Susanne Gottberg: Object, 2013–14, oil and colour pencil on wood, 122cm x 86cm. Finnish National Gallery / Museum of Contemporary Art Kiasma Photo: Finnish National Gallery / Petri Virtanen

‘All the Leaves in the World’: the Subjectile as a Problem

Ari Tanhuanpää, PhD, Senior Conservator, Finnish National Gallery, Helsinki

This is an extended version of the paper presented at the Tahiti 8: National Conference of Art History in Finland, which this year took the theme ‘From Material to Immaterial: Art Historical Practices in the Contemporary World’. University of Turku, 28–29 November 2019

Rather than addressing the problem of the dematerialisation of the artwork (which is misplaced because there is only a difference in degree between material and immaterial), I would like to draw attention to a more fundamental problem, namely the ontological difference between matter and materiality. The claim that it is only the ephemeral processes of contemporary art that challenge the established practices in art-historical research gives the impression that questions of materiality in the more traditional art forms could already be adequately answered. It seems that one has had to wait for the (alleged) dematerialisation of the artwork in order to be able to see materiality as a problem – because the more the matter dematerialises, the more the being of materiality (which is neither material nor immaterial, but rather not- or im-material) comes into view. I take the ‘paper’ that Jacques Derrida saw throughout its long history as being made up of its gradual ‘de-paperisation’ as my starting point. In Paper machine (2001)[1], a text written in apocalyptic tone, at the time when the era of paper was in ongoing decline and withdrawal, Derrida discusses paper as a quasi-transcendental apparatus, expanding his perspective to include ‘all the leaves in the world’ (toutes les feuilles du monde), that is, subjectiles of all kinds, things that in one way or another ‘lie below’: hypokeimena.[2] Because, even in our present era of ‘dematerialisation’, we continue to live in the graphosphere, which implies dealing with all kinds of underlying surfaces, actual or virtual.[3]

Two years ago, Päivikki Kallio edited the anthology entitled Art of Transfer and Transmission (2017), which was dedicated to the study, in her words, of ‘printmaking as a conceptual practice, independent of the material means’. The authors of this publication shared a view that printmaking as an activity has the ability to generate ‘new and potentially conceptual thinking’, and that this ability is located in the ‘break or an abyss’ that lies at the core of the act of printing itself. This abyss is the machine, the indeterminate ‘zone’ between the printing plate (or ‘matrix’, as Kallio wants to call it[4] – a sort of maternal subjectile[5]) and the print (or ‘trace’). This ‘apparatus of the printed art’ is a Latourian ‘collective process’, which brings together a number of actants, human, as well as inhuman.[6] Susanne Gottberg, in turn, has for many years created paintings in which the wood grain patterns of the unprimed plywood, used as a painting support, reflects through a painted drapery. Isn’t the strange feeling these paintings creates in us also the result of an abyss – or conflict – between the intentional image object and the physical image carrier? I will come back to this later.

[1] Originally, Papier machine (Paris: Éditions Galilée, 2001).

[2] Derrida poses a question: ‘When we say “paper” (…) are we naming the empirical body that bears this conventional name? Are we already resorting to a rhetorical figure? Or are we by the same token designating this “quasi-transcendental paper” (…).’ Jacques Derrida, Paper Machine. Trans. Rachel Bowlby (Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 2005 [2001]), 52; Jacques Derrida, ‘Maddening the Subjectile’. Trans. Mary Ann Caws. Yale French Studies, 84, 1994, (154–171), 157–58, 169. The subjectile, the untranslatable French notion presumably first used by Antonin Artaud, does not refer to any determinate substance, or object of knowing. In fact, as Derrida reminds us, even Artaud did ‘not speak about the subjectile as such, only of what “is called” by this name’. The subjectile is ‘the unique body of the work in its first event, at its moment of birth, which cannot be repeated’. Furthermore, the subjectile is not reliable, it can betray, ‘not come when it is called, or call before even being called, before even receiving its name’. The subjectile is always ‘to come’ (à-venir), and ‘oscillates between the intransitivity of jacere and the transitivity of jacere’. Anyway, we can list some features of subjectiles, they are ‘everything distinct from form, as well as from the sense and representation, which is not representable’. There are various materials which can be called by this notion (i.e. they are not subjectiles as such, but one can refer to them by using this name: wall and wood surfaces, paper and textiles. Derrida writes that among subjectiles there are two classes: the ones that ‘let them be traversed (we call them porous, like plasters, mortar, wood, cardboard, textiles, paper) and the others (metals or their alloys) which permit no passage’.

[3] Derrida claims that even today, ‘the page continues, in many ways (…) to govern a large number of surfaces of inscription, even where the body of paper is no longer there in person (…). Even when we write on the computer, it is still with a view to the final printing paper, whether or not this takes place.’ Derrida 2005 [2001], 46.

[4] Kallio specifies, that ‘(a) matrix can be considered the conceptual turning point, a moment when the transmission or translation takes place’. Päivikki Kallio, ‘New Strategies – Printmaking as a Spatial Process, as a Transmissional Process, and as a Spatial-Transmissional Process’. In Jan Pettersson (ed.), Printmaking in the Expanded Field (Oslo: Oslo National Academy of the Arts, 2017), (87–105), 88.

[5] Because, as Derrida reminds us, the subjectile ‘can take the place of the subject or of the object – being neither one nor the other’. Derrida 1994, (154–171), 154.

[6] Inhuman actants are, for instance ‘presses, corrosives, plates, printing inks, tarlatans, stones, [and] rolls’. Kallio 2017, (87–105), 87; Päivikki Kallio, ‘Välissä ja vyöhykkeellä’. In Päivikki Kallio (ed.), Siirtämisen ja välittymisen taide (Helsinki: Kuvataideakatemia, 2017), (17–63), 18, 28, 43; Milla Toukkari, ‘Kuilun filosofia’. In Päivikki Kallio (ed.), Siirtämisen ja välittymisen taide (Helsinki: Kuvataideakatemia, 2017), (103–157), 107. Kallio believes that ‘by using the concept of the matrix it is possible to study works that do not use any paper to make the trace visible’. However, even if there is no paper in the printmaking of the expanded field, there is still always some kind of subjectile, no matter what name one gives it.

Featured image: Susanne Gottberg: Object, 2013–14, oil and colour pencil on wood, 122cm x 86cm. Finnish National Gallery / Museum of Contemporary Art Kiasma
Photo: Finnish National Gallery / Petri Virtanen

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