Image: Denise Poote An Echo (2017), chalk on paper, 21x15cm

What is embodiment in relation to space and representation? Denise Poote January 2019

For this essay I aim to examine what the term an ‘embodied’ experience of drawing may describe and how the artefact or residue produced in the action/performance of this kind of drawing process may be valued. This research will then contribute to further my wider aim of better understanding how a drawing practice might work to transform and share personal experience with an audience as a form of collective knowledge and how its residual artefacts might manifest this.

The context for this research is particular to western, industrialised societies and specific to a cultural engagement that expects an aesthetic encounter (ie a cultural event/gallery context).

Methods will reference contemporary philosophical and cultural theory, personal experience and artist practitioners and include discussion of the term embodiment and theories of representation with reference to spatial practices found in social sciences and performance. The choice of these methods originates from how I think about what I do when I draw: I consider the place from which the urge to do so belongs to my body and the area just outside my body. Beyond a sense of proprioception, this may be a kind of ‘aura’ that new age spiritual practitioners may use in an anecdotal way to describe “a supposed emanation surrounding the body of a living creature and regarded as an essential part of the individual” (Oxford Dictionary (2018).

This example of my work shown above is from a series of blind drawings I made in a darkened, soundproofed room with a brief that required no specific outcome beyond a gathering of findings that I then presented as an artwork and was presented in a gallery on a table display alongside the drawing tools used in the session. Viewers were invited to annotate a transcript of an audio recording that they might share some of the experience by making their own response to my documentation.

I made this drawing with a sense of my self, my ‘bodymind’ (Zarilla 2009) and an awareness of the context in which I was making it – the physicality of the space and the knowledge that it would be a residue that I would take with me to show unchanged in an exhibition for an audience.

I would like to begin to frame this drawing practice within the language of Merleau Ponty’s writings on phenomenology and embodiment in The Primacy of Perception (1964), a text commonly referenced in existing drawing research theory in relation to body and mind (Cain (2006), McDonald (2010), Bailey (1982))

Varela, F. J., Thompson, E., & Rosch, E. (1992) define embodiment that “encompasses both the body as a lived, experiential structure and the body as the context or milieu of cognitive mechanisms.” This means that “knowledge depends on being in a world that is inseparable from our bodies, our language and our social history.”

Using Merleau-Ponty’s example of a point at which cognition and environment are simultaneously enacted, they cite the example a keyboard that changes to offer its keys specifically to the otherwise monotonous action of an external hammer, and accommodate any cognitive duality by adopting a Buddhist middle way, Madhyamika, where living cognition is able to pose relevant issues that are “enacted from a background of action, contextually determined by common sense.” (Varela et al (1992) p145). This ‘common sense’ resonates with Michel de Certeau’s ‘Sieve Order’ discussed in “Walking in the City” (1984), describing the ‘leaky and drifting’ strategies of the city planners and how the tactics of the city users navigate and find new ways through the inadequate, incomplete order in a creative way that I feel belongs to the ‘aura’ I intuitively, creatively experience when manoeuvring through a process of making a drawing.

For Merleau-Ponty in his essay ‘Eye and Mind’ (1964) on art and phenomenology, embodiment is a question that falls out of those Cartesian considerations of the mind and body that

Varela addresses through Buddhism. He says that for Descartes

“vision is a conditioned thought; it is born “as occasioned” by what happens in the body; it is “incited” to think by the body” and that for Descartes “when we wish to understand how we see the way objects are situated, we have no other recourse than to suppose the soul to be capable, knowing where the parts of its body are, of “transferring its attention from there” to all the points of space that lie in the prolongation of (ie beyond) the bodily members.” (Merleau-Ponty (1964) p176)

Questioning this position, Merleau-Ponty asks “how does the soul know this space, its own body’s, which it extends toward things, this primary here from which all the there’s will come?” and surmises:

“it is the place of the body the soul calls “mine”, a place the soul inhabits. The body it animates is not, for it, an object among objects, and it does not derive from the body all the rest of space as an implied premise. The soul thinks with reference to the body, not with reference to itself, and space, or exterior distance, is stipulated as well within the natural pact that unites them.” (Merleau-Ponty (1964) p176)

Embodiment is “what is upon what one sees and makes seen, of what one sees and makes seen upon what is” so it is not caught in the mind. This notion of space/place for the body brings considerations of life in the world and further possibilities of viewing an embodied practice existing in what non- representational theory defines as space when referencing the city and social constructions.

The connection from embodied practice to spatial practice can be considered with reference to the notion of presence discussed by Erika Fischer-Lichte (2012) in relation to performance and the role of an actor to their audience. She discusses the presence ascribed to an actor to their “phenomenal body, his bodily being in the world, or to the dramatic figure he is representing and thus to his semiotic body” (Erika Fischer-Lichte (2012) p112), introducing embodiment as a radical concept of presence.

She references Grotowski (1968) description of an actor’s role that lets the semiotic body merge with the phenomenal body – an attempt to free “from the time-lapse between inner impulse and outer reaction”:

“the body vanishes, burns and the spectator sees only a series of visible impulses. Ours then is a via negativa – not a collection of skills but an eradication of blocks.” (Grotowski (1968) p16)

Norman Bryson (2006) sees this ‘via negativa’ in the drawings of Susan Turcot whose meticulously figurative representational pencil drawings are vividly gestured as she closes her eyes and scribbled over her workings. “Frustration is part of the surrender to transcendence – always a “More” beyond our reach.” (Bryson (2006) p86)

This sensory shift in mark-making from visual to auditory or tactile/physical sensations is the kind of practice I recognise in my own work and her drawings contain this packet of phenomenal and semiotic body, bringing a directness of intention and experience to me as a viewer by interrupting the representation resemblance with a blinding elimination of that image.












Image: Susan Turcot Self Service (2006), pencil on paper

Fischer-Lichte (2012) draws parallels between Grotowski and Merleau-Ponty’s asymmetric relationship between body and mind that favours the phenomenal body connected to the world through its fleshiness

– there is only a body, not a semiotic/phenomenal split. Fischer-Lichte suggests this notion of “PRESENCE:PRESENCE”, meaning to appear and be perceived as embodied mind indicates that “through the performer’s presence, the spectator experiences the performer and himself as embodied mind in a constant process of becoming” (Fischer-Lichte (2012) p115)

In Turcot’s work, I experience her making, emotional concerns, cultural and social contexts by looking at her pencil drawings. Recently a performative, audience-facing installed artwork by producers Artangel and artist Taryn Simon’s ‘An Occupation of Loss’ evoked a similar transformational personal experience as the audience/viewers wayfared around a concrete underground basement while professional mourners from around the world acted out ritualised singing in small pockets of the site.












Image: Taryn Simon (2017). An Occupation of Loss, Installation and live performance, Islington Green, London

In this experience, I felt that we, the audience, became the authentic creators of the work, practicing the place (with reference to De Certeau’s notion of space as a ‘practiced place’ (De Certeau (1984) p17), moving around the site, and in doing so, re-create it as a new site, and so transforming it into a seemingly churchlike architecture in the way we chose to move with reverence and to linger and even embrace in prayerlike reverie. Fischer-Lichte quotes philosopher Arthur Danto description of art as the ‘Transfiguration of the commonplace’ (Danto 1981) and concludes that in her notion of PRESENCE,

”the human commonplace of being embodied mind is transfigured. In perceiving it, we experience ourselves as embodied mind.” (Fischer-Lichte (2012) p116).

Though Philip Zarrilli proposes caution in that it is critical to understand presence as “an emergent state of possibility not an essence” to avoid “the cult of the individual that gives presence to a mysterious, magical or secret power of the actor” (Zarilla (2009) p121).

This notion of becoming is critical to a fluid and potent process that an embodied drawing may entail. Rosenberg (2008) draws on Deleuze (1994) and the notion of “potentia”, a knowledge that catalyses a potential to produce again and differently and offers a return to have ‘a critical purchase on the world- as-it-is’ in relation to ideational drawing as a “space where thinking is presenced” (Rosenberg (2008) p109) This ‘thought-in-action’ brings us back to spatial practices and non-representation theory where, as Anderson and Harrison (2010) surmise that as relational bodies, we are always already “caught up in the fabric of the world” (Merleau-Ponty (1964) p163). For me this is what it feels like both to breath and to draw – the drawing that makes itself because of the context in which the drawing is made:

“We come to know and enact a world from inhabiting it, from becoming attuned to its differences, positions and juxtapositions, from a training of our senses, dispositions and expectations and from being able to initiate, imitate and elaborate skilled lines of action”. (Anderson and Harrison (2010) p9)

With this in mind, I will now briefly consider the value of the artefact in relation to the ‘aura’ and notions on representation in terms of an embodied practice of drawing but will not explore further due to wordcount constraints the structuralist and more recently NRT models that suggest all representations (including original artworks) may be perceived as fictional constructs as they are the result of a lag/gap

in the experience and making such that “representation, even when it is ostensibly devoted to a return of the same, is transformation.” (Doel, (2016), p118).

Merleau-Ponty discusses representation in terms of the “autofigurative”, of how a painting is “a spectacle of something only by being a “spectacle of nothing” by breaking the “skin of things” to show how the things become things, how the world becomes world.” (Merleau-Ponty (1964) p181). This reference to the body and outside of it is close to the notion of a practiced place/space described within NRT and also aligns with my association of a feeling of ‘aura’ in my drawing process evidenced through searching out sensorily deprived spaces and movement as a source trigger for making drawings.

Regarding the persistent of the artefact, it may be useful to consider further research around new technologies of drawing as Thrift (2008) observes the developments of these kinds of interfaces are probably most effect in “laying down of a system (or systems) of distributed pre-cognition” (Thrift (2008) p164). He considers whether this leads to attempts to build in kinaesthetic and affective experiences into commodities, political figures and environing spaces that I would like to extend to a drawing practice and how this might be activated. If “the spectacle is first of all a spectacle of itself” (Merleau-Ponty (1964) p181), does a spectacle to itself need to be real or what would a virtual spectacle look like and how would it be experienced?

In this essay, referencing embodiment, phenomenology and spatial practice, I have examined my drawing practices to consider how it may be a form of collective knowledge belonging to the bodymind and context in which it may take place. Further research around representation in terms of affect and spatial practices may be useful to understand the relationship of the persistence of the residual artefact that my practice generates.


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