Republic reported:
Ezra Pound will probably die at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital for the mentally ill in Washington. Arraigned for treason, but never brought to trial, called insane (mentally incompetent) although he continues to publish with great critical success, Pound has not been out of the hospital grounds for eleven years now, held “in the long, dim corridor inhabited by the ghosts of men” as Archibald MacLeish puts it. MacLeish sees Pound there as “a conscious mind capable of the most complete human awareness ... incarcerated amongst minds which are not conscious and cannot be aware”, in an enforced association which produces a horror which is not relieved either by the intelligence of doctors or by the tact of administrators or even by the patience and kindliness of the man who suffers it.

        Blom is drawn to the lucidity of the poetry of Pound. She describes it as ‘nearly blinding’12 for its potential grandiosity. It is interesting how the metaphor of light as a symptom of the poetic sublime becomes an instance of opacity that denies visual recognition and yet saturates the sensual experience. The split between seeing and feeling is a binary that the artist confronts through Pound, thus complicating the ease by which politics is codified as either exclusively correct or errant. For her, the room of the mad poet is spectral just like how the poet MacLeishportrays it as ‘inhabited by the ghosts of men’. Perhaps it is the spectrality that conjures the politics and not the ideological discourse imposed on people at the outset. It is the ghostlike dwelling that haunts persistently and does not relent in activating its memory, specifically because Pound tended to deny his own cognitive and moral capacity, to turn a blind eye to a radical malevolence, akin to how his poetry illuminates: it mystifies its artifice so that art may appear naturally beautiful.
        Blom is sensitive to how structure in houses communicates a political will to form, as it were. As she recounts:

When I was 13 I was taken to see anti-colonial films in Paramaribo. One of the films was about the guerrilla resistance movement in Bolivia: the fighters had built massively big houses on low stilts. To the sides were beams whereby the fighters could lift them up. Whenever the enemy was closing in on them, they simply picked these constructions up and walked away with them hiding in the jungle. This fluidity was beautiful!13

The beauty in fluidity recalls Blom’s fascination with ants: how they achieve a plurality and a sameness concurrently, altogether a colony and a dispersal. It instructs on the paradoxes of belonging and the politics of assembly. The procedure of being part of a collective has preoccupied the artist in light of the imperatives of autonomy and independence, to say nothing of political thoughtfulness. This is probably why the isolation of Pound would resonate with her, an alienation amid the plenitude of talent.
        But Pound is not the the only difficult persona in Blom’s mind. She is also touched by the story of Kaspar Hauser, the enigmatic German boy who suddenly appeared in Nuremberg in 1828. He seemed to have come from nowhere, and lore over time would take over his almost esoteric history. A consistent motif of the narrative is his life of isolation, of utter darkness and seclusion. Blom was struck by the book written by an unnamed municipal court doctor titled Kaspar Hauser: Die Wahrheit über sein Auftauchen und erste Nürnberger Zeit, first published in 1956 from which the line ‘That this human being’ would come — it would plague her. It exemplifies the naming of Hauser as ‘human’ and demonstrative of ‘being’ in spite of his exceptional alterity, his essential incompleteness. Dispossessed of certain faculties, he was, however, incessantly forming — in Blom’s estimation a state that would cease to be abject because, like her drawing, he could thrive on being inchoate, suspended in the fundamental moment of finding a way, as if he were a foundling flung into a world of dead-sure identities. According to the artist: ‘It’s dangerous that things appreciated are validated only if they exist or are material. Things that cannot be proved, as art cannot be proved, are very important.’14 The urge of proving Hauser a human being may have been a neurosis of the Anthropocene; it could well have been that he did not have to be proven to be a human. At this point, the image of the cell recurs on the artist’s horizon, a trope of indispensable life and also of slow death. It is in the remote room that humans like Pound and Hauser would be diminished and lose the conceit of their Bildung, or progress. Unlike Hauser, who was presumed to be a tabula rasa, Pound was painfully compromised.

The work of Blom thrives on illegibility and formativity as a condition of expression, not on the fullness of a recognizable thing; or meaning of a code; or ideology of the symbolic order. The presence of form is mere and diaphanous, mottled, coalescing but wary of capture and rigor. Polyphony might be a good way to describe it: hovering lines, adjacent sonorities, disparate but plastic. Her creative instinct has been honed in jazz, making her less prone to the positivism of immediate identification and verification. According to her: ‘When things are going on at the same time, I recognize something.’15 It is through simultaneity and confusion that she discerns a design.
        Stemming from this recognition of things in the welter, it becomes more discernible that the work of Blom pushes back against any attempt to be explained away in terms of the positivism of interpretation as it similarly defends itself against the liberalism of self-expression. And what might be the most gracious rhetoric to index Blom’s travail? The cue is in the vitalism of the phantom organs which are reiterated across her exercises but remain primordial through and through. The reiteration can be considered the metabolism, the absorptive capacity, of her art and her body politic. It reminds me of the Norwegian writer Karl Ove Knausgård’s book on Edvard Munch titled So Much Longing in so Little Space in which he weaves a fugue of lines in the becoming of Munch’s paintings around the impression that there was ‘something sketch-like about his pictures, because he was trying to get to the picture before thought did’.16 Blom delays such an arrival at and capture of thought.
        The palimpsest that rises from the drawing is Blom’s inter-medium, a sharing of surface, the possibility of a multitude of animate forms with no clear origin and no clear return. To some extent, this allegorizes the condition of migration and the diaspora, but also of culture and transcendence, embeddedness and complicity. The form gains its energy between the transparent and the opaque.
        Finally, the artist’s procedure does not conform to the expectations of critique. It is rather an annotation, a citation, loosening and releasing the surface with equivalent inscriptions (graphite with gouache pen, pen with photocopy), dissipating literature with writing, philosophy with anecdote, experience with performance. Like the Philippine Passion of Christ that the anthropologist Fenella Cannell closely reads as a contact zone of the local and the colonial:

[T]he text can itself become not only a location of meaning that resides in the untranslatability of indigenous terms but also an object that is itself an occasion of desire and of exchange, and which can enter into an economy of arcane knowledge even while reproducing apparently orthodox meaning.17

        In one of Blom’s forays, a found photograph from the internet of a room in disarray, seemingly abandoned by dwellers in haste, strays into the space veiled by a curtain of drawing, the indigeneity of the digital image finding its place in the ecology of ‘desire and of exchange’.
        Ansuya Blom’s extensive drawing intricately nests in all of these: the limits of translation, the prospects of the arcane, the faint glimpses of familiar image and, in her own words, the ‘promises of distance’.18

1. Cid Reyes, Conversations on Philippine Art (Manila: Cultural Center of the Philippines, 1989), p. 31.
2. See exhibition website, Casco Art Institute,, accessed October 18, 2023.
3. See exhibition website, Club Solo,, accessed October 18, 2023.
4. Tina Campt, Listening to Images (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2017), p. 6.
5. Ansuya Blom, exh. cat. Touch on a hard surface (London: Fred London Ltd, 2009), n.p.
6. Ibid., n.p.
7. Dorothea McEwan, ‘Aby Warburg’s (1866 — 1929) Dots and Lines: Mapping the Diffusion of Astrological Motifs in Art History’, in German Studies Review 29, no. 2 (May 2006): 243 — 268.
8. Ibid,. p. 243.
9. Tim Ingold, The Life of Lines (London: Routledge, 2015), p. 4.
10. Ansuya Blom, I Have Trampled Under Foot (Paris: Onestar Press, 2013), n.p.
11. Jack LaZebink, ‘The Case of Ezra Pound’, The New Republic, April 1, 1957,, accessed August 23, 2023.
12. Ansuya Blom, exh. cat. Touch on a hard surface (London: Fred London Ltd, 2009), n.p.
13. Email to author, 20 August 2023.
14. Ansuya Blom, Let me see, if this be real (Rotterdam / Schiedam: NAi Publishers / Stedelijk Museum Schiedam, 1999), p. 30.
15. Ibid., p. 21.
16. Karl Ove Knausgård, So Much Longing in so Little Space: The Art of Edvard Munch (London: Penguin Books, 2019), p. 42.
17. Fenella Cannell, ‘Reading as Gift and Writing as Gift’, The Anthropology of Christianity (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2006), p. 160.
18. Ansuya Blom, I Have Trampled Under Foot, n.p.

Ansuya Blom ©2022