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Word and Image

Janet McKenzie

“During their making you can see the strength of the relationship that exists between writing and drawing through the ease with which a trained hand will freely move between the two. That is, I suspect, because both are part of our literacy, both are tools of representation and both designed as methods of managing multidimensional matter. What separate them are alphabets, dictionaries and the way they are read.” – Stephen Farthing, 26 June 2013.


What characterises The Drawn Word is the fact that almost all the contributors are practising artists of high calibre. What is also clear is that practitioners and designers view the world and comprehend it differently from mainstream commentators in the media and in conventional academic disciplines.1 For too long, the world of politics, culture, the environment and education has been firmly the remit of politicians and social scientists, yet as the history of art and ideas has shown, a less mainstream, more creative, independent and visionary energy is probably necessary to understand life, to solve problems and to bring about essential change. The Drawn Word is not an art historical publication and its primary audience will include individuals interested in the relationship between our visual and written culture. For the most part, it is a group of artists and designers informing their thinking on drawing, writing and communication by collaborating with experts from a range of disciplines with a view to understanding how drawing relates to writing and how they can work together to enhance our literacy and understanding.2

In a global context, drawing exists irrespective of cultural identity. It is a basic human instinct to make marks. It could be perceived as ironic that, charged with the knowledge of new technology and the multitude of new forms and attitudes, artists and designers have chosen drawing in manifold forms. Over the past 10 years, drawing has assumed a pivotal role in defining contemporary culture; it has absorbed history and knowledge as artists and designers themselves inform their practice, research and autobiography. As China asserts its economic force as a world power, we will increasingly have the opportunity to experience aspects of eastern culture. The ground-breaking work A Book From the Sky (1987-91) by the artist Xu Bing, who was based in America from 1990-2008, is his response to the Cultural Revolution and the destruction of classical texts, architecture and artefacts. It was: “most deeply rooted [in Mao’s] transformation of language. To strike at the written word is to strike at the very essence of the culture. Any doctoring of the written word becomes in itself a transformation of the most inherent portion of a person’s thinking. My experience with the written word has allowed me to understand this. For in fact, the nature, the thinking, the way of looking at things, the aesthetic appreciation, artistic core and even the physiological rhythm – indeed, almost every aspect of the Chinese people – is connected with the ‘pattern of Chinese characters’.”3

Xu Bing, Book from the Sky

In relation to Xu’s recent work: Landscape/Landscript, Nature as Language in the Art of Xu Bing, Shelagh Vainker explains that his work explores the influences that pictographic writing (calligraphy) has had on Chinese culture, discovering “a new dimension to the relationship between calligraphy and painting. The relationship has long been understood and discussed in terms of brushwork and style. Xu discovered a relationship in terms of symbols: in using characters, repeated, to depict a group of trees or a group of stones – in other words a forest or a mountainside in painted landscapes.”4

Xu explains: “Chinese characters have many wash methods: in addition to the ‘meaning’ and ‘resonance’ of the character, you can add the ‘form’ that supplements the constructed atmosphere. For example, when you read ‘sun, moon, cloud, mountain’, the shape of the characters supplements the artistic concept in a way that also serves a purpose. This is something that is lacking in alphabet writing. It is here that Chinese characters’ particular quality of creating atmosphere lies. The achievement of Chinese characters can be likened to a code-making skill: each and every character or word is a conceptual field that combines with another to construct a new conceptual field, and writing is the art of collating these fields of conception. This is the same as the use of brushwork and brushstrokes in ink painting to regulate the effect of the artistic concept. The code-making method in traditional texts differs from alphabet writing, yet its origins can be traced back to the brushwork of Chinese ink painting because, for Chinese people writing characters and painting paintings are the same act.”5

Xu Bing, Landscript


In The Postmodern Condition: a Report on Knowledge, Jean-François Lyotard wrote: “The postmodern artist or writer is in the position of a philosopher: the text he writes, the work he produces are not in principal governed by pre-established rules, and they cannot be judged according to a determining judgment, by applying familiar categories to the text or to the work.  Those rules and principles are what the work of art itself is looking for.”6 Understanding the role of art in a cultural milieu that is being constantly redefined is increasingly the remit of every artist. In our global culture, communications have been challenged and advanced at an extraordinary rate over the past century, and particularly in electronic terms in the past decade. The Drawn Word offers an opportunity to explore and interpret contemporary artists’ intentions and their role in a complex society where accepted values continue to be challenged, for drawing has always existed in all cultures as a fundamental form of expression. Mark-making is pivotal to human existence. The papers here indicate the wide range of work that is being produced.


Joseph Beuys, whose statement forms the subtitle of this publication, indicates how the relationship between writing and drawing is key to our understanding in conceptual and in turn societal terms. Thinking Is Form: The Drawings of Joseph Beuys (1993) expressed Beuys’ conception of the processes of drawing and making sculpture as profoundly akin to thought.7 The influence of Beuys’s career and ideas has been seminal to conceptual drawing today.

Joseph Beuys, Blackboard drawing

“Drawing is the first visible form in my works … the first visible thing of the form of the thought, the changing point from the invisible powers to the visible thing … It’s really a special kind of thought, brought down on to a surface, be it flat or be it rounded, be it a solid support like a blackboard or be it a flexible thing like paper or leather or parchment, or whatever kind of surface … It is not only a description of the thought …  You have also incorporated the senses … the sense of balance, the sense of vision, the sense of audition, the sense of touch. And everything now comes together: the thought becomes modified by other creative strata within the anthropological entity, the human being … And then the last, not least, the most important thing is that some transfer from the invisible to the visible ends with a sound, since the most important production of human beings is language … So this wide understanding, this wider understanding of drawing is very important for me.”8

“For Beuys, art and life became inextricably one, and the vocation of artist came to carry a specifically social and ethical responsibility. Through drawing, Beuys did no less than radicalise the notion of art as it relates to the larger category of the aesthetic in western thought”.Beuys proposed a radical vision where real art, which had not yet been achieved, an artwork spanning time and space, which he called “social sculpture” would transform art and life. “In this genre-defying, multidisciplinary enterprise, drawing became the mapping of a discourse of the body as the central subject in the world, projecting it outward into a map of the entire ‘social body’.”10

Drawing has become increasingly a structural and conceptual necessity for many artists working today. Not merely the creation of an illusion, but of psychological importance, the work of the artists discussed here indicates the manner in which drawing has become an enabling activity. Drawing is both the first step towards abstraction, yet also an important way to incorporate reality into an overall scheme of things. The paradox makes drawing “both the most traditional of activities and potentially the most radical”.11 Psychological space can be made to coexist with pictorial space, enabling a personal revision of history.


The most significant phenomenon in Australian culture, which has no parallel anywhere else in the world, is the role played by its indigenous population. Australian Aboriginal culture today represents a continuum from ancient times 60,000 years ago. The very act of mark-making is one of ritual recreation and renewal; life-giving myths emerge in present-day culture with great dynamism and conceptual complexity. The work of GW Bot shows the curiosity of a white Australian artist seeking to understand Aboriginal culture. Bot’s recent work has as its stated intention: “A dialogue between silences and spaces and the landscape of glyphs.”12 She observes in the landscape a language, through which she seeks to capture, translate, and comprehend the unknowable aspects of life. The landscape she depicts is not a real landscape but a metaphysical place. The signs and symbols that have developed in Bot’s work, which she calls “glyphs” (words), form a calligraphic language from which she creates a visual poetry. A semiotic approach to art-making enables her to identify in the landscape a language waiting to be translated. There are references made to the scribbles in nature itself, the marvellous patterning in the bark of gum trees created by moths, which Judith Wright (1915-2000), one of Australia’s most important poets, identified in her poem Scribbly Gum.

G W Bot, Glyphs

All Aboriginal art possesses the immediacy of the drawn line, whether the marks are made in sand, on the body for ceremonies, or on the recently introduced materials of acrylic on canvas, batik, etching or linocut. Judy Watson claims that all her work – installation, lithographs, painting – is drawing; indeed, all Aboriginal art can be described as drawing,13 for all Aboriginal art has a directness of transmission, unlike traditional western art that was built up in layers to create illusion. The meaningful marks, as they have been referred to, are more than decoration, referring to ancient customs and beliefs; the object is, therefore, invested with great symbolism and meaning.  Figures sculptured in twine or various fibres are examples of the 3D drawings that use an entire exhibition space as the picture plane. Installation art in many instances explores the drawn line in space. Where conceptual art in the 1970s drew inspiration from non-western sources, such as Beuys’s shamanism, it has been a development unique to Australian culture in the past 20 years in particular that Aboriginal culture has reinvigorated contemporary art. Linking contemporary developments with the millennia-old culture of Australia has created an intense and vital cultural dialogue. Judy Watson’s work, names of natives, 2010 is a diarist work made as part of the project: Djalkiri: We are Standing on their names: Blue Mud Bay, (2009–2010), which addressed the issues surrounding Northeast Arnhem Land is a bastion of Australian Aboriginal cultural and biological knowledge. It is linguistically diverse and biologically rich and is the home of the unanimously respected Yolngu clans. The region is famous for a number of spectacular episodes that have occurred there since settlement, the most famous of which is the momentous High Court decision in 2008 to give traditional owners exclusive rights over tidal waterways fringing Aboriginal Land. The title of the work comes from Robert Brown’s diary when he was on the Matthew Flinder’s expedition on the Investigator in 1803.14

Judy Watson

The relationship between word and image is explored by almost 40 artists in this volume: through the very close relationship writing and drawing have enjoyed over time, as well as the texts generated by three years of networking, writing, exhibiting and discussion; by the conference papers of designers and scholars, and through The Drawn Word exhibition remit: “All writing is drawing.” The sum is a rich and varied insight, thus enabling the reader to reconsider received perceptions and to question meaning in cultural knowledge.



1. Conversations with Artists is a collaborative project between Janet McKenzie, author, artist and co-editor of Studio International (with Michael Spens) 2000-13, and British photographer Nick Howard, that began following a trip to China in April 2012, where 25 artists were interviewed for Moving Beyond: Contemporary Chinese Art (with poets Yang Lian and Zhaoe Ye). It includes 30 artists in all, including eight from China.

2. Stephen Farthing, email to Janet McKenzie, 1 November 2013.

3. Xu Bing, quoted by Jerome Silbergeld. Book from the Sky: A Work by Xu Bing, 15 February to 18 May 2003, Princeton University Art Museum, 2003. 7. Landscape/Landscript: Nature as Language in the Art of Xu Bing by Shelagh Vainker,  published by the Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford,
2013, page 124.

4. Ibid, page 117.

5. Xu Bing, ibid, pages 125-6.

6. The Postmodern Condition: a Report on Knowledge by Jean-François Lyotard, published by Manchester University Press, 1979.

7. Thinking is Form: The Drawings of Joseph Beuys by Ann Temkin and Bernice Rose, published by Thames and Hudson with the Museum of Modern Art and Philadelphia Museum of Art, New York, 1993.

8. Joseph Beuys quoted by Bernice Rose: Joseph Beuys and the Language of Drawing. In: ibid, page 73.

9. Ibid, page 73.

10. Ibid, page 73.

11. Ibid, page 76.

12. G.W. Bot, in conversation, August 2009

13. Conversation with Judith Ryan, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, 22 October 2008.

14. Email from Judy Watson to Janet McKenzie, 26.11.13 see also:

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