?> The Unravelled Calligram, RCA Paper 2010

What can be drawn from the Image?

I have sent you an image and a description of that image, here in this room I present you with a drawing made from the image, and a text made from words that formed the description you have heard. Between these processes of formulating the visual I am asking: What can be drawn from the image? This question stems from a concern with whether it is possible to describe the image – or what the relationship between word and image is in describing visual space. In asking it I am reflecting on a series of drawings I have made over the past six months that are guided by descriptions I have written from photographs. I present you with one of these drawings as a silent remnant of encountering the image. I also present you with the words I used to formulate the drawing. I invite you to inspect them. I ask you the think about what remains of the image within them.


The way in which I am thinking about the image is at once practical and theoretical. The relationship between the two colliding and shifting to mark out the ground – or surface that could be seen to constitute the ‘image’.  In practical terms, the ‘image’ I make comes about as a result of an encounter with a camera in space. This could be thought of in the light of a beautiful encounter with a sewing machine on an operating table, but more quotidian. The ‘image’ is made to respond to a preconceived idea about an interaction of events that take place on the street. I may decide that I will take a photograph when a person passes by a certain piece of street furniture, or when they step off the pavement and onto the road… a moment that will determine how the photograph takes place. I then return to the site of this image and try to navigate its surface, through words, through marks, through sight.

This process is interested in thinking about how an image can take place, and what an image might be. It thinks of the image as a site of exposure, to an other, as a space that is constantly unfolding and unsettled, as a space that we (the viewer) reach towards to find some ground. It is this that leads me to question what can be drawn from the image, both literally in terms to the relationship between mark, word and thought, and in terms of thinking about what the space of the image yields to the viewer, how it should be approached, what it is capable of giving.

Alongside my thinking about this are the texts: ‘The Unraveled Calligram’[1] by Michel Foucault, and ‘The Image – The Distinct’ by Jean-Luc Nancy[2]. There also looms a work by Vija Celmins, called: ‘Untitled, Large Desert’ 1979.

I want to focus on processes of exchange between image and word – and question what happens between these processes. The act of describing the image has been discussed previously (with the resultant failure to produce the visual through words: Charles’ Hat…[3]) I now want to think about what happens when these words might, in spite of themselves, be used to try to move back to the site of the image. The drawings reflect this process of looking and make manifest extended time spent with the image.

Word and Image unravelled…

I am going to think about the idea that a common ground between word and image has disappeared, in the light of the unraveled calligram as Foucault presents it; and suggest that it is in disappearance that ‘common’ might be established. I am thinking of drawing and drawn – as a process of unravelling. I am thinking that what can be drawn from the image can also be pulled from it, touched within it, untangled, withdrawn. I am also thinking that the image might withdraw from itself as it is drawn.

Lautremnont described a young boy as conjuring the thought:

‘as beautiful as the chance encounter upon an operating table of a sewing machine and an umbrella’[4]. In Foucault’s essay ‘This is not a Pipe’, he is concerned with the encounter of word and image in the light of Lautremont. In ‘The Order of Things’ Foucault writes about disorder: ‘There is a worse kind of disorder than that of the incongruous. I mean the disorder in which a large number of possible orders glitter separately, in the lawless and un-charted dimension of the heteroclite, and … in such a state things are ‘laid’, ‘placed’, ‘arranged’ in states so very different from one another that it is impossible to find a common place beneath them all…[5]

It is this notion of common ground that he approaches in thinking about Magritte’s work. Instead of a Utopian joining of word and image he envisages a hererotopia – something that structurally unsettles. This hanging together, both adjascent and opposite, is what Foucault thinks of as a common ground – pulled apart. In thinking this he is asking what is at stake in the relationship between word and image – what is the location of the visual in their disjuncture.

( it is interesting to note that this thought, in itself was inspired by a dramatic and highly visual reading of Borges…)

In ‘This is not a pipe’ Foucault claims that: ‘The easel has but to tilt, the frame to loosen, the painting to tumble down, the words to be scattered… The common place – … – has disappeared’.[6] He is using commonplace here to mean both shared and everyday relations between word and image: ‘Lieu Common’. He speaks of Magritte as destabilising that relationship, unsettling it. He sees Magritte’s painting as presenting the moment before this falling apart. The moment before the common ground has been lost. Of course Magritte’s statement is true it is not a pipe, yet equally of course, it is not (as Nancy insists later…) this double understanding is what underpins our learning and use of language, a constant equivalence between things that don’t relate… a constant process of making meaning. The complexity of this relation is what Foucault ascribes to the calligram, to shape and word coming together and simultaneously falling apart.

‘…behind this drawing and these words, before the formation of the picture (and within it the drawing of the pipe), before the large, floating pipe has appeared – we must assume, I believe, that a calligram has formed, then unravelled. There we have evidence of failure and its ironic remains’[7] (p.20)

The calligram shows and says, its shapes as it says, it brings together – folds together shape, line and text.  It is simultaneously verbose and silent and in being that way shows the failure of both languages as they approach one another… ‘For the blink of an eye, it reduces phoneticism to a mere grey noise completing the contours of the shape; but it renders outline as a thin skin that must be pierced in order to follow, word for word, the outpouring of its internal text.’[8] (p.21)

Foucault goes on to say that the Calligram effaces the oppositions between showing and naming, shaping and saying, imitating and signifying, looking and reading. It is this idea about the impossible collision of processes and references that interests me. Word and image unsettle each other in sharing their means, in doing so, they unsettle meaning. This sharing is uncomfortable, as Foucault has suggested:

‘It is in vain that we say what we see; what we see never resides in what we say… and it is in vain that we attempt to show, by the use of images, metaphors or similies, what we are saying: the space where they achieve their splendour is not that deployed by our eyes but that defined by the sequential elements of syntax… It gives us a finger to point with, in other words to pass surreptitiously from the space where one speaks to the space where one looks; in other words, to fold one over the other as if they were equivalents.’ [9]

I wonder what it is to fold one over the other – can you fold the space of looking over onto the space of saying? Where does syntax reside, in mark, shape or the rhythm of speech? Do they not always seek to separate from each other? As Foucault suggests, as if, they were equivalents, of course they are not. Foucault goes on to analyse the pipe, the word, the mark, the idea and the identification of ‘pipe’, in terms of an unravelled calligram. He see’s the painting as evidence of a failure to show and tell, as an‘ironic remains’.

…. ‘The calligram never speaks and represents at the same moment. The very thing that is both seen and read is hushed in the vision, hidden in the reading’ [10](p.25)

Between word, image and mark, between their interaction a dissonance occurs, which resonates with my question: What can be drawn from the image? I have been thinking this in relation to my practice (the sound and image you have seen and heard – and the remnant mark that you are presented with today, along with words) but also with an image of a work by Vija Celmins, floating in my mind rather like the looming pipe in the second version of the Magritte painting. ‘Untitled, Large Desert’ 1979 makes me think about marks on the surface of paper. The work touches the photographic quality of the image, the grain of the paper, the texture of the mark. It demonstrates their illusion and failure at illusion. The title, at once abstract and unyielding is full  of reference, of representation and naming.

This surface of resistance in Celmins work is like the unravelled calligram that has spread its form. The mark, title and gesture all collaborating to create a double tension of yielding and unyielding surface. It is this contradictory dynamic of surface that I want to think about, a surface that can beckon the viewer and then refuse access, insight words and then remain silent, name and be un-named. It is in this sense that Foucault claims that the common ground has disappeared: ‘The trap shattered on emptiness: image and text fall each to its own side… no longer do they have a common ground… The slender, colourless, neutral strip, which is Magritte’s ‘drawing’ separates the text and the figure, must be seen as a crevasse – an uncertain, foggy region now dividing the pipe floating in its imagistic heaven from the mundane tramp of words marching in their successive line. Still it is too much to claim that there is a blank or a lacuna: instead it is an absence of space, an effacement of the ‘common place’ between the signs of writing and the lines of the image.’[11]

What is formulated is an absence, a retreat of the image into its own space, away from the space of words, that they may encounter each other over a crevasse. Yet is it this crevasse that is thought of as the ‘drawing’, the space between word and image that draws each to the other. The problem lies in thinking whether, if common ground has disappeared, it was ever there. Its absence could be seen as permanent, and it is across that absence that a relation could be thought. I want to think about the neutral strip that Foucault identifies in Magritte. It is this space that he calls Magritte’s ‘drawing’…  and wonder whether it is not substantial enough to be thought of as something common – or that common may be thought of as an absence. It is in that absence that Celmins makes her mark, and it is in that unsettled territory between word, image and mark that I start to draw and in the space of that drawing, over time, I move between word and image, ravelling and unravelling, revealing nothing much.


M Foucault, This is not a Pipe, University of California Press, 2008

J Nancy, The Ground of the Image, Fordham University Press, New York, 2005

G Flaubert, Madame Bovary, Everyman’s Library, 1993

[1] M Foucault, This is not a Pipe, University of California Press, 2008

[2] J Nancy, The Ground of the Image, Fordham University Press, New York, 2005

[3] G Flaubert, Madame Bovary, Everyman’s Library, 1993

[4] Compte de Lautreamont’s statement that inspired Surrealism.

[5] M Foucault, The Order of Things, Routledge, London

[6] M Foucault, This is not a Pipe, University of California Press, 2008, p.31

[7] M Foucault, This is not a Pipe, University of California Press, 2008, p.20

[8] M Foucault, This is not a Pipe, University of California Press, 2008, p.21

[9] M Foucault, The Order of Things, Routledge, London, 2004, p.10

[10] M Foucault, This is not a Pipe, University of California Press, 2008, p.25

[11] M Foucault, This is not a Pipe, University of California Press, 2008, p.28