Conversation with Kate Macfarlane
Curator and writer, co-founder of Drawing Room, London.

KM: Philosophers such as Jean-Luc Nancy are particularly interested in drawing as a medium because of the extent to which the trace left – the marks upon the paper – denote an absence – the author of that mark is no longer present: ‘the image is always associated with that which absents itself and therefore with the place of displacement’ (Jean-Luc Nancy).  I want to begin by asking you about absence – the absence that is present in your work – which I feel most keenly in your recent drawing éclat.  There are three elements in this drawing: a figure carrying a flag that billows in the wind; the armature of a ‘building’ and a ‘wall’.  The flag is bare, and it conceals the person who carries it. This person is clearly outside of the architectural structure, even though no barrier is visible. The wall behind is an absence, made present by the shadows of the flag toting figure and the structure. How did you conceive this poignant mise-en-scène?

MS: What I usually call absence is the disappearance of context. My drawings are often composed of disparate elements taken from photographs in the press. Their association creates a new context which, in my opinion, cancels out the context from which the images’ sources originate. This is the first element of the answer. Then comes the development of graphic strategies to construct mise-en-scenes in stripped spaces. In this drawing, the architectural elements come from sketches in my sketchbooks, only the character with the flag is taken from a press photograph. There are many walls, barriers and fences in my recent drawings, so I had to find a graphic solution to continue this representation and avoid a form of redundancy. I proceeded with the composition around a starting point which was the gesture of this character holding a flag flying and his shadow suggesting the surface of the wall in the background. Considering that things and spaces exist by what surrounds them, the drawing is made up of elements revealed by the invisible, the light, the perspective, the scales and colour; it does not specify a known place, it is a fragment of space and time where an improbable scene takes place or a gesture that has neither a beginning nor an end.

In her essay “Regarding the Pain of Others” (2003), Susan Sontag has written about Goya’s “Disasters of War“, suggesting that in these drawings the landscape is only an atmosphere, they are stripped of the ornaments of the spectacular and operate a synthesis that declares that “Things of this order have happened”. She goes on to suggest: “Photography shows, a drawing evokes”. I am very interested in this nuance. I do not try to show or demonstrate, but to construct a narrative that summons absences to be filled by the imagination and memory.

KM: To me the new context you create is one from your head, from your imagination, and you use drawing to transplant your mental space onto the page.  Which is why, as you describe, there is no beginning nor an end.

Eclat” and “Boussole” suggest a new departure in your work; there are fewer figurative characters from press cuttings and the architectural elements that you describe coming from your sketchbooks have greater prominence.  As you say, things and spaces exist by what surrounds them. I’m intrigued about your process: your mise-en-scènes are made up on the page, yet the shadows cast by your figures and structures suggest observed reality.

Are your sketches observed architectural structures – or are they made up on the page?

MS: This context is actually the result of the haphazard nature of my imagination and the associations I choose. However, I think that the mise-en-scènes include postures, situations or architectural configurations that seem familiar but cannot be situated. It is at this point that the spectator’s imagination interacts with mine, to expand or confront it.

Usually I start by composing situations around which spaces are built and I have the feeling that this logic is reversed in the two drawings you mention and it is also valid in some others. In my research sketchbooks I frequently draw spaces with impossible or ambiguous configurations made of fragments of architecture or territories emerging from my memory, visual sources or partially invented ones, which become potential starting points for drawn forms. This can even extend to the scale of an exhibition, as was the case during my solo exhibition at the CCC OD in Tours, where the matter of landscape and its representation was present throughout a part of the exhibition. I continue to be interested in this question and more generally in the representation of unfathomable spaces. There is also a progressive evolution in my work linked to my approach to drawing itself; on the one hand, the desire to include a more detached graphic writing, in much the same way as in my sketchbooks, and on the other hand, the outlines that tend to disappear in recent drawings.

I use the presence or absence of shadows to suggest spaces. Also, when I retain the shadows of elements taken from the press, they are contradictory since they come from different sources, which accentuates the theatricality of the mise-en-scène.

KM: Let’s talk more specifically about your drawing methodology.  There is no pentimenti in your finished drawings – you are using, as you describe, ‘a more detached graphic writing’. Yet looking closely at your drawings each mark is extremely loose and lively – this is perhaps most visible in “Pretexes” – your new animation. This tightrope that you walk between extreme control and frenetic energy seems to parallel the dialectic nature of your enquiry.  Can you describe in more detail the drawn process and the time it takes?

MS: My sketchbooks are mainly used to make drawing notes for potential projects. I like to consider drawing as the first documentary form. I make drawings in pencil and coloured pencil on paper and tracing paper, some of which I animate. Others I situate alongside objects to create installations.  These different forms create narratives.

The series of autonomous drawings came later in my practice; the first time I drew complex, figurative drawings was only a few years ago. These drawings are the fruit of a long process nourished by experimenting with different approaches to drawing. The preparatory drawings that precede them are made, as explained above, with the help of taking elements (such as characters or fragments of architecture) from press photographs redrawn on pieces of tracing paper – a medium I like – to form a composition.  I apply adhesive to these fragmentary drawings and try them in different positions on the paper. I refer to the notes in my notebook, use accident, trial and error and erase or redraw elements to form the final composition.  Once the preparatory drawing is finished, I transfer the outlines onto a new sheet of paper via a light table, in the manner of a comic book draughtsman. Only then do I start working on the final version of the drawing. I conserve a large majority of these preparatory drawings, some of which serve as a graphic basis for other drawn forms.

The animations, the research for which is done almost exclusively in the notebooks, are built around a short action, often absurd or comic, which is repeated in a loop. They are made using the frame-by-frame technique and their final appearance is similar to the sketches in the notebooks, making them in my opinion more dynamic and somehow reinforcing their burlesque dimension. Although they are often of short duration (a few seconds), they require a long series of drawings. The choice of a relaxed drawing in the making is also due to the constraint of repeating drawings that gradually change to give the illusion of movement. It also has the advantage of leaving trails that give fluidity to the animation.

KM: Thank you for sharing your wonderful notebooks which provide an insight into your creative process and the way that you develop your drawn compositions. 

I find your drawings very self-reflexive – the figurative elements in “Boussole” and éclat suggest suspension, lightness, fragility, mutability – characteristics that we also associate with the methodologies of drawing.

It seems that in the sketchbooks you distil your ideas, to eliminate unnecessary details and to produce a drawn composition that suggest a millisecond of time. The contexts that you build have their own temporality, a suspended moment that has no equivalence in the real world.

As you describe, in contrast your animations are fluid. Yet in “Pretexes” the same millisecond is repeated for 35 seconds and we experience the stasis we see in “échappées”. The animation and drawing share imagery – sunken pits, ladders, orators, microphones.  The sunken pits prevent escape, the ladders lead nowhere, the suited orator is unshod and cannot run away – he must bow for ever or repeat the same utterance.  As in your other two drawings the form and content merge – the repetitive strokes of your pencil produce images that have no resolution – that ask more questions than they answer. What questions are you asking, or wishing to trigger in your viewers?

MS: I am fascinated by incongruous and enigmatic situations, failure and vain actions; that is why I imagine unlikely but plausible scenes, animations made of short, absurd or comic actions which when looped, makes them turn tragic. It is linked to the context in which I grew up, where the comical rubbed shoulders with the tragic. Moreover, my very first influences come from press cartoons.

These drawn forms do not propose solutions because they project my own uncertainties, research or even my obsessions. They are attempts to evoke what cannot be conveyed by words or images, graphic research starts with observations from reality which I transcend through my imagination; testimonies consisting of unspeakable clues that need a fresh eye to consider them in all their complexity.

KM: At the start of this interview I alluded to the gaps – the areas of the page that you leave empty – which creates the tension in these new drawings and animation.  This tension is multi-sensory – your drawn lines are taut enough to pluck, or fluid enough to play –  and your imagery – the flag flapping in the wind, the rotating fans, speeches and microphones – also conveys the generation of sound.  In your drawings there is a clear demarcation between figure and ground, which reminds us of the essential condition of the drawing – marks on a piece of paper.

Linking artists working today with those of the past is the idea of the thinking hand – to draw is necessarily an abstraction – what we set down on paper is not the object before us. The act of translating ideas into some form of linear code is a highly cognitive act and this is why historically drawing has been revered.  It seems to me that your work strongly maintains and develops this cognitive role of drawing.