Weiss: Drawing Cosmos
by Katherine Carl
Curator of Contemporary Exhibitions, The Drawing Center, New York, NY
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 also invites chance natural elements
to alter the system. Then she carefully modulates the visual and audio
outcome, reassembling the moments and visual fragments to make something
In Ennoia (2002) Weiss uses water as a metaphor, immersing herself in
it and remaining curled like a fetus for hours. The fetal position signals
presence before emergence into this world as well as a 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. Water has been used as a metaphor for cosmogenesis
for milennia. In the ancient Mesopotamian story Enuma Elish, the bitter
water and the sweet water mix to forge creation. Genesis begins with
"darkness was upon the face of the Deep," which the philosopher
Edward Casey interprets as meaning that the waters are a generative
matrix of things to come, neither chaos nor void. 1
And in Plato’s Timaeus, creation occurs by and in a receptacle,
which Casey sees as a matrix that includes both the container and the
Weiss uses water, ground, air and fire and inhabits vessels of various
types or the landscape itself to generate her own worlds. Her large-scale
drawing installation Leukos (2005) is set in the landscape.
The resulting video begins with emerging figures carrying billowing
white sheets as the sound of a soprano male voice singing Eurydice quietly
calls 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 work.
A few frames of gently rolling ocean waves are projected onto the fabric,
which undulates from the natural force of the wind. The light changes
gradually as rain falls and heavy wetness becomes 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. Rich visual metaphors of ground, place and trace emerge.
In her 2005-2006 video performance Fall-Keimai ( keimai from
the Greek, meaning to lie down, to fall down and to put to sleep and
relating to words meaning “home”), Weiss again places herself
in the landscape. Lying on the ground suffused with light, she sometimes
assumes a fetal position and also takes open reclining poses under the
trees. Her video editing gently layers several muted images of her nude
body in soft dissolves. It is the editing that shifts the physical position
of her body in the video. Between the 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 drawing surface that she usually has employed in earlier 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 visual editing process is paralleled
in the preparation of her soundtrack. She states, “I choose and
record fragments of existing classical compositions and then alter them
and overlap them together to create new "musical drawings."3
For a number of works she has created her own compositions, inventing
or reworking existing classical music that uses noncommunicative language
in which poetry and imagery and phonetic sound are more important.
For Weiss, drawing is related to post-language. She does not subscribe
to the notion that it 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. The video Phlegethon-Milczenie (2005) opens with 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. Gradually 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. A separate
image of paper curling as it burns recalls Weiss's body as she gathers
her limbs into her center, dragging crinkling pages along with her like
an inhalation of breath. Throughout the video the meandering voices
of a man and woman reading in German and Polish can be heard. 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
also to the Nazis burning books of literature, history and philosophy.
Weiss secured original editions of selections from the scores of volumes
that were destroyed. Phlegethon is the Greek River of Fire, and the
Polish word milczenie means “silence and inability to convey."
The title has multiple meanings:The Nazis occupying Poland and other
countries in Europe during World War II used fire to silence voices
and take lives. In the decades since those horrific actions, a silence
has persisted as many people find it difficult to convey or to admit
that these atrocities occurred on their own territory. Last, 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. In their thinking, the bodily, sensory response to material
and form was an effective counter to the Enlightenment's total embracing
of thought, reason and mind over body.
In the past three years Weiss has created a number of large-scale works
that originated as collaborative drawing sessions including the artist
and passersby or museum visitors. By placing the canvas or sheet flat
on the ground, Loreley (2005), Drawing the City (2004)
along the Hudson River, the Drawing Room (2003) indoors at
the Whitney Museum of American Art, Limen/Meadow (2004) at
Chelsea Art Museum and the outdoor drawing installation Leukos
(2005) at Lehman College in the Bronx welcome 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 Absract 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 when Lynda Benglis
laid down a 30-foot smear of Day-Glo paint across the gallery floor,
titling it Fallen Painting. 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 refused to hang it on the wall. These
two works were self-consciously debased, and not to be stood "erect"
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 the bodies of others in relation to
a field of drawing. This is further explored in Weiss’s video
work. When she performed Phlegethon-Milczenie (2005) in Dresden,
for example, the gallery was equipped with a live video feed to the
next room, effecting her simultaneous double presence as a real, indexical
form and also 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
The performance Elytron (2003) uses a cast-concrete vessel
containing dyed water. When the artist crawls inside, the mass of her
body displaces some of the liquid, which then makes marks wherever it
spills. Although this container may signify protection and confinement,
or even home, it is not neatly bounded and singular. This haphazard
overflow is similar to the scattering of material in performances like
Lethe Room (2005) in which a rectangular box filled with pigment-coated
paper and equipped with a moving bottom is employed. When operating
without the artist, the vessel's interior movement resembles slow, steady
breathing. For the performance the artist inhabits the vessel and interacts
with the paper. 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 the 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 has constructed so it does
not become stifling and airless. This mutual imprinting of her body
and the materials exemplifies 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
in 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, splashes fluid 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 other participants. Weiss also
accomplishes this with her video editing as the disorientation of the
image of the artist and/or other participants lying down can be mistaken
for floating or standing.
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 affected by the natural environment of specific places, the
wind and the rain. Weiss works with alertness, and the resulting traces
of charcoal, pigment, dye or video are crafted by her rhythmic impulses
combined with her contemplative focus.
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.
to Monika's web site.