“When I first made a grid I happened to be thinking on the innocence of trees
and then a grid came into my mind and I thought it represented innocence
and I was satisfied to think of migrations, of waterfowl in a v-shaped formation
of crossing through this process, but never myself having to leave.
Then the angels looked down and they make us perceive each other.
What was unknown becomes patterned…” (1)
Even on this cold autumnal day, Anne Vibeke Mou’s studio is warm and soaked in a brilliant white light. It is so quiet that – at moments when the conversation wanes – the silence stretches until it is broken by the minute hand of a clock as it reaches its zenith. We are looking down upon a collection of lenses taken from antique glasses. Into these lenses Anne has been delicately and assiduously chipping away tiny perforations with a fine diamond-point bevel. As with some of her previous work – such as her window at St. John’s Church, Healey, Northumberland – Mou is tapping directly into the unique, transparent medium of glass in order to manipulate, or to “draw with”, light:
“..the ability of glass, unlike many other materials, is to let light pass through it unbroken. But as soon as you mark the glass it breaks the light and traps it. So really you can make drawings of light…”
The sublimity of light as a medium is invoked through its immaterial, luminescent and illuminating properties but also metaphorically through its religious and mythical associations (the light of God, the light of Creation, the inner light of Enlightenment etc). But in trapping the transitory impressions of light these miniature antique lenses also suggest the hallucinatory or ghost like quality of visions:
“…they’ve had a life and they’ve had a use which is unknowable to us… it’s almost like a series of invisible photographs, layered inside the glass. You can’t read it but you know it’s there…”
I am reminded of the Gothic tales of ghosts trapped within glass and particularly the passage in Wuthering Heights when the narrator, Mr Lockwood, smashes a bedroom window, inadvertently breaking an invisible divide between the worlds of the interior (domestic and corporeal) and the exterior (wild and unearthly) thus allowing the spirit world to enter the house and narrative of the story. But these antique lenses do not speak of such melodrama, rather they hover at the edge of history; of the unseen past and fleeting present, the fine marks on their surface barely fixing them between existence and intangibility. There’s also a faint echo, on contemplating these Victorian lenses, of the history of glass; from its origins as one of the pinnacles of alchemical endeavour (the creation of a uniquely translucent material that occupies the space between human science and the world beyond); to its application in enabling or enhancing vision and the passage of light through cameras, magnifying glasses, telescopes, windows and film projectors. The sense of the fleeting and the ungraspable – of the past, the shifting light and images – Mou was beginning to explore further in her use of imagery:
“The imagery I’ve started working with, which is far from resolved, is… trying to describe things purely by how they reflect the light. So I’ve tried… the surface of the water, because when the wind moves and the waves change, the way you see the waves is how light is reflected… its very much a starting point and so that’s something that I’m looking at and I don’t know exactly where it’s going to go but I like… that a tiny little object can sometimes hold something which is beyond us, beyond tangibility somehow…”
There is an interesting contrast, I thought, between these new works – which begin with objects already laden with subjective, personal (though unknown) history – and with Mou’s ongoing series of large scale pencil drawings which begin with a facetless, ahistorical, expanse of white paper. These drawings which are always of the same, perfectly square dimensions and rendered with an H pencil – not with a collection, but a single pencil, which is used until it is finished and then replaced – take a number of weeks to “emerge”. The drawings are rendered through a systematic, almost ritualised process where blocks of fine lines are repeated across the entire surface of the drawing. Mou then continues to painstakingly layer these marks. Initially this act of mark making begins in an intuitive, abstract, fragmentary manner, thus building up the density and, conversely, the luminosity of the drawings:
“…it’s again about using a single basic material and pushing that… to conjure things up … and reveal everything it can be… I think it’s quite amazing that you can take a dense, dark material and create a sense of light from it, make it luminous… So you’re almost turning it in on itself, finding its opposites within itself…”
This process of persistently pushing a material – in this instance, graphite – from it’s original “dense” and “dark” state into its inverse (as a shifting luminosity) invites associations with the alchemical endeavour to transform base elements and compounds through esoteric chemical processes into the noble materials of gold or silver. Whilst Mou concedes to the parallels between her methodology and the hermetic practices of alchemists or anchorites, she also warns that this is a dangerous comparison:
“… The hermit practice or the anchorite practice, that tradition of shutting yourself away to gain understanding… and finding a very simplistic routine in order to gain some sort of revelation… can be problematic I think… but there are elements of that in this kind of practice…”
None the less, this dedicated systematic process of repeatedly laying down marks can’t help but resonate to similar ‘sublime pursuits’: from the intricate laying down of gold threads in Opus Anglicanum to the accumulation of repeated gestures in Australian Aboriginal painting and the carved wooden oracles of Voodoo. All of these employ a systematic, ritualized process of fabrication which is not only an act of devotion but also a means for channelling or fixing something of the transcendent “other”:
“Most often they acted as bridges between the living and an ancestral spiritual realm. Their effectiveness in achieving this was invariably enhanced by their compelling visual appeal, for an artifact’s aesthetic merits were seen as a measure of its potency and the diviner’s professional standing.”(2)
The systematic in Mou’s work (and in the work of some of the other Chance Finds Us artists) might be interpreted as a means of ordering reality itself:
“… I think what I’m particularly interested in is how we construct these systems to deal with the wholeness around us that we don’t otherwise know how to deal with… because I’m not religious, remotely, but I think it’s interesting that whether you’re religious, whether you’re not religious, that you always need to systematise – whether it’s a routine or something else – your approach to the world… Otherwise you sort of… float…”
By translating the beyond or the unknown into a set of symbols or gestures (just as mathematics did with numbers or religion did through embodiment and doctrine) one can negotiate or interpret the impossible “wholeness around us”. Ritual itself is a performative means of positioning oneself in relation to a system and as a means to express, or to point towards that which is beyond the system or the operations of language:
“Ritual is the symbolic use of bodily movement and gesture in a social situation to express and articulate meaning.” (3)
This sense of divining or conjuring forms into being is apparent not only in the private process Mou undertakes in her work but also through the finished drawings themselves. These delicate, nebulous works seem to hover in a state of imminence – on the edge of being and formlessness. Though supremely subtle, as you gaze into one of these drawings you find yourself invisibly drawn into a contemplative perceptual space. Just as when you stand on a mountain top and the rain clouds form around you, the drawings seem to vacillate between whole, emerging forms and atomised accumulations of hundreds of thousands of tiny marks (in the clouds, water droplets). Perhaps it is the rhythm of these barely perceptible pencil marks which slow the pace of looking, drawing us in to the slowed pace and the mythical time of making.
Mou talked about the development of these drawings in terms of inviting something of the ‘real’ world ‘to arrive’ from the abstract, formless action of mark making:
“…then there comes that point where you become aware there’s an image emerging and you start to work on that image. This image seems to hover between being a fully abstract process and a landscape, which is of the world…”
But what are these images between process and landscape? In works such as Untitled (2007) the form, which manifests is faintly reminiscent of ice or rock clefts viewed from above or of towering, billowing volcanic ash. Perhaps this work is a drawing of a process, both the microcosmic process of the drawings creation and also the macrocosmic operations of nature or of any deterministic, chaotic system? But as I consider the work, none of these comparisons seem fully satisfactory. The drawing slides too much; it is too indefinite and too composed of its own particular, mediated system of marks to be a thing entirely of the exoteric universe (a landscape or a cloud formation). It reminds me, in this way, of cartography or information imaging – it is not the corporeal/visual thing that we are looking at and trying to identify which is the subject but something other and beyond its language of marks, surface qualities and ambiguous, autonomous forms. In Mou’s work the chasing, tracing or mapping of the invisible – be it time, the Tao, the sublime – suggests the impossibility of incorporating that which is ‘beyond’ into the signs, actions or metaphors of this world.
“…the thing is it [the drawing process] is infinite because there’s never going to be a finite path, there’s never going to be a finite shape, there’s never going to be a finite… presence. So it’s something that you do in order to… I don’t know… make sense of time?” Anne Vibeke Mou (2011)