Note: This essay on erasure in art was written by the British artist Richard Galpin in 1998. Richard Galpin's recent work is viewable here: www.richardgalpin.co.uk
Earlier works that informed this writing are archived here: ARCHIVE INDEX
ERASURE IN ART:
Destruction, Deconstruction, and Palimpsest.
By Richard Galpin
My interest in erasure stems from my work as an artist. I am involved in work that deletes various texts, and am excited by the subtle play that erasure seems to create when executed in certain ways. My work is not about the suppression of text, or the negation of what the text represents, but is about obscuring the words in order to create a different relationship between the text and the viewer. When I first started this body of work I felt that the erasure of language in art, rather than being destructive, contained the potential to provoke an ambiguous and shifting reading of both the original text and the work. If not destructive then, could erasure be deconstructive? This is something that I will explore in this writing. I will then discuss the notion of the palimpsest as a concept that seems relevant to erasure in art.
In this writing I will examine art work that erases text in various ways, and some examples of art that erases other things. One of the exciting factors of this study has been the surprisingly small number of examples of this type of work that there are. It seems that this is a relatively unexplored area of art practise that nonetheless has exciting possibilities, especially in terms of its relationship to deconstructive theory, particularly the work of Jacques Derrida.
In this writing I will attempt to show that in practise erasure in art does not function in the same ways that we might expect when considering erasure in an abstract sense. I will then try to explain why.
Chapter 1. Destruction
The initial impression of any erasure in an artwork is often that of a destructive act. This is something that I intend to question.
In 1953 Robert Rauschenberg produced a work entitled "Erased de Kooning Drawing". This was made by using rubber erasers to literally rub-out a drawing that he had persuaded de Kooning to give him specifically for that purpose. The work apparently took a month and about forty erasers to erase/make (Rauschenberg, 1976, p.75). Calvin Tomkins reacts to the destructive element in the work:
What else, in God's name, could you think about his wanting to erase a de Kooning drawing? The implications were so blatantly Freudian, the act itself so obviously symbolic (if good natured) patricide.(Tomkins,1980, p.96)
The Freudian relationship that Tomkins suggests is that Rauschenberg wishes to symbolically obliterate de Kooning, his father, (the leading established artist of an older generation), because of his relationship with his mother (which could be the art world, the public etc.) Rauschenberg did recognise this element of eradication when he later talked of trying "to purge myself of my teaching" (Rauschenberg, 1976, p.75). The word 'purge ' however suggests a cleaning and purifying process, rather than a violent destruction. Rauschenberg stresses that the main aim of this work was to find out "whether a drawing could be made out of erasing" (Rauschenberg, 1976, p.75). Rauschenberg used the eraser as a drawing tool, working over the top of the old drawing, to create a new work.
Jasper Johns referred to the Erased de Kooning as "additive subtraction" (Johns,1964, p.27). The question of destruction then, could be seen in terms of positive and negative, or addition and subtraction.
Additive subtraction is a contradiction that suggests a play of differences, rather than an absence of a presence. This sort of idea will be discussed further in Chapter 2.
John Latham was one of several artists who participated in two international gatherings, both called Destruction in Art Symposium (DIAS), held in London in 1966 and New York in 1968. John Latham burnt what he called Skoob Towers (figure 2, right) (the word Skoob coming from the reversal of the letters in the word books). Latham's work over the years has involved the construction of reliefs that use books as sculptural elements within them. (figure 3, below right). This began as a hesitant use of books as a found object. John A. Walker states: "His playful alterations of the shapes of books... were as much constructive as destructive" (Walker, 1995, p.38). In Latham's early reliefs the books appear as physical objects, selected for shape, size and colour, and used like, and alongside, other scrap materials. The books appear somehow detached from themselves as works of literature.
Latham later became more involved with the negation of what the books represented. Especially with the more directly destructive burning of Skoob Towers. But contradictions arise in the writing about the work. Walker states that Latham was "critical of language as a medium of communication and of books as reservoirs of received knowledge" (Walker, 1995, p.39), although Latham himself states that "It was not in any degree a gesture of contempt for books or literature. What it did intend was to put the proposition into mind that perhaps the cultural base had been burnt out" (Latham, 1991, p.20). In the case of the Skoob towers the point is made rather literally. With these and other of Latham's works his vague idealism and professed interest in new science doesn't seem to communicate through the work.
However something comes through the destruction. As Lawrence Alloway wrote about Latham's reliefs in 1960: "a non-verbal art appears out of the wreckage of the printed word. The effacement of the known code is related to the emergence of a previously unknown object" (Alloway, 1960, p.64)
It becomes conceivable that any form of erasure, however violently destructive, can be seen as constructive in some way. Brooks and Stezaker pointed out the Nietzschian element of Latham's book burnings: "an acceleration of the innate self-destructive tendencies of culture, so that (quite literally) a new culture might emerge, phoenix-like, from the ashes of the old" (Brooks & Stezaker, 1975, p.12). This idea, which can be traced to the nineteenth century anarchist Mikhail Bakunin, would suggest that any erasure of text, however violently destructive, carried within it the potential for preparing the way for renewal.
This idea can more palpably be observed within painting specifically. Ad Reinhardt reduced painting to a flat black canvas, which he described as "the last painting which anyone can make" (Glaser, 1966-7, p.28). Joseph Kosuth wrote of Ad Reinhardt's work: "Painting itself had to be erased, eclipsed, painted out in order to make art." (Kosuth, 1994, p.44). There is, in this, a certain completion, perhaps an arrival at some essence of modernism. However, Reinhardt himself stressed the negation of this act:
The painting, which is a negative thing, is the statement, and the words I've used about it have all been negative statements to keep the painting free. (Reinhardt, 1996-7, p.28)
It is as though Reinhardt resisted laying values on the work because the negation had to be absolute. This left others to build it back up, to find new values to ascribe to this painting and the ones that are to follow. Kosuth makes a case for Reinhardt's negation leading to a development of art, a reinvention that is made possible by the knowledge gained through the erasure of the old:
Paul Connerton, in discussing Hegel, has stated: "The negative connotes those historical forces which are incompatible with a certain form of social life and which act upon it destructively, but forces which nonetheless arise inevitably out of the particular social structure which they negate and surpass"... The circular act of self-understanding, in an attempt to transcend itself, erases the old part of a process which makes the new visible to itself as it redefines what is visible in the old. ( Kosuth, 1994, p.44).
Reinhardt's black paintings offered a clean slate for painting and prepared the ground for a new departure. But it seems that the black painting's lack of style becomes a style in itself. Reinhardt's paintings actually promote a strong minimal aesthetic. This is because the negation can never actually be free of the old values, or the new. The negation is not actually nothing. The negation takes it's form from an erasure of a particular set of positive values. If those values were different, then the negation would be different. This means that the new developing values that come after the erasure, in turn, are influenced by the particular values of the erased original. In this case, developing into what we could describe as the minimalist aesthetic.
In this way acts of erasure or deletion can be seen as part of the circular/linear development of a form. However, the above examples of erasure are extreme. I wanted first to push the idea to it's full extent, the absolute erasure - which can now be seen not to be absolute, but inextricably formed by the thing that it erases. Most of the examples of text deletion that I have studied don't attempt to delete so completely, and so it might be expected that they create less, by retaining more. The deletion is more closely involved with the erased sign, and consequently the developments that are invited by the erasure are even more specifically in relation to the text.
Chapter 2. Deconstruction
Before examining the specific examples of work that enact partial erasures, I want to first look at deconstruction in general in relation to the aforementioned negative/positive opposition, and get a sense as to whether it is generally thought that a departure or new growth is invited by deconstructive activity, as I have suggested is the case with (seemingly) destructive erasures.
Jurgen Habermans claims that "Nothing remains from a desublimated meaning or a destructured form; an emancipatory effect does not follow" (Habermans, 1984, p.11). However Paul Crowther writes, in response to the above statement:
...there is also a positive dimension. To Deconstruct history or texts in the style of Derrida or Foucault is to make evident that play of differance - that ungraspable network of relations, which sustains but is concealed by claims to self-presence. It is, in other words, to offer an insight into, or partial presentation of, a totality which as a totality is unpresentable. This, as Derrida remarks, "gives great pleasure" (Crowther in Papadakis (ed.), 1989, p.99)
This suggest that there is a constructive and positive element to deconstruction. But what of the sense of the new growth that forms out of the 'ashes of the old' that I spoke of in relation to destruction? Deconstruction goes further than the dismantling of binary oppositions (such as classical philosophical oppositions). The language of the oppositions is worked upon to keep the oppositions from reforming. There is a sense in which deconstruction disarms the hierarchical structures within the oppositions by continuing to undermine the terms upon which the oppositions could be reconstituted. As Fred Orton writes:
The next strategy is to prevent what has been accomplished by the first strategy- that overturning of the binary oppositions- from getting re-established. This involves operating further on the terrain and on the interior of the deconstructed system (Orton, 1989, p.36).
So deconstruction works to keep things in a deconstructed state, and prevent the new growth that follows a temporary destructive act. And yet Derrida talks of a new "concept". This is Derrida discussing what happens in his 'general strategy of deconstruction' after the 'overturning' of a binary opposition:
By means of this double, and precisely stratified, dislodged and dislodging, writing, we must also mark the interval between inversion, which brings low what was high, and the irruptive emergence of a new "concept," a concept that can no longer be, and never could be, included in the previous regime. (Derrida, 1981, p.42)
This interval is marked by the introduction of what Derrida has hesitantly called "indecidables":
...that is unities of simulacrum, "false" verbal properties (nominal or semantic) that can no longer be included within philosophical (binary) opposition, but which, however, inhabit philosophical opposition resisting and disorganising it, without ever constituting a third term, without ever leaving room for a solution in the form of speculative dialectics.(Derrida, 1981, p.43)
These indecidables are words that somehow encompass the opposition, while not sitting within the discourse of the original opposition. Indecidables in no way solve or mediate between the opposition, and yet refer to both terms. When Fred Orton wrote (as quoted above) "operating further on the terrain and on the interior of the deconstructed system" this writing of indecidables was one of the things that he was referring to. It is the imposition of the deconstructive writer's own language onto the 'terrain' of the initial opposition. This is an explicit strategy that prevents the binary oppositions from reforming. It is interesting to think of erasure as the making of an undecidable mark. Particularly in cases where the text is still readable underneath the erasure. This is something that Fred Orton suggests when discussing Jasper Johns in relation to Derrida and Deconstruction. He writes of Johns:
his practise does seem to show not only 'deconstructive indicators' - like the hinge - but also provides evidence that some deconstructive-like strategies are at work. I'm thinking of Derrida's writing 'sous rature' and the strategic indecidability which it causes.(Orton, 1989, p.38-9)
Writing 'sous rature' (under erasure) is a technique that Derrida employs to suggest that something is 'inaccurate yet necessary to say'.(Spivak intro. to Derrida, 1976, p.xiii-xiv) Spivak makes the most comprehensive study of erasure in her introduction to Derrida's Of Grammatology. She says "..the authority of the text is provisional, the origin is a trace; contradicting logic, we must learn to use and erase our language at the same time." (Spivak intro. to Derrida, 1976, p.xviii)
Spivak explains the background to this technique. She says: "The predicament of having to use resources of the heritage that one questions is the overt concern of Derrida's work" .(Spivak note 13 in Derrida, 1976, p.318) The writing of words under erasure is one of Derrida's methods for using the words that he questions but is forced to use. Derrida says "At each step I was obliged to proceed by ellipses, corrections and corrections of corrections, letting go of each concept at the very moment that I needed to use it". (Derrida, 1976, p.xviii)
This use of words that one distrusts can be seen in Kosuth's various works that partially erase Freud's texts (such as Zero and Not, 1986, and Zero and Not, 1989 figures 4 and 5). In his installations the erased text is still actively presented for viewing, and in this way the text is still used in some way. So in what way does the erasure constitute a critique of his theories? Nancy Princenthal's reading of it suggests a certain affirmation of Freud's theories:
The installation is an ironic confirmation of a fundamental psychoanalytic dictum, or at least a mocking concession to it: you can repress Freudian theory but that wont make it go away... Kosuth demonstrates that the harder one tries to obliterate Freud's claims, the more forcefully, if deviously, they try to assert themselves. (Princethal, 1986, p.129)
The reassertion mentioned here could be considered in relation to the reformation of binary oppositions that I discussed earlier. I stated before that it was Derrida's writing of his own language 'within the terrain of the opposition' that prevented the reassertion of the opposition. Contrary to this, the above quote would seem to suggest that in this case the cancelling lines fail to prevent the text from reasserting itself. However, Princenthal sees the cancelling as (fictionally) intending a purely destructive obliteration, rather than the more uncertain questioning of Derrida's erasure. It seems possible then that this obliteration of Freud is brought back into some kind of similar uncertain state to the more tentative erasure of words by Derrida. The words recover from their complete erasure because it is Freud, and the obliterated words could form a reading of the act of their obliteration.
The word erasure is often used by Derrida, and people writing about Derrida, when words are not actually written and printed anywhere 'sous rature' (with erasing lines), but are still spoken of as being used 'under erasure', or being erased by other strategies of deconstruction (See, for example, Derrida, 1976, p.60) Certain words are qualified as being used 'under erasure', which implies the same sense that the word is 'inaccurate and yet necessary to say'. So the technique becomes used as a metaphor. Although the actual instances of writing under erasure are few and far between (listed by Spivak in Derrida, 1976, p.lxxx) it can be seen as being motivated by the same concerns as the whole deconstructive approach.
The 'trace', that was mentioned above by Spivak in our initial definition of 'sous rature', is a key concept in Derrida's writing. Derrida suggests that words are inaccurate because they do not show the trace element. Derrida writes:
In order to describe traces, in order to read the traces of "unconscious" traces (there are no "conscious" traces), the language of presence and absence, the metaphysical discourse of phenomenology, is inadequate. (Although the phenomenologist is not the only one to speak this language.) (Derrida, 1982, p.21)
Robert C. Morgan suggests that erasing language can expose this trace in his writing about Joseph Kosuth's erasure of language in works such as Zero and Not:
By "erasing" the absence through repression of speech, Derrida's "indelibility of certain traces" is only further pronounced... somehow the originary source has an invitational aspect to it, an appellation, something that calls forth to the subject in order to traverse the distance between the trace and its origins... What erupts in the presence of working in relation to Freud is a merging of the subject toward the horizon of the disappearing trace. (Morgan, 1988, p.48)
To expose the trace is also one of Derrida's specific uses for writing 'under erasure', and as such can be seen as a central concern in Derrida's work (see, for example, the essay Differance in Derrida, 1982, p.12)
However, erasure is perhaps a technique and a writing that is only 'readable' in these ways within the context of a deconstructive text. The actual marking of the erasing lines brings the associations of deconstruction closer to the art work that I am examining, but is it possible to say that the writing of words under erasure in art constitutes deconstruction? It certainly makes it easier to make a deconstructive reading of these works. But is deconstruction actually at work within the work? Does this depend on proving the intentions of the artists, and even then, is there enough happening with a single erasure? The writing of words 'under erasure' in deconstructive texts is a small part of the deconstructive strategy (that can be seen as representative of the whole), but an erasure standing alone, without being part of a broader deconstructive approach must surely be limited.
In the silk-screen print Untitled (Skull) from the portfolio Reality and Paradoxes ,1973 (figure 6) Jasper Johns crosses out his signature. It is difficult to tell exactly what the artist intended by this gesture. Fred Orton writes:
He seems to be writing that it's necessary but inaccurate to say that this was made by Jasper Johns. He seems to be guaranteeing the text by signing it and then drawing attention to the problematic nature of authorship and ownership by crossing out the signing, clearly opening to doubt its power to confer authenticity, but not denying it. (Orton, 1989, p.38-9)
This seems plausible although in other works Johns crosses out parts for very different reasons. In an Interview Johns discusses his reasons for crossing out part of Bent "Blue" (Second State), 1971, (figure 7). He says:
In a sense it is to say it is of no importance, because in Bent "Blue", that area is constantly changing, so it's not too important what's there. But obviously it's of great importance what's there because that is what's there. But it could be anything else - that or the next image. (Coplans, 1972, p.32)
But this is not the way in which erasure is usually read. As Robert C. Morgan says in relation to Kosuth's work: "The covering of language carries with it the suggestion that what is present beneath is significant in view of its absence." (Morgan, 1988, p.48) John's crossing out of part of his picture surely draws our attention to it and makes this area more significant. There is a paradox here which may or may not be intentional. Fred Orton discusses this play, but claims that the area is not necessarily made to be more significant:
As an 'undecidable' that crossed out bit of the surface is neither insignificant nor significant, neither less important nor more important, neither inadequate nor adequate, neither wrong nor right, neither unwanted nor wanted. (Orton, 1989, p.40)
This brings us back to Fred Orton's assertion that writing 'sous rature' causes strategic indecidability. It should be noted that this is Orton's reading of Derrida. Derrida himself has not written that writing 'sous rature' constitutes the writing of an 'indecidable'.
So what are the qualities that Derrida describes his indecidables as having? In discussing gram, (one of the indecidables that he uses) he says: "the gram is neither a signifier nor a signified, neither a sign nor a thing, neither a presence nor an absence, neither a position nor a negation, etc." (Derrida, 1987, p.43) A similar set of characterisations could describe erasure, as Orton has constructed above. In any partial erasure, whether in art or in writing, the text is neither intact nor destroyed, but both these possibilities are apparent within the erasure. The erasure involves both the presence, and the negation of the presence of the text, and yet it is part of a different discussion.
But how would the rest of the strategic structure of indecidables as described by Orton fit into place? If we take the partially erasing mark as the 'indecidable', the writing of one's own language onto the terrain of the opposition, then where is the initial overturning of the opposition? And what in fact is the opposition? Perhaps the opposition is whatever the given positive is within the text, and the negation of that, the lack or destruction of that (which could be represented by the complete destruction of the text). The overturning is the semi-erasure which questions the authority of the positive text, whilst reaffirming the significance of the text by showing the need to present it in a semi-erased form. Can the overturning and the indecidable sign be carried within the same gesture/mark? Perhaps the overturning is in the intention, the gesture of semi-erasure, the decision, the act, and the undecidable is in the erasing mark that lingers and holds the text in this semi erased state.
This analogy eventually becomes convoluted and exhausted. This discussion becomes a reading of erasure rather than the proving of a strategy at work. Fred Orton reaches a similar conclusion about deconstructive readings of Jasper Johns:
Each one seems deconstructively knowing in certain ways. They seem to invite a deconstructive reading. I'm able to say that, but only after having read some of Derrida's texts... Perhaps the most that I can say is that Johns... brings certain considerations to bear in making some paintings and prints which somehow can be seen as, read as, analogous to some aspects of what someone doing deconstruction does. (Orton, 1989, p.44)
If the artists involved appear to have different concerns it does not mean that we should not give the work a deconstructive reading (deconstruction after all is really a way of reading, and then writing about that reading). But within that there is a sense of creation, inventing or constructing a deconstructive meaning where none was intended. But that is legitimate within deconstruction, as the deconstructive thrust is not within the language of the original opposition or language. There is a fine line however between making a deconstructive reading of art, and implying a deconstructive strategy within the work.
There are also examples of artists claiming a deconstructive strategy, when their work actually falls short of this. Tom Phillips' A Humument uses A Human Document by W.H Maflock as it's surface, and erases all but some of the words with illustrations (figure 8, below). The words that are allowed to stand are given a second life and a new meaning. The artist states that "At its lowest it is a reasonable example of bricolage, and at its highest it is perhaps a massive deconstruction job." (Phillips, 1992, p.77). Maybe it is because of Phillips' off-putting superficially stylised illustrations that cover the pages, but I cannot conceive of this work as employing deconstructive strategies, or make an interesting deconstructive reading of it myself.
It seems that "Maflock is merely pretext for the overlaid story" (Gass, 1996, p.80). Phillips' covering work does not make a reading of the original text, even though it uses some of the words, and takes the theme of the painting from one selected word. It appears, and is confirmed by Phillip's lack of engagement, that the work is no more than the arbitrary use of fragments of text, that have in this case been left in their binding.
But there are other examples of artists making erasures that do seem to offer an undecided critique of the erased thing. Malcolm Morley in his work Race Track (1970) duplicates a poster advertising a race course in South Africa, but cancels it with two crossed red lines. Paul Crowther writes of this work:
the violence of the erasure challenges existing categories of meaning and pleasure. It refuses to repeat the cool aesthetic surface of Late-Modernism, yet at the same time refuses to replace it with a homage to radical chic...His rapid transitions from lyricism to violence, broken brushstrokes to stable masses, fantasy to reality, make it impossible to locate him. Familiar categories are loosened and made strange; the horizon of differance appears. (Crowther, in Papadakis (ed.), 1989, p.100)
Differance is another of Derrida's key terms, which relates very closely to his ideas about the trace. (See for example Derrida, 1982, p.21 for a discussion of the trace and Differance)
Morley's work is an example where it is more plausible to say that there is some deconstructive strategy within the work because the main content of the work is a representation of an earlier work. The same could be said of Kosuth's erasures of Freud. However with works like Ann Hamilton's Tropos 1993, (figure 9 right), where we are unaware of which text is being erased, the erasure is of a more symbolic nature, an erasure of a book and what that represents. This is more difficult to make a deconstructive reading of, and is clearly not overtly not concerned with deconstructive strategies, because there is no reading of the text as such.
So some of these examples of partial erasures can be seen as operating in similar ways to deconstructive strategies, and inviting interesting deconstructive readings, but not explicitly as deconstruction itself, unless it was within a broader deconstructive text or project. However I do find the use of the word 'indecidable' useful in relation to erasure, as it highlights the ambiguous and potentially uncertain nature of some erasures in art.
Chapter 3. Palimpsest
Figure 10. Cy Twombly, Untitled, 1960
Roland Barthes, writing in relation to Cy Twombly, who he describes as a "painter of writing" (see figure 10 left), discusses the application of marks onto a dirtied surface in terms of graffiti:
what constitutes graffiti is in fact neither the inscription nor its message but the wall, the background, the surface (the desktop); it is because the background exists fully as an object that has already lived, that such writing always comes as an enigmatic surplus... that is what disturbs the order of things; or again: it is insofar as the background is not clean that it is unsuitable to thought (contrary to the philosopher's blank sheet of paper)... (Barthes, 1985, p.165)
If we interpret erasure as graffiti in these terms, the erasure is an 'enigmatic surplus' to the original text. Although it could also be seen as an attempt to re-clean the background, to move it towards the blank sheet which is more 'suitable for thought'. Except that the thought that it prepares the way for is inevitably polluted by the traces of the background that is never successfully cleaned. The erasure perhaps moves the background, the text, into a state which is more suitable to thought, but only thought in relation to itself. This can be seen as an extension of my earlier argument that the erasure invites a departure that is founded on the original text. The word palimpsest has been used frequently in the writing about the works I have been discussing:
Derrida's erasing-erased writing - his palimpsest - is the reinscription that continually displaces the reversed hierarchies of metaphysics. (Leavey intro. to Derrida, 1980, p.11)
The word palimpsest originally referred to "writing material or manuscript on which the original writing has been effaced to make room for a second writing; monumental brass turned and re-engraved on reverse side"(Conscise Oxford Dictionary, 1976). For clarity, I want to define this in terms of three stages, that is - the initial writing, then the erasure, and then the rewriting. (Phillips' A Humument fits this structure) However, the term now often seems to be used to suggest just the first and third stages, writing directly over the top of the old text, without an erasure:
..the hand has drawn something like a flower and then has begun "dawdling" over this line; the flower has been written, then unwritten; but the two movements remain vaguely superimposed; it is a perverse palimpsest...(Barthes, 1985, p.165)
And more interestingly, in a form where the second and third stages, the erasure and the rewriting have merged to become one - so that the erasure is the rewriting. This use of the word is evident in Neville Wakefield's writing about Ann Hamilton's Tropos:
...as each line is read it is singed out of existence with a small heated implement, language and text disappearing in a thin arabesque of smoke - the delicate imprint of the erased text, a palimpsest of language and the body. (Wakefield in Hamilton, 1994, p.12)
The 'palimpsest of language and body' is the imprint of the body's actions (the burning out) onto the book's language. Here the erasure of the old text, and the imprint of a new sign is carried in the same action. Kosuth's and Derrida's erasing lines can also be seen as a 'writing', the inscribing of a new sign. A piece of work that I am in the process of making has a different dynamic within this structure. In this piece the second text is carefully written over the first text in a way that renders both texts unreadable. This would mean that the third stage, the rewriting, had brought about the second stage, the erasure, rather than the erasure bringing the rewriting as in the examples above. These two ideas are closely linked, but differentiated by the initial intent (even if this is fictional) and the sense of a linear progression (although obviously the erasure and the rewriting in both cases actually happens simultaneously).
Freud finds a particular surface or a mechanism, which fits his theories of the human 'perceptual apparatus'. This is a device that was marketed under the name The Mystic Pad. It is something that has now become a common children's toy. It has the appearance of a shiny whitish-grey card that can be written on with any blunt instrument, and then erased by lifting the top two layers of the card. The device actually consists of three layers - a dark waxy base card, a thin translucent layer of waxed paper in the middle, and a transparent piece of celluloid on top. The marks made by the blunt instrument are made visible by the waxed paper and the wax card being pressed into contact. When the paper has been lifted away and returned, the close contact does not resume, and the surface appears blank once again.
The top celluloid layer is a protective layer (it prevents the waxy paper from being worn away), and the layer beneath receives the scratching. Freud makes the link:
...the perceptual apparatus of the mind consists of two layers, of an external protective shield against stimuli whose task it is to diminish the strength of excitations coming in, and of a surface behind it which receives the stimuli, namely the system. (Freud, 1976, p.230)
He goes on to explain that although the device seems to erase the writing, the wax card underneath does actually permanently record the marks, which are readable "in suitable lights". So the wax card (or slab in Freud's writing) represents the unconscious. He then draws a further analogy that is to do with the time of writing. (Freud, 1976, p.230). This concerns the breaking of the link between the consciousness and the unconsciousness. Intermittently the consciousness is detached from the unconsciousness, leaving the consciousness in a fully receptive state, and the unconscious still bearing the knowledge of previous marks. But there is some sense of movement out towards the consciousness. As Derrida says:
This hypothesis posits a discontinuous distribution - through rapid periodic impulses - of "cathectic innervations" (Besetzungsinnervationen), from within toward the outside, toward the permeability of the system. These movements are then "withdrawn" or "removed". Consciousness fades each time the cathexis is withdrawn this way. (Derrida, 1987, p.225 - refers to Freud, 1976, p.231)
This movement from "within towards the outside" is represented in the device because it is the contact of the wax card pressing up onto the paper layer that makes any scratching visible. In this scenario no consciousness is possible without the unconscious reaching out to the receptive apparatus.
The analogy finally fails when it becomes apparent that the waxed paper (the consciousness) is not able to bring back writing from the wax card (the unconscious mind), that it had previously held. (Derrida, 1987, p.227 - refers to Freud, 1976, p.230)
My interest in this device is in its dual role that fills the gap between traditional writing surfaces. As Derrida says: "A sheet of paper preserves indefinitely but is quickly saturated. A slate, whose virginity may always be reconstituted by erasing the imprints on it, does not conserve traces." (Derrida, 1987, p.222). The Palimpsest, like the Mystic Pad, fulfils both these roles, conserving traces, and being receptive to new writing. In my work that uses tippex (correction fluid) to erase text, such as No News Is Good News there is the retention of more than just traces. The original writing is preserved in it's entirety (behind a screen of white). With correction fluid there are also physical traces on the re-prepared receptive surface. The screen (the correction fluid), which constitutes the erasure, carries a trace of the original writing in its physical shape, which is formed by the shape of the words.
The Palimpsest introduces the idea of erasure as part of a layering process. There can be a fluid relationship between these layers. Texts and erasures are superimposed to bring about other texts or erasures. A new erasure creates text; a new text creates erasure.
Chapter 4. Fiction. A Conclusion
Barthes' use of the words perverse palimpsest (quoted above) highlights the will involved. This is not an accidental covering of one line with another, but a conscious 'un-writing', or rewriting. This is picked up again by Barthes in a separate piece of writing:
Twombly seems to cover up other marks, as if he wanted to erase them, without really wanting to, since these marks remain faintly visible under the layer covering them; this is a subtle dialectic: the artist pretends to have "spoiled" some piece of his canvas and to have wanted to erase it; but then he spoils this erasure in its turn; and these two superimposed "failures" produce a kind of palimpsest. (Barthes, 1985, p.179-80)
This notion of 'pretence' is picked up by John P. Leavey in his introduction to Derrida's The Archeology of the Frivolous. He uses the word 'smearing' to encompass both the smearing of marks in Twombly's painting, and Derrida's writing 'sous rature':
Like Twombly, Derrida "does not grasp at anything." His smearing traps without grasping, traps without catching, in his hollowness, the emptiness of its snare. The stroke of "pretence" in writing confirms this. Smearing introduces the pretended erasure: "he wanted... without really wanting," "the artist pretends," "in virtue of a fancy." But smearing also introduces the double pretence: "as if he wanted... without really wanting," "as if... in virtue of a fancy." (Leavey intro. to Derrida, 1980, p.13)
And later he mentions "that undecidable truth and fiction of every erased stroke, title, word, writing, text, etc." (Leavey intro. to Derrida, 1980, p.15). So there is a suggestion that the play of truth and fiction is something that could be described as an undecidable element within erasure. In places in this writing I have argued that the presentation of the erased text was a balancing factor that prevented the erased text from being altogether obliterated. This presentation, this fiction of an erasure, is like the theatrical staging of a death, where it is not the obliteration of that character or thing that is the aim, but rather that it is a means of gaining new knowledge about that character or thing which is (fictionally) killed or erased, and gaining new knowledge about the process of death or erasure itself.
The origin of the word erasure is radere, to scrape. This implies erasure as an action, and erased text as the sign of that action. The scraping which is usually employed to remove the mark or sign could perhaps be exercised more in the spirit of agitation.
I do not mean to imply that erasure is not erasure. However what I do assert is that when erasure is used in art its properties change. The decision to show erased text is a dialectic that creates a dynamic and critical uncertainty.
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This essay on erasure in art was written by the British artist Richard Galpin in 1998. Richard Galpin's recent work is viewable here: www.richardgalpin.co.uk
Earlier works that informed this writing are archived here: ARCHIVE INDEX