I was reminded of Sterne’s black page when looking at images of Nina Papaconstantinou’s drawings. A drawing such as St. John, The Apocalypse is an impenetrable surface of blue marks: the promised revelations are illegible because St. John’s words have been transcribed one on top of the other. The drawing, a record of the artist’s reading, is unreadable, but it is a compelling image of reading.
St. John, The Apocalypse is from Bookcase, a series in which Papaconstantinou copies books from her personal library. Using carbon paper, she begins copying at the top of a sheet of paper and, when she reaches the bottom of the sheet, she returns to the top and begins transcribing once again from top to bottom. An entire book is recorded on one sheet of paper. The surface of each drawing is dense, intractable, like the inky clots when paper in a printer jams. Papaconstantinou’s drawings, too, are a kind of jamming of narrative time that produces not only a record of the artist’s reading but an image of her manual labor. The artist refers to drawing as “a measure of time.”
Although Papaconstantinou’s marks are painstakingly made by hand, they attend to the conventions of print. For example, the ragged right-hand margin of the drawing Ar. Valaoritis, O Foteinos identifies it as an image of printed verse. In some works, the artist disassembles the page, playing with its physical and conceptual parameters. In the project Double Books, a series of diptychs, one part of each diptych traces the words of a book but the other part traces the spaces between lines and words.
The juxtaposition of handwritten page and printed page is especially striking in the series Between the Lines. In these drawings, Papaconstantinou magnifies and photocopies a very small section of a text, the words enlarged to such an extent that the space between letter-forms is palpable. The artist then copies, by hand, the photocopy, taking care to reproduce every detail, including accidental marks and smudges. In contrast to the series Bookcase, in which the figure/ground relation of letters on a page is effaced through copying one page on top of the other, Between the Lines focuses on the ground of writing, on the in-between spaces that facilitate legibility. Between the Lines is also an exercise in copying the physical characteristics of a text, for Papaconstantinou is not simply transcribing configurations of white space and black print, but she is replicating the very surface of a photocopied document.
In Papaconstantinou’s work, the page is at once portal and obdurate matter. Like the black page in Tristram Shandy, with its conflation of the paratext and narrative, the artist’s hand-drawn copies of literary texts draw attention to print as a material object. Copying, for Papaconstantinou, is a means of drawing, and the artist’s “drawing” of words explores the relationship of line to letter, and of text to image. The artist’s use of line may be descriptive, but the accretion of marks, however precise, generates work that subverts both reading and representation.
In the following interview, Papaconstantinou discusses her different approaches to drawing, temporal experiences of reading and drawing, and the impact of literature on her art.
Let’s start with the works Dante, Inferno and Dante, Paradiso. These are two large drawings in conté pencil. Dense with marks, they are nearly black, the result of copying out each of Dante’s works onto a single sheet, so lines are layered over one another, creating an illegible field. In photographs of the installation at the National Museum of Contemporary Art in Athens, Greece, the drawings are framed so they look like doors.
Why did you select Dante for this project?
I have transcribed the text on a wall surface painted white, so what looks like a frame is actually the margins of the surface, the space left unwritten, much like on a sheet of paper.
I selected Dante for the powerful imagery of the text of Paradiso and Inferno. I wanted to explore the images created by such a strong text, the images created by the very words of it, in overlapping layers. Also, I was interested in the juxtaposition of the two works that results from the two different texts, their similarities and differences—if any. I have selected the door size for an immediate reference to the concept of the gate (the gate to Paradise or Hell), but also to the text or book as a door or opening into another world.
Are you actually copying the text, or are you tracing the text? Can you explain your process?
I am copying the text, in my own handwriting of course, as I read it from the book onto the wall surface, starting from the top of the surface, writing from left to right until I reach the bottom of the “page.” I then continue from the top again, from left to right, and so on until I finish transcribing the entire book. Depending on the pages of the book, the layers of text are more or less dense.
The process strikes me as quite labor intensive. How important is the experience of manual labor when you are making a work?
The whole process is based on handwriting, which in itself is labor intensive. Since I have chosen to work in this way, the element of labor always comes up in my work. Although I didn’t intentionally choose the process to be painstaking, the concept of labor is inevitably intertwined with what I aim to explore in my work each time.
For instance, in the Between the Lines series, I wanted to look into the spaces between words or between letters, by making enlarged photocopies of such spaces and then tracing the photocopy marks by hand on tracing paper, dot by dot. My investigation in this case brings more questions to the surface, such as the hand-copy of a photocopy, the reverse procedure, the manual scanner, etc., which inevitably refer to the manual labor. Along with that, of course, comes the experience of time, the writing or drawing as a measure of time.
Are you paying attention to the words as you copy the text? Is copying a way of rereading, or is the mark-making merely automatic?
I have found out that, when copying, I do the same as when reading: I pay attention to the words and the meaning, but there are also times when I read mechanically and then go back and pay attention to what I have missed. Because I write much slower than I read, of course, I sometimes read ahead and then go back and copy what I have just read. In other cases, I copy as I read, and, as the procedure is slow, I often get distracted, so the writing becomes more automatic.
You have made many drawings using carbon copy ink to transfer texts such as Gogol’s Diary of a Madman, Aristophanes’ The Clouds, Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” and John Berger’s Ways of Seeing.
What was behind your choice to use carbon paper? Does your attraction to carbon paper have to do with its material qualities, such as its waxy surface, or are you also attracted to its historical associations?
I like carbon paper especially as it is associated with the production of copies and I used it for that purpose when I was a student at school. At that time, and before Xerox, carbon paper was a standard—very bureaucratic way—to produce copies. So, when I started the Bookcase series, I chose to work with blue carbon paper.
The ongoing The Double Books project uses red carbon paper. In this project, what is being doubled? Are you copying the book as a two-page spread, or are you copying each book twice?
I copy one book in two different ways, and in the form of a two-page spread: I place the book open on the red carbon paper and I trace all left pages on the left and all right pages on the right. In the first part of the diptych I trace the words, the letters, one by one. In the second part of this diptych, I trace the distances between words and lines, so I draw a line under each line of the text, which also goes up to trace the distances between words.
In this way I try to explore—in a “literal” way—the different readings a text may have: word by word, or between the lines. To me, the process, as well as the outcome, is much like an x-ray of a book.
How do you see the relationship between your careful copying of texts and medieval scribal traditions, or the pre-twentieth century profession of scriveners?
I have great respect for medieval scribes and the profession of scriveners, and much appreciation for the act of transcribing a text. This interest of mine started when I was studying Greek literature. I was fascinated by the labor, the intensity, and the responsibility involved in such a task. I was very much interested also in the errors made by the scribes, as well as the parts that were illegible. So, when I decided to use carbon copy and transfer by hand an entire book onto a single sheet of paper, I had in mind a scribe who forgets to renew the sheets of paper underneath the carbon paper. As if by mistake, all the writing accumulates on a single sheet of paper, so instead of the book, we have a muddled, illegible text—therefore, an image of the text.
Can you tell us about your ongoing project Babel?
So far, the Babel project comprises only four works, it is my aspiration to continue the project with as many works as possible. Each drawing is constructed on the same principle as the Bookcase project; I copy the text in layers onto blue carbon copy, which is on top of a sheet of textured paper. In the case of Babel, I copy the text from the book of Genesis, starting from the beginning until the chapter of Babel. So far, I have copied the text in Hebrew, English, Greek, and Turkish, hence the title of the works. In contrast to the Bookcase project, where each work is the transcription of a different book, in Babel the text is the same, only the language is different. I am interested to see if the images produced by writing in different alphabets are also different, or if this muddled layered writing—even in different languages—produces the same or very similar images.
You often adopt forms of mark-making or construction from other crafts. For example, King Lear and Orestes & Iphigenia are two in a series of works that use pinpricks. Can you talk about how you arrived at this form of mark-making? And what about the composition of these works? For example, the text-pricks of King Lear move around the edge of the page, with the center empty.
In another series, you weave strips of printed text, such as in the work Brothers Grimm, The Six Swans. What is the genesis of this work? Is each of your versions a “re-weaving” of a different version of the fairytale?
Instead of using a pencil to make dots, I decided to use a pin in the same way, to copy the marks of the text. This is a procedure of multiple stages: first, I write the text; next, I manipulate it digitally so it becomes barely legible; and then I print and copy it. In the case of the series of works you mention—which are mostly theatrical plays—the way to copy the manipulated text is by placing the printout on top of the paper and piercing with the pin on the marks of the printout.
I connect piercing with a pin to the act of sewing or embroidery, in the way I use the sheet of paper on both surfaces. I associate this act of pinning down the marks in a literal way with an aim to explore this relationship between this particular mark-making—this particular way of drawing—with the texture of fabrics. In this case, the image of the text is not the result of writing in overlapping layers, which makes the text illegible, but stems, rather, from a textured, embroidery-like process which makes use of the text again but through different process.
The texts that have inspired me to work in this way have been mainly theatrical plays. One of the first I made used certain dialogues from T. S. Eliot’s The Family Reunion. I tried to create a motif using these lines reminiscent of a motif possibly found in a tablecloth, with the immediate associations and references to family dinners, family discussions and quarrels, and, of course, the bordure that alludes to the borders or confines one may find oneself in when dealing with family and family issues. Certainly, on the other hand, I had in mind a literal rendition of the piercing power of words and the quiet and innocent white-on-white texture.
In King Lear, which I worked on as a pair with Cordelia, I decided to place Lear’s lines around the edge of the paper in order to give enough space to his lines and as a comment to his character. His words create the bordure, or borders, of his character. Cordelia, on the other hand, is much more silent and has fewer lines, so the composition in her case is confined to a smaller space, but at the center or heart of the paper surface.
In The Six Swans, I have written the text of the story by the Brothers Grimm. I only used the one version I had. According to the story, the girl has to knit in silence a shirt from nettles for each one of her six brothers, whom a witch had turned into swans, in order to break the spell and give them back their human form. I printed out the text, cut it in strips, and then wove the strips of paper in a random way each time, and I did that six times in total, as is the number of the shirts the girl in the story has to weave.
Because I wove the strips in a random way each time, all six works are different, with the text accumulating in various ways or spreading within the white spaces of the paper.
I was interested in the repetitive, silent work of the girl in the story, and the fact that there were certain rules she had to obey in order to break the spell. I set rules in a similar way in my work.
Some of your projects involve bound books, as in your series of diaries, including Diary (Robinson Crusoe), and Sylvia Plath: The Missing Journal. Tell us about these two works.
I was attracted by Sylvia Plath’s life and writings, and was intrigued by her journals, especially the journal that went missing or was destroyed by Ted Hughes. In Sylvia Plath: The Missing Journal, I copied excerpts from her published journals in an inkless pen on both sides of the page. Thus, the writing becomes illegible as both surfaces of the paper have a relief texture, which confuses the text. It is as if someone has written on a sheet of paper on top, which has gone missing, so what is left is the engraved trace of the original writing that has marked the sheet of paper underneath. I have sewn the pages together (to allude to the binding of a book) randomly, to emphasize the effort to make these traces of writing a whole, to breathe life into lost information.
In Diary (Robinson Crusoe) I am not copying text, but instead the method Robinson Crusoe used to mark time. In this case, his diary is not about facts and thoughts and feelings, but about measuring time. And the title of this book is the number of days Crusoe spent on his island. Crusoe marked on a piece of wood the days with one line, the weeks with a thicker line, and the months with a line double in height. So I transferred his method into my work, by sewing these marks in a linear manner, which runs through the book. Sewing is connected to time, to measuring, to the patience and labor involved in this task.
What projects are you currently working on?
I am currently working on a project called Piles of Books. In this series, I use black carbon paper and trace the colophons of books. The white letter-shapes are the result of scratching onto the carbon paper. Each drawing uses colophons of four to seven books, one colophon on top of the other, but not necessarily in straight piles.
How did your study of literature at Athens University inform your art practice? Do you consider your art works a form of “reading” literature?
I studied Greek literature before studying art and certainly I had no idea back then that I would pursue art studies. But I was interested in drawing and, in particular, the illustration of children's stories. So, when I studied art, I explored the possibilities of creating images from texts. That led to the concept of the text illustrating itself, of creating an image. My way of creating an image was by depriving the story of its communicative purpose, by making it illegible. There is also the element of irony in that one understands that one is looking at text even though it cannot be read.
Perhaps my art works are a form of literary “looking at” literature.
How does the content of a piece of literature inform your choice of materials or construction?
That depends. For instance, in the Bookcase project, I use books I have read or want to read. I set the same rules for all, regardless of their content, i.e. I use the same type of carbon paper and the same type of textured paper, even the same type of pen, and then I copy the book as I read it, layer upon layer starting from top left, until it finishes. Because each book is different in length and form, the works are different: there may be light blue or darker blue works (depending on the pages of the book), or the writing may accumulate in the center of the page, if I copy poetry.
There are books I don’t want to work on in this way. I feel I need to find other ways to approach certain texts, such as the excerpts from theatrical plays where I felt that the words needed to be depicted with pinpricks.
How do you see the relationship between drawing and writing?
I see writing as a form of drawing, and drawing as a form of writing.
When we are too young to know the alphabet, we look at words like pictures. Then we grow up and are able to decipher the words and read and write. But our life before this stage has a certain magic; words could mean anything, and letters look more like delicate drawings.