Florian Graf’s Books: between ‘disegno ambiguo’ and ‘objet ambigu’
“The perspective of the shapes I try to capture lies outside the paper, at the other unsharpened end of the pencil – in myself! [...]. The passion is in me. I always wanted to be able to draw. I wanted to see, and to hold fast to what was seen. That was my passion.” (Franz Kafka)
I. The Books
Florian Graf’s sketchbooks and notebooks first raise the question of the relationship between writing and drawing, scripture and sign, reading and observing. “My drawings,” as Kafka already noted about his scribbles, “are not pictures, but private ideograms.” If drawings are underdetermined as images accordingly, as Kafka suggests, then because they have, on account of their also existing representativeness, an added lack or surplus of meaning, which is rooted in their illegibility. The code is therefore not ‘private,’ in the trivial sense, but rather ‘privative,’ because the figural participates both in the pictorial and the readable.
In other words, each code is essentially ambiguous, provided that its reading encounters illegibility and the observation is confronted with signs. In graphic notes that consist of scribbles, texts and sketches, a “semiotics of illegibility” therefore unfolds its semantic ambiguity. These are the initial premises of my reflections on Florian Graf’s books.
The private character of the code can be taken literally indeed, because the set of his more than 125 sketchbooks is kept safe in his parents’ house in old wooden cabinets. The archive is next to the nursery. In contrast, however, the numbered spines that wait for a recipient and evoke at first glance a retrospectively designed catalogue raisonné, as it was created before him by Paul Klee, Markus Raetz or Dieter Roth.
If we follow this chronology from its origins, the books I–VI first of all collect the infantile and juvenile attempts. They document the first educational trips to Florence and southern France, studies before 'old masters' and scattered scraps of existentialist thought, which already hint at later reflections. “It is my goal,” writes Florian Graf in his fifth book, “to find a clarity without excluding the irrational.” (V, 1997). In the books of the architectural studies (VII–XXXVI, 1999–2005) these kind of aphorisms become increasingly common. In retrospect, they can serve as a ‘key to reading’ the later works. A certain tone can already be detected here, for instance, when Florian Graf created a graphical collage (“simplicity and diversity”) rather than a transcript in Marc Angélil’s seminar “Entwurf als Methode” (Design as a Method), and pasted a passage from Feyerabend’s Against Method, in which he underlined “cheerful anarchism.”
Graf is definitely trying to inscribe his drawing in the tradition of classical modernism. This becomes apparent in the ‘light drawings’ (IX, 2000) borrowed from Picasso or the watercolour Hommage à Sándor Veress’s Hommage à Paul Klee (XII, 2001). Moreover, in the “22 careless exercises and a few impressions (from Venice)” (IX, 2000) the serial work method is already manifest, which became very important in the later notebooks and, as Carolin Meister has shown, bears quite methodical traits.
Until around 2005, the architectural studies were particularly evident in the drawing books. Architecture remained perpetually important even after studying at the ETH in Zurich, but in the books it took a backseat in favour of dealing with space in art and theory. This is clearly evident in the “reflections on art and architecture” (42, 2006), in the close collaboration with Robert Wilson (55, 2007) (ill. 3) or in the sketches to Foucault’s panoptic “tower objects” (73, 2008) (ill. 10). In different places of study, Florian Graf also learns to move around in the temporary exhibition context of installations. However, the drawings continuously accompanied the projects at the various stations, the Watermill Center in New York, the Edinburgh College of Art, and the Prince’s Drawing School in London (approximately 53–81, 2007–2009) (ill. 3–10), and finally at the Art Institute of Chicago (86–103, 2009–2010) (ill. 11/12 Book 90; 91) and most recently as a Fellow of the Istituto Svizzero in Rome (122, 2012–13).
Thus one can gather from the sketchbooks both the biographical transition from architecture to installation art, as well as the continuity of certain topological motifs. The books continuously elaborate in particular on questions of the relationship between the drawn line and imagined space. What constitutes the spatiality of the drawing? How to conceptualize the relationship between the line’s spatiality, corporeality and abstraction? How can graphic utopias be projected beyond the tectonics – in the flowing continuum of the line? How to draw a space in situ? How to reinvent the drawing en plein air?
In the development from architecture’s border areas to the utopian installation art, the drawing marks the continuous ‘intermediate medium’; materially located between the different locations as “immutable mobile” (Latour) and medially in the intermediate field of the arts. Alternative perspectives and shifts of viewpoints are tested, which in the solitary technique of drawing encounter a resistance that is not external, but internal – Kafka’s inverse perspective. Florian Graf searches for all answers in the vectorial force of drawing itself; in the specific spatiality of the line that creates a genuine topology and unfolds a graphical space. “The magic of drawing,” goes his formulistic maxim, “it turns everything into volume, even air.” (125, 2013).
However, it is not only the figurations that are voluminous, but the books as volumes are ambiguous objects that fluctuate between the singularity of individual drawings and their potential sequencing. The books have in common the fact that countless scribbles, notes and studies are held together by a cover, which grants them a semantic form. For this reason some volumes remind one already (unintentionally) of conceptualised artists’ books. In the large folios the transition to watercolour painting is fluent. Only a few sheets in the books, however, decidedly take on the character of a work. The small notebooks had to mainly fit into the coat pocket. The sketches are loosely strung together in them. The ligatio of the sequential form becomes apparent in two exceptional fan-folded books, which Graf drew on both on the front and the back. The ambiguity of the mutual (il)legibility is inscribed in the alternating folded form of the fan-folded book. While looking at them the disposition of the sketches positioned successively, together and against each other, can therefore be ‘read along’ by all means. However it cannot be ‘deciphered’ or ‘spelled out’. But if the sequence is more important than the single sheet, there are always also drawings among others. In the process, the single drawing, if one devotes time and attention to it, like in the musical performance practice, becomes a primus inter pares, but never the singular ‘absolute’ master drawing, to which Florian Graf in all virtuosity bestows amazingly little consideration.
Thus the diversity of the rampant drawings is in most cases tamed by the form of the book. It remains legible as it can be reverted back to biographical stations, artistic projects or thinking in sketches, but it does not unfold legibly like the narrative of a novel or a story. Following a classic topos, the study of the sketchbooks rather grant a glance into the polyvalent repertoire of ideas of the artist. Architectural, topological, humorous and erotic drawings are staged in parallel. There is no hierarchy between entertaining and serious drawing. Ultimately, it is always about a play of differences that can be seen nowhere better than in the “disegno ambiguo” of one’s own drawing and drawn hand.
II. The Hand
In the double genitive of the German term ‘hand drawing’ (Handzeichnung) – as the drawing hand and the drawn hand – the ambiguity of the ‘disegno ambiguo’ is hidden at the terminological level. The metamorphic subject of the drawn hand appears in almost all the books. The key figure here is the metonymy. It captures the ‘intermediate medium’ of the drawing in its “fraying tendencies” (Adorno). Drawings with pencil on paper stand beside collaged leaves and Polaroid photographs in which his own creases of the hand (or those of others) appear instead of the hand gesture. ‘Drawing’ cannot anyway be reduced to a single technique. From Géricault’s La main gauche (1823) up to Sigmar Polke’s Korrektur an den Handlinien (1968) one could rather reconstruct a genealogy of paradigmatic de-limitation of this meta- medium, which Graf probably touches upon more unconsciously than would make a direct reference. Anyway, the crucial model is less the reference rather than the variability of the subject.
The handedness is a paradigm of ambiguity here because it allows both a thinking of identity and of difference. Chirality, from chiros (‘hand’), refers to a mirror-image relationship of the physical orientation in space; the orientation to left and right in contrast to an asymmetric positioning. There are a few two-handed drawings by Florian Graf, but the right hand, drawing with the pencil, keeps on depicting its counterpart, the taking and grasping left hand (XIV, 2002). Graf’s photographs, mostly Polaroid images that are reminiscent of Rolf Winnewisser’s ‘Postkarten’, also concentrate on the left hand. In the focus of the camera it grasps empty space or reaches into nature: into moss, brushwood and earth (XIV, 2002) – classic treasure troves of ‘objets ambigus’, the ambiguous finds.
In his ‘Seoul photo book’, the left hand reaches for another seemingly invisible object of desire. Out of darkness it appears in front of a window that opens the view to the scenery of the city (XXIII/XXIV, 2003). Does the hand of the architect reach here for a skyscraper or does it fail, because a glass separates his own hand and the South Korean reality from each other? Perhaps this creates an allegory of the graphic imagination in a foreign land; an imagination that creates utopias without being able to realise them on the spot? In this case the glass pane would be the material resistance – not for the idea that commands a clear view, but for the sketches that cannot be realised in reality and therefore must remain an utopia.
But, even the genius of imagination seems questionable for the fantasies of the sketchbooks. So the hand in a Genoese sketchbook appears as a puppet hung on strings, movable but without free will, solely controlled by the motor function of long-time practice (XXVI, 2004), like the hand of an uninspired pianist. Only a few pages later, the hand of the conductor appears in another Polaroid picture. The visible and ephemeral gesture that can only visibly convey the fully invisible, i.e. music, turns here into the ideal figure of thought for being at all able to imagine the transition from the invisible sound through the ephemeral gesture to the meta-stable structure and its architectural manifestations. In the subject of the hand, the fluid-graphic-gestural becomes symbolic; in the photographical it can be technically sublated.
In this way the photograph also reminds one that the line should outline only those objects whose shadows were already cast in the light of the sun. If the right hand thus casts a line onto the sheet to draw the left hand, it has already cast forward its own shadow in the photographic focus. The shadow image in the Polaroid is therefore transmedially reminiscent of the silhouette, as Pliny described it in his Natural History as the origin of the drawing. The skiagraphy, however, is always the script of a surgeon (German: “Chirurgin”), because the silhouette is outline, lineamentum and contour, drawn by one hand. The daughter of Butades, whose lot it was, according to Pliny, to invent the portrait or painting by tracing the shadow of her lover, doesn’t perform a private code, because the act of drawing takes place in the rooms of her father, the potter Butades. A nearly endless series of metonymies of the hands and spaces alone would be unfurled here, on which but can only be referenced here. It is crucial here, however, that Florian Graf’s focus while drawing was on this metonymic sliding. Thus in one note with the header “things with hand” (Händeleien) we read of the “hand as a bud and bloom,” “In the fist and its gesture lies a lot of power. Only the opening and the unfolding makes the same visible.” (43, 2006). Graf’s hand turns a variety of spatial structures into a flower, (ill. 2) masks or portraits. It forms the end of a tower, contributes to masturbation or washes phallic leeks. On one sheet it becomes a figure of reflection across the unthinkable ‘half dimension’ between flat paper and the physical palm: “Leaf-veins – Hand creases 2.75-dimensional” (43/48/49, 2006). Alienating accompaniments like the glove, the foot of the artist, hand soap, the cigarette or the browsability of the paper likewise have a metonymic relationship to handedness. The same is true for certain techniques such as the flat copier on which the palm only need to be placed so that the hand creases become visible rich in contrast on the paper. In its metonymic ambiguity, the hand also wanders into other sketches such as the preliminary drawings for the installation Ghost Light Light House (2012). With the title Intime Freunde (81, 2009) (ill. 7) Graf draws his left hand, which in turn gently embraces and protects the light of the lighthouse. When this hand is missing later in the light house installation, the idea sticks nonetheless. Inside the tower, the artist was finally able to continue undisturbed with his drawings of his ‘things with hand’.
In contrast, altogether only a single, double-sided sheet entitled “Hand Off” takes up the potential dual-handedness of the drawing and also realises it technically. The fold of the book becomes the mirror edge here. Left and right hand are alternately drawn by the other hand. Graf noted a thought about it that allegorically applies this technique to life:
“The mirror in us are the others / The others in us are our mirror / we reflect in the others, just / as the others are reflected in us. / Our right side is reflected in the left side of the other. What happens between these reflections is life and this is hard to grasp.” (110, 2012).
III. ‘disegno ambiguo’ / ‘objet ambigu’
The question of ambiguity in contemporary art raised by Heidi Brunnschweiler has until now been considered and described in the ‘hand drawings’ by Florian Graf as a metonymic sliding from one meaning to another, from the left hand to the right, up to clumsiness. But the conceptual meaning of ambiguity has not been sufficiently clarified, when we move in the space of art, and even then it is not adequate when one considers ambiguous artefacts as “creative and emancipatory forces” and attributes the creation of ambiguity to the act of reception (Werner Hofmann, Für eine Kunst der politischen Konsequenz, 1968) or declares it, like Umberto Eco (Opera aperta, 1962), as characteristics of the work production. In relation to art, the term thus depends in my opinion not entirely on the respective conditions of production and reception, but must be deduced from the objectivity of the works. The concept of the aesthetic object – the work of art – needs to be clarified for the time being with an eye on its ambiguous (ontological) structure.
In a short essay Die essentielle Vieldeutigkeit des ästhetischen Gegenstandes (The essential ambiguity of the aesthetic object) Hans Blumenberg has provided the philosophical foundations and ultimately posed the crucial question, whether “the aesthetic subjectivity really and primarily [is] only with the subjects”, or “the aesthetic object [is] in itself and essentially ambiguous, in such a way that this ambiguity does not constitute its deficiency in relation to the theoretical subject, but only enables its aesthetic function.” Blumenberg had contraposed the aesthetics of Kant with the poetics of Valéry, the epistemological attitude of philosophy with its aesthetic contrasting project, in which “the practical impossibility that makes art possible” poses the real problem and thereby on the part of the work encounters the concept of ambiguity, of subjectivity. Valéry, whom Blumenberg consistently referred, had presented this in his dialogue, Eupalinos, in Socrates’ doubt. This becomes apparent “in the fateful role of the ‘objet ambigu’ found by Socrates on the sea shore, of whose ambiguity Socrates becomes aware while in Hades when he remembers it while reflecting upon his life, and whose overlooking, he now realises, is the inappropriate facticity of his decision for a life as a philosopher.” In their plea for a perfect indeterminacy, Valéry and Blumenberg sketch out a path, which Florian Graf could also have taken as an artist coming from architecture. For Graf seems to embody both the (in turn) ambiguous figure of the artist-philosopher and even to produce the dubious objets ambigus of Socratic doubt.
On the basis of Blumenberg’s reflections, this is first of all certainly no more than a hypothesis that would have to be verified with the individual drawings in a suggestively tested close reading. Because, how can the ‘disegno ambiguo’ hide in the ‘objet ambigu’? How does the ambivalent character of the ‘objet ambigu’ become apparent in the space of the figural? How does the “unambiguousness and uniqueness (Eindeutigkeit) of his origin” ultimately get ‘lost’ from the intentions of the drawer in the “ambiguity of a story inherent in him?”
It would be easier to answer these questions first with reference to the experience in the sketch, because every line – as Twombly has astutely noted – can be conceived in its drawing as “the actual experience with its own innate history.” Thus, it becomes a “sensation of its own realisation” , but once completely realised it is no longer experience or sensation in actu, but ambiguous figuration, ‘disegno ambiguo’, and thus the manifestation of a drawn ‘objet ambigu’ in its essential ambiguity. Unlike Kant’s paradigm of distinction of the geometrical line, the drawn graphical line in its ambiguity is always a bit more than a clearly comprehensible line of thought. The physicality of the line’s graphic space is the ambiguous being of an intimate, irreducible and sometimes even irritating resistance or resilience.
Finally, and this might be the most important observation for the installation works of Florian Graf, the drawings project (‘pro-ject) an ambiguous space from their figurality that would not otherwise be thinkable and feasible in situ. This is evident in some sketches on the notional annex building Watch Out (2008), the Insight Outside (2010) series and the mobile lake installation Ghost Light Light House (2012).
Finally, Florian Graf’s drawings become a ‘disegno ambiguo’ by the neon orange colour that is inscribed into the graphic distinction matrix of line and background as a disturbance or ‘marker’. The corporeal line always figured differently between the same colours and the components of an artist’s theory, the memory of the intentioned space, becomes blurred and the unique experience turns into an ambiguous perplexity.
In Luis Barragán’s One Pale White Horsie on Pink a horse jumps from the shadows into the middle of the roof terrace in his house in front of pink and cream walls. The famous photograph could be read as an allegory of a postmodernist skiagraphy. At first glance, it has very little in common with the sketchbooks, but is reminiscent of a similar sense of space and colour. The ornamental, trembling line, Dante’s “man che trema,”, which Giorgio Manganelli has defined as a “disegno ambiguo” when comparing the Alhambra and Paul Klee, finds itself informed by such spaces in Florian Graf’s sketchbooks. It remains just as illegible as approachable; ambiguous, just like the experience of space itself, which precedes it and to which it moves. In the study of Florian Graf’s sketchbooks, imagination starts reeling. It must be due to the afterimages of an experience, which also moved the hand of the artist, when it went in search of a yet unseen ‘objet ambigu’.