It is sometimes rewarding to take notes, draw, cut out or turn down the corner of a page in a notebook. One can also have the impression that an idea or a picture, once on paper, is potentially captured. It is like leaving little stones behind, dealing with emptiness and fullness, making one’s notes available to those who will eventually take the time to consult them. A notebook can also be uncomfortable because it can give a feeling of incompleteness, which reminds us that this is a further space: an unutterable space toward which our desperate desire to leave a trace behind is directed.
Chang Hsia-Fei, René Francisco or Audry Lizeron-Monfils use their notebooks as a kind of daily ritual, for writing or drawing, as if they were some sorts of extension of themselves. As if for each idea there could be a notebook, for each gesture a page. All together, these notebooks take on another dimension. Aren’t they suspended spaces, frozen in time? Is it possible that writing just the captions of the pictures of August 9, 1945, may have a stronger impact than the pictures themselves, as suggested by artist James Webb? Is it also a way to carve out a space, that of the notebook, able to provide more or less volume, as in the case of Enzo Umbaca’s notebook?
In that sense, notebooks are also a game of possible combinations, which reminds us of Marcel Duchamp’s ‘La Boîte-en-valise’ (1935-41) and Georges Maciunas’s Flux Year Boxes. These Fluxkits1 were boxes containing all sorts of things – photographs, small objects, notebooks – and represented Fluxus’ main activity up to the early 1970s. Notebooks have always been the object of a subversion of shape, meaning and function, as in the case of Map Office, Malachi Farrell or Tere Recarens. This last artist has chosen to write the word ‘Toubab’, which is the African word for ‘White man’, on the side of each page. She therefore plays with the aesthetics of notebooks by “letting all the black people enter the very white and fashionable space of Moleskine’s world”, as the artist says.
As a transitional object, or a sort of Pandora’s box, a notebook sometimes corresponds to a particular phase of the artist’s work, which can lead or not to the next one. It is a space without any other constraint than its own limited size and number of pages, where it is always possible to come back and recall a legend, a story, or some places, just like Sue Williamson, who turns her notebook into an account of her workshops in Havana, Johannesburg and Bern. Artist Seamus Farrell proposes an open atlas of the African continent: each country is considered separately from the others, in perfect symmetry like a Rorschach inkblot2. In his hand-bound notebook he thus provides an alternative way to represent the geography of this great continent. Mohssin Harraki has instead chosen to glue copies of 41 passport covers of different countries on each page. Is it a series of possible identities, without any of them being selected over the other?
Between 1968 and 1970, Pier Paolo Pasolini shot an extraordinary film in Africa and Rome, entitled Notes for an African Orestes, which consisted in a series of filmed notes on a film to be made. A hybrid, polyphonic work, it draws on collage techniques and turns the ‘unfinished’ into the structure of the film itself. Notes for an African Orestes is a wonderful unidentified object, a formal experimentation that paid a very high price for its modernity, entering the Pantheon of the ‘cursed’ films banned from theatrical and video release.
If Notes for an African Orestes was inspired by the Italian director’s desire to go back to a legendary past in order to better understand the present and face contemporary reality, then it can be regarded as African. Pasolini’s rage against Western societies grows with the awareness that neo-capitalism wipes off the past in the name of progress and consumerism, and makes the present inhuman and unliveable. Notes for an African Orestes is actually a self-reflective, meta-discursive work, where Pasolini, as a film director as well as an artist, never stops questioning his own project.
These artists’ notebooks are unclassifiable works, which blur the boundaries between fiction and work of art, establishing a complex relationship between the idea and its impossible expression, as in the case of Daniel Chust Peters or Goddy Leye. The latter confided his thoughts to his notebook until his sudden departure last February, writing down scripts and projects for the ArtBakery3 , which he had founded, and reflections on his work.
Pier Paolo Pasolini apparently went to Tanzania, Uganda or Tanganyika to look for faces, bodies or places for his Orestes film project, but this was a mere pretext: Notes for an African Orestes is a film in itself, where the idea of a film on a film to be made is turned into its reason for being.
Real ‘works in progress’, these notebooks follow the rhythm of the artists’ reflections on their own works and are subject to the shock of their intuitions, their doubts and flashes of imagination. To be continued!
Saint-Ouen, February, 2012