Ragnheiður Jónsdóttir at ASI museum, Reykjavík

The Trails, Tracks, and Traces of Art

 Ragnheiður Jónsdóttir’s exhibition of drawings at the ASÍ Museum in Reykjavík 2012

Trail is the name that Ragnheiður Jónsdóttir has given her latest series of charcoal drawings, abstract drawings that indeed show a trail: something has marked the pictorial surface in the course of passing on. These are drawings that echo some kind of handwriting or calligraphy in nature, repetitive patterns that might bear friendly attribution to the animal, vegetable, or mineral kingdoms. Yet this is not a case of direct portrayal; these are a kind of reference to the roots of the handwriting, testament to the artist’s vital relationship with the natural kingdom, not through objective imitation of it but via the “trails” the handwriting traces through live contact between the hand and the pictorial surface, in a dialogue as transient as the passing moment. The questions these drawings are apt to raise may sound something like this: What has been and gone and left a trail on this ground, what is this ground, where did the path start, and where does it lead?

These are not easy questions but it is precisely the magic of significant art to present us with conundrums.

Let us consider the first part of the question: What has been and gone here and left a trail? The simplest answer is perhaps to say that it was the very artist, that these pictures show her fingerprints and nothing else. One might say in support that these drawings all attest to a hand’s bodily contact with the pictorial surface. There is a distinct bodily presence/absence in these pictures, which we clearly feel. But why then does the artist not let it suffice to leave the tracks of her palms and feet on the pictorial surface? What is the errand, in this work, of this calligraphy, these constantly repeated marks that perhaps call to mind indeterminate natural phenomena? Here is a clouded issue that needs clarifying.

When the police wish to identify a culprit, one traditional means of investigation is to take the suspect’s fingerprints and compare them with corresponding marks found at the crime scene. The accused dips a finger in ink and presses it on paper; it leaves an indisputable imprint, indisputable proof that the accused has left this trail, traversed this ground. The difference between the police’s fingerprintmaking and Ragnheiður Jónsdóttir’s calligraphy is that the fingerprint is not an artwork in any traditional sense, so that our question leads to another still-more-difficult question: What sets an artwork apart from fingerprints, if both evidence the trails of their “authors”?

Art is the sensual manifestation of the Idea,” said the German philosopher Hegel, and few have disputed this sharp definition: art concerns ideas. This can scarcely be said of fingerprints. To see a fingerprint gives us small notion of the relevant person, his thought or ideas; the fingerprint’s evidential value pertains to mechanical comparison.

An artwork is another matter, isn’t it? We need see only a small fragment of a Van Gogh to see his “imprint” or fingerprints in the brushstrokes, imprints that form part of a whole image that is recognizable to us from our endless trips though Van Gogh’s oeuvre. But this does not apply to all art in equal measure. Pioneers of abstract art such as Malevich, Mondrian, and Kandinsky wanted to erase the personal imprint, the fingerprints, from their art, so it would display itself and nothing else. The same goes for Byzantine iconographers, for example (cf. the Image of Edessa or the Veil of Veronica). It also applies to many contemporary pop artists, minimalists, and conceptual artists (Andy Warhol, Donald Judd, Lawrence Weiner); examples are innumerable. This definition of artworks as marks or fingerprints of their authors’ personalities and subjective beings is thus insufficient, to put it mildly. Placed in the broader historical context it is nearly useless, for who would think of searching out authorial personality or self-awareness in the cave paintings at Lascaux, the Venus de Milo, the carved doors at Valthjófsstaðir, or even the Mona Lisa? Whose tracks mark Malevich’s work of 1914-15, his “supremist” Black Square? What trail was blazed in that work? If in this case it is the trail of an idea, it depicts something other than the personality or subjective being of the artist.

But what of Delacroix, Van Gogh, and all the Expressionists from Munch to Jackson Pollock: Is their expressive “handwriting” not “fingerprints of the soul,” to use the common metaphor? The ready answer is that, just as a name objectifies the phenomenon it names, this “handwriting” is also an objectification, and the subjective being that renders an object as its own image is always elsewhere, beyond the picture. If the subjective being wishes to reveal itself in the handwriting, it is always “another,” as the poet Rimbaud said, of himself. A unity of the self and the handwriting can never be rendered, even in the automatic writing of the Surrealists, who always set themselves rules for rendering chaos. Just as language “speaks us,” as Lacan put it, handwriting is a “rule” that gives objective form to its subject, whether that is the invisibility of the “subjective being” or Platonic transcendental forms. The subjective being instantly vanishes from its rendered image, is elsewhere.

But what was “the Idea” that Hegel discussed and what is its relation to the artist’s person? Is “the Idea” something that has deep personal and subjective roots, or something connected to language and the laws thereof, or is it perhaps the absolute and immutable idea of the divinity that dwells beyond the personal, a kind of Platonic idea of universal truth? French philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy speaks to this question:

The [Hegelian] Idea is the presentation to itself of being or the thing. It is thus its internal conformation and its visibility, or in other words, it is the thing itself as vision/envisioned…(the thing seen, envisioned, grasped in its form, but from within itself or its essence).

In this regard, art is the sensual visibility of this intelligible, that is invisible, visibility. The invisible form—Plato’s eidos—returns to itself and appropriates itself as visible. Thus [art] brings into the light of day and manifests the being of its Form and its form of Being. All the great theories of “imitation” have never been anything but theories of the imitation, or the image, of the Idea (which is itself, you understand, but the self-imitation of being, its transcendent or transcendental miming)—and reciprocally, all thinking about the Idea is thinking about the image or imitation. Including, and especially, when it detaches itself from the imitation of external forms or from “nature”….All this thinking is thus theological, turning obstinately around the great motif of “the visible image of the invisible God” which for Origen is the definition of Christ.[1]

This analysis of Hegel’s “Idea” is not easy to grasp, for Nancy is guiding us away from conventional definitions of “things” toward a meditation on being as a temporal event, on being’s paradoxical manifestation as both event and image. This account seems to lead us to an unexpected place, the field of pure theology.

Our original question was: What has been and gone here and made a trail? Then is the answer that it was Christ? No, obviously not, but the myth of the paradoxical appearance and disappearance of the Godhead as a condition for its existence can perhaps explain for us the nature of this riddle of the sensual manifestation of the invisible: just as God, as the image of the invisible, needs the sensual and visible image of Christ in order to be himself, the Hegelian Idea (the idea of the universal and of the absolute unity of vision and the seen) needs to emerge from its invisible husk and become sensual in order to be itself.

In our day, however, ideas about universal qualities (and the absolute unity of the name and the named) have undergone many devaluations, and though it might be possible to discern a search for universal ideas in a Malevich’s supreme black square of 1914 (as if it were a Byzantine icon), that image is equally and perhaps above all testimony to the disappearance of such an idea. The black square depicts disappearance and nothingness no less than the fullness of the Idea. Possibly Hegel too had sensed this devaluation of “the Idea” when he proclaimed the end of art as an arena for the manifestation of universal ideas. He was referring not least to sacred art and the disappearance of its sacred core. Thus Hegel’s proclamation of the end of art has premises akin to those of the iconoclasts, who wished to forbid images in order to keep the idea of an invisible God separate from its sensual manifestations.

Then what remains? Again it is Jean-Luc Nancy who picks up the scent, by stating that the “vision” that stimulates all creative art is a vision of nothingness, a view into the void, a kind of negative image of the universal ideas. All images spring from anxiety in the face of nothingness, says Nancy, but this negative image of the Hegelian idea also conveys an awareness of its reverse; it harbors what Nancy calls almost nothingness. This he chooses to name ‘vestige’, a Latin word with many derivations pertaining to tracks, trails, and traces.[2]

And here we come back to Ragnheiður Jónsdóttir’s Trails. Nancy says that in order to understand this trail, this vestige, we must abandon Hegel’s notion of the “sensual manifestation of the Idea” along with the theological framework it belongs to, though the latter can serve as a means of illumination. To embody an absolute idea of the sacred was never the real task of art, Nancy says; only the theological iconoclasts held this position, based on misunderstanding. Art has certainly had ties to religions and their histories, but art is not religious practice nor does it entail belief. Nancy’s conclusion is that art is the vestige of itself and nothing else, its own trail or track; its meter and measure are that of a wandering gait; its imprints attest to vanished foot soles, bodies, and hands; its steps are a temporal event, the action itself without being the act, the vestige or path that being traces while it lasts. The trail or vestige thus becomes the manifestation of the disappearance of that which has been and gone, traversed this ground: What remains when someone or something has passed by.[3]

Who, then, has made this trail? It is not the trail of the gods, says Nancy, but rather the trail of their disappearance. The steps of this passage are transient events that possess no form once they have been taken; they are the path left by being while it lasts. It is not the universal footprint but the emptiness that remains: The trace or trail is not the image of a tangible object, a finger- or footprint, but rather witness to the traverse itself, which is constant and unceasing; movement not stasis; the image of what vanishes not what is; the arena of being, ceaseless in the flow of time; a trail left by a traveller whom we don’t recognize, for it could be anyone, one or all. The traveller’s name is still a name and “the Idea” still an image, but Nancy renounces their metaphysical meaning. This renunciation that Nancy proclaims is perhaps not good for nothing: it goes hand-in-hand with a rejection of the iconoclasts’ despairing opposition to imagery, an opposition based on “the Idea” of the image of man and God (and the analysis—separation of elements, division—entailed in that idea).

It was Ragnheiður Jónsdóttir’s chosen name for her series of drawings, “Trail,” that led us into Jean-Luc Nancy’s complicated meditations on art as its own vestige. They tell us that the “trail” is that of art itself and that the ground is art itself. Art’s traverse has no start or endpoint that is “off track,” out of the way, or out of sight; art finds its goal and meaning through its own action. If imitation or “mimesis” is in play, its purpose is not to teach us how objects familiar to us appear, but rather to let what is shine forth in all its power. Thus Jónsdóttir’s “trails” depict themselves: the trace that is the vestige of Art and Being, the being that has to do with time and event rather than with object and definition. The power of these images therefore derives not from an imitation of natural phenomena or an expression of a given personal subjective being, but in a game that is justified by its own rules. In this respect we can liken these drawings to child’s play. Whether in Double Dutch, Follow the Leader, or Wallball, all rules and motions in child’s play are justified by the game itself. The game reveals itself and nothing else; it seeks its meaning and goal in the play and nothing beyond play. A child jumping rope or playing hopscotch depicts nothing but those motions, motions which obey their own set rules and compel us to watch, learn the rules, and respond with direct or indirect participation.

Thus it is of little avail to search these Ragnheiður Jónsdóttir drawings for likenesses, either of natural phenomena or of Jónsdóttir’s own personality or character. The meaning of these drawings rests in themselves, the action of their making, and nothing else. What happens as we experience these drawings is an experience of sympathy closely akin to our sympathetic response in watching child’s play. There are few things more human than such sympathy, and when the artist has succeeded in arousing it,  the aim of art has been achieved, for art requires no extraneous justification. Art is in and of itself a justification of the human.

 Ólafur Gíslason

English translation: Sarah Brownsberger


[1] Jean-Luc Nancy, The Muses, transl. Peggy Karmuf. Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 1996, p. 89.

[2] From Latin vestigium, footprint, trace. Cognate with the Icelandic root of stígur (path), vestige always carries the implication of something having gone by, disappeared.

[3] Here I am reminded of the altarpiece in the Quo Vadis Chapel on the Via Appia in Rome. It displays St. Peter’s footprints, which appeared in the paving stones outside when, fleeing Roman prison, Peter encountered Christ. The image shows the hollow imprint of the apostle’s feet in oversize; the apostle himself disappeared long ago. According to theology, the image is nonetheless evidence of the apostle’s existence, and the revelation that conjured the tracks in the stone. According to Nancy, these tracks are not the “vestige” of art, for art has no need, and never has had need, of proof or any such unity of image and model/ideal. Nancy, wishing to guide us out of this theological discussion, calls the trail “smoke without fire,” a course without a river, footprints without an apostle. This requires a new thinking, which is under discussion here.

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