Kentler / Monika Weiss: Drawing Cosmos / by Katherine Carl
Monika Weiss
Lethe Room
Plaster, wood, metal, electric motor, paper, dry pigment, the artist

Monika Weiss: Drawing Cosmos
by Katherine Carl
Curator, The James Gallery, The Graduate Center, New York
Former Curator of Contemporary Exhibitions, The Drawing Center New York
Publisher: Kentler International Drawing Space

Monika Weiss crafts a new breed of total artwork that does not adhere to the rules. Hers is a living, breathing experience comprising mediums of drawing, video, live performance, sound, composition, installation, voice and sculpture infused with history, literature, and poetry. Weiss systematically sets up the conditions of a cosmos of her own creation and then intervenes upon this configuration, using her own body and actions. She welcomes others to do the same and invites chance natural elements also to alter the system. Then she carefully modulates the visual and audio outcome, reassembling the moments and visual fragments to make something new that exceeds a neat whole.

Like a metaphor for cosmogenesis, in Ennoia (2002) Weiss immerses herself in a vessel of water remaining curled like a fetus for hours beneath the surface. The fetal position signals presence before emergence into this world; connection to another consciousness. After the performance, the video documentation of her body occupying the vessel is projected into the water, creating a ghostly reinhabitation. In the ancient Mesopotamian cosmogenesis story Enuma Elish circa 1900 BC, the bitter water and the sweet water mix to forge creation. Also working with metaphors for water, the story of Genesis begins with "darkness was upon the face of the Deep," meaning in philosopher Edward Casey's interpretation that the waters are a generative matrix of things to come. They are not chaos or void. 1 In Plato's Timaeus, creation occurs by and in a receptacle, which Casey reads as a matrix that includes both the container and the contained. 2 Weiss uses elements of water, ground, air and fire and inhabits vessels of various types, whether paper, concrete or the landscape itself, to generate her own worlds.

Weiss's large-scale drawing installation Leukos (2005) is set in the landscape. The resulting video begins with figures emerging into the open landscape carrying billowing white sheets as a male soprano sings Eurydice, quietly calling her name. They are preparing the ground, transforming the sheets into a landscape for drawing. As the video images fade and merge, figures enter the arena of the drawing. Their kneeling, bending, reclining bodies appear at first like fallen leaves, and as time passes, their shapes take root as they produce the darkening lines of this collective drawing. Weiss is one among many shapes drawing in a graceful but uncontrolled choreography of simple movements. As an unspecified amount of time passes, the figures disappear and Weiss is alone in the open expanse as wind and rain act upon the fabric. Interspersed with this are a few projected frames of gently rolling ocean waves fading and collaged into the scene of the fabric undulating from the natural force of the wind. The light changes gradually as rain falls and heavy wetness is visible on the fabric. The weather continues to animate the drawn surface. Lines made by human hands are complemented by stains ground into the material by the natural elements, serving to mark the sheets with the soil from the precise position at which they were placed. Rich visual metaphors for ground, place and trace emerge.

Through all of this, Weiss's body is a fairly constant presence -- sometimes in the foreground and in motion, other times lost in the vastness of the field. An incredible documentary photograph from 1967 of the performance The Sea Concerto shows Polish artist Tadeusz Kantor standing conducting the rhythmic roar of the sea. In the foreground are a number of invited guests seated in chairs, but he stands elevated alone, a small person surrounded by the vastness of the sea, attempting an absurdly impossible task.

For her installations and videos, Weiss places herself in vessels and also in the landscape, which acts as a vessel of the world or a home for humanity. Keimai derives from Greek and means to lie down, to fall down and to put to sleep and is related to words meaning "home." In her performance for her video Fall-Keimai (2005-2006), Weiss lies in the landscape suffused with light, sometimes in a fetal position and also taking open reclining poses under the trees. Her video editing gently layers several muted images of her nude body in soft dissolves. It is her video editing that shifts the physical position of her body in the video. Between the editing cuts, at some moments the camera rolls and she showers herself with yellow leaves. The resulting slow-motion image and layered collage is a meditation on change and rootedness, solidity and openness. Here the leaves replace the tactility of paper or a drawing surface that she has usually employed in prior works, and her editing is doing the drawing -- making the rhythm of marks, cuts, layering of images and erasures.

In addition to exploring the relationships between nature and culture through landscape, the body and drawing, another central element in Weiss's work is language and sound. Her preparation of the soundtrack parallels her visual editing process. In this way her work is a total creation: she makes the objects, the installations, and the performance with her own body; after recording this, she is the one to edit the video and create original sound for the soundtrack. Describing her process of making the sound, she states, "I make my sounds either by recording the natural environment or a person's voice on-site, or creating the sounds in a studio setting, sometimes with a vocalist. I then choose or manipulate fragments of these sounds overlapping them together like quotations or echoes to create new 'musical drawings.'" 3 For Weiss, drawing is related to postlanguage. She does not subscribe to the notion that drawing is a primal, immediate, prelingual scrawling, and as a result her drawing is a rich infusion of thought, language, ritual, culture, fantasy and emotion. There exists a relationship of drawing and speech and sound that bypasses the written word in Weiss's work. She often composes or reworks existing classical music that uses noncommunicative language in which poetry and imagery and phonetic sound are more important.

At the outset of the video Phlegethon-Milczenie (2005) we hear the loud, unmistakable sound of burning -- rasping, hollow and tormented. In strong contrast, the image that introduces the scene is a quiet, light white ground that upon examination is a neat arrangement of open books seen from the air. The words are not visible and are not revealed throughout the video, but we do see the beginnings of dark drawing marks swept across the pages making strangely unifying lines in this landscape that is destined for an uncertain fate as hinted by the audio. As the setting of the stage continues, reaching into the framed image of the books arranged in an octagonal shape are hands picking up a single book, taking it out of the frame, and replacing it among the pile. The fades of the video editing gradually meld different states and Weiss appears, lying down on what now looks like a bed of books. They are an arena for action and inhabitation. Her calm rhythmic movement of drawing has no beginning or end, bestowed with an unceasing life cycle by her hand in the editing room. As the performance continues, the books become disorganized and ripped. The flickering image of a flame is interspersed among the frames, and the passage of time becomes impossible to track in the unfolding events that circle back on themselves. Ensconced in the metaphor of a funeral pyre of books, a separate image of pages of the very first edition of Thomas Mann's Doctor Faustus curling as it burns recalls Weiss' body as she gathers her limbs into her center, dragging crinkling pages along with her like an inhalation of breath. The views of the positions of Weiss's body alternately resting and actively drawing on the books fade from one to the next like slides. More images of burning flames are intercut, closely capturing the red and even the hottest blue of the fire. Throughout the video meander the voices of a man and woman audibly reading in German and Polish. Again, hands gently infiltrate the frame, moving across the boundary of the arrangement of books to touch, and we imagine to glimpse, the titles, drawings and words. The voices continue in whispers like a lullaby. But Phlegethon-Milczenie refers not only to a bad dream, but to the burning of books of literature, history and philosophy by the Nazis. Weiss secured original editions of selections from the scores of volumes that were destroyed as well as books that Nazis revered for their demonstration of strong, winning, Germanic culture including Goethe and Schiller. Also, Weiss reworks The Creation by Haydn, who was favored by the Nazis, for part of the vocal sound of her piece.

Phlegethon is the Greek River of Fire, and the Polish word milczenie means silence and an inability to convey. This title has multiple meanings. The Nazis in Poland and occupying other countries in Europe silenced voices and destroyed lives by the use of fire during World War II. In the decades since those horrific actions, a silence has pervaded as many people find it difficult to convey or to admit that these atrocities occurred on their own territory. And, finally, there are no words or ways to explain this devastating extinguishing of life. Weiss's focus on the materiality and tactility of the books calls to mind the method of dialectical materialism practiced by the Frankfurt School and the mysticism of Walter Benjamin in particular to combat Fascist ideology. To them, the bodily sensory response to material and form was an effective counter to the enlightenment's total embrace of thought, reason and mind over body.

In the past three years Weiss has created a number of large-scale drawings that originated as collaborative drawing sessions including the artist and passersby or museum visitors. These include the outdoor and indoor large-scale drawing installations: Anamnesis [Swiatlo Dnia] (2006) in a twelfth-century castle in Trancoso, Portugal, Leukos (2005) at Lehman College Art Gallery in the Bronx, Loreley (2005) at the Warsaw Centre for Contemporary Art, Drawing the City (2004) at the Hudson Valley Center for Contemporary Art, Limen/Meadow (2004) at Chelsea Art Museum, and Drawing Room (2003) the Whitney Museum of American Art. It is simply the effect of placing the canvas or sheet flat on the ground that successfully welcomes participants. The horizontal rather than the usual vertical placement changes people's relationship to the expanse; it feels less formal and more natural and accessible. This process of drawing together is not about presentation but focuses on action, interaction and experimentation.

This change in orientation from the traditional upright canvas on an easel to other formats was championed by the Abstract Expressionists who painted very large canvases without easels. Of course the well-known images from the film by Hans Namuth of Jackson Pollock working with the canvas on the floor come immediately to mind. However, a groundbreaking event that is the most relevant touchstone for Weiss's work took place in 1968 with Fallen Painting by Lynda Benglis, which consisted of a 30-foot smear of day-glo paint that ran across the gallery floor. The next year Benglis made another radical work, Bounce. This flat, triangular, multicolored painting was made to be presented on the floor. Unlike Pollock's process, it was not painted on a horizontal surface to be turned upright to the acceptable and dominant vertical position. It was not included in the Whitney's Anti-Illusion show because Benglis would not hang it on the wall. These two works were self-consciously debased, and not to be stood "erect" for display. 4

What is the best position for viewing? How can one get an overview? Leibniz stated that orientation belongs to the body not to the mind 5 and Kant wrote that we can only know things in relation to ourselves, making the case for the ultimate importance of contingency. The sides of our body are key to orientation. 6 Weiss has dedicated her attention to this contingency of the material presence of her body and other bodies in relation to a field of drawing. This is carried out further in the video works. Just one example is that when she performed Phlegethon-Milczenie (2005) in Dresden, the gallery was equipped with a live video feed to the next room, affecting her simultaneous double presence as a real indexical form and also as a projected representation.

In Weiss's drawings, videos and performances her body is absolutely materially present, but the world of the artist's psyche is not revealed, not presented and not represented. Her work is pervaded by a strong bifurcation of inside and outside and opposite tones of dark and light. In Skulenie (2003) the drawn coiled body looks like a dark vessel or cosmos. If this is a metaphor for the psyche itself, it does not open any access to the meaning of its content. The fetal position is composed in thick buildups of charcoal, and the body appears captured and paradoxically protected as if in a cocoon. The diptych of torsos, Leukos II (2005-2006), in particular projects the feel of being wrapped because on the left side a layer of light-colored rubber latex covers the torso. Instead of acting as a shroud, the near-rectangular slip accentuates the shift in stance of the body. The figure on the right, lighter in color at the top with a heavy darker color in the legs, is in a contemplative pose holding its head, thus signaling interior reflection and emotion.

The performance Elytron (2003) uses a cast concrete vessel from which dyed water spills when the artist crawls inside. Because of the mass of the body, the displacement of the liquid makes its own marks. Although this container may signify protection and confinement, or even home, it is not neatly bounded and singular. This messy overflow is similar to the scattering of material into the air in her performances using pigment in Lethe Room (2005). The container in Lethe Room is a rectangular empty box filled with paper and equipped with a moving platform bottom. When operating without the artist, the vessel's interior movement resembles slow steady breathing. For the performance, the artist inhabits the vessel and draws, scatters and smudges the paper with red pigment. In both of these pieces the artist does not actively draw on her own body, the ink in Elytron and the red pigment in Lethe Room not only color the water and paper, but also imprint her body, staining it like a canvas. Even long after the performance of these two works, the artist's body continues to excrete the color through her nostrils, hair, and sweat. With these two works she exceeds and cracks open the cosmos that she had constructed so it does not become stifling and airless. This mutual imprinting of her body and the materials exemplify the contingency of the body. Weiss's work goes beyond constructing a self and enacting a body or an identity and works at the juncture between indexicality and intersubjectivity, to use Amelia Jones's terms. Weiss is not purely a performance artist because her goal is not to move to total indexicality "where the body in action simply 'is' what it presents and there is no trace left over." 7

Weiss uses her body as a tool for drawing rather than calling attention to the body itself. Weiss makes marks, videos and objects, but she does not pour, drip or fling. She inhabits, smudges and draws. This is a distinctly female approach. Whereas Richard Serra threw lead in Splashing (1968) and Barry LeVa scattered felt in Continuous and Related Activities Discontinued by the Act of Dropping (1967), which he associated with the practice of drawing, Weiss unwittingly scatters pigment through the air, seeps fluids onto the ground and carries the marks on her body. Furthermore, Weiss's practice is created on contingency, whether using her own body in relation to the earth, drawn marks, fluids or vessels or setting the stage for the participation of others. Also Weiss intervenes with this in her video editing as the disorientation of the image of the artist and other participants lying down can be mistaken for floating or standing because the bird's-eye view of the video frames the field.

In an era when so many artists are making work about specific locales and moving to many places to draw correspondences and investigate globalization and migration, Weiss stays still. She creates drawings that are made in a process of grounding and rooting not with the goal of representation. They are drawings affected by the natural environment of specific places, the wind and rain. Weiss works with alertness, and these traces with charcoal, pigment, dye or video are crafted by her rhythmic impulse combined with contemplative focus.

Kentler International Drawing Space, New York, 2006


1 Edward S. Casey. The Fate of Place. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997, 24.
2 Ibid., 34.
3 Artist's letter to the author 4/10/06.
4 Corinne Robins. The Pluralist Era: American Art, 1968-1981. New York: Harper and Row, 1984, 20.
5 Edward S. Casey. The Fate of Place. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997, 205.
6 Ibid., 207.
7 Amelia Jones. Body Art/ Performing the Subject. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1998, 84.
Monika Weiss
Lethe Room
Plaster, wood, metal, electric motor, paper, dry pigment, the artistMonika Weiss
Elytron
Dusza i ciało to tylko dwa skrzydła
2003
Perfomance, installation
Limited edition self-shot photography, 1 of 3
dimensions variableMonika Weiss
Skulenie
2003
Charcoal on paper, 52 x 53 inchesMonika Weiss
Ennoia 
2002
Still from video and sound, limited edition 2 of 3Monika Weiss
Elytron
2003
Limited edition self-shot photography, 1 of 3
dimensions variable