Reading in dust / By Daniel Reich



Designed by Daniel Pillis
With intense necessity, Swiss artist Miriam Cahn has created haunting and thought-provoking sketchbooks for forty years.  The pressure she applies to the charcoal of her drawings leaves ghost images and indentations on subsequent pages.  Cahn’s interrelated drawings have the elementary, pared-down hieroglyphic imagery of The Interpretation of Dreams, and include written passages of social critique and uncertain descriptions of events.  The images are vaguely organic, physical, allegorical and totemic.  Playful nature is seen as red polka dots, signifying the repetitious red fruit of a green tree.  Soft faces with shadowy eyes cry charcoal tears.  At times one figure lies upon another with the heaviness of two stones. Cahn’s repeating vocabulary (vaginas, houses and mountains, for instance) are always articulated with graphic energy, sadness and possibility, as seen in a Rorschach tree-form lushly painted in black.  While dream like, the images have the gripping quality of vivid and not always peasant memory.  Cahn’s work has the quality of a Beckett character whose irascibility propels the imagination.

das haus nicht vergessen and
rechts + links – nur vogel
Charcoal on paper, notebook
7.09 x 9.84 inches (18 x 25 cm)


Julie Kristeva’s essay “Woman’s Time,” discusses second wave feminism in terms of the place of the female body, both physically in terms of reproduction (as reflected in pragmatic issues like childcare, family planning and contraception) and psychologically in the symbolic order.  For Kristeva, the place of the woman in reproduction postulates a relationship to time and space defined by cycles.  As opposed to linear time, such cycles are, to Kristeva, an “aesthetic practice,” suggestively akin to Rosa Luxemburg’s suggestion of a spontaneous series of creative acts (a sort of anarchic production) whose furnace is a necessary crucible for social change.  Cahn’s creative acts are synchronized with the temporal bodily aspects of womanhood, including the monthly reproductive cycle that may culminate in pregnancy.  Showing the closeness of this relationship, two images depict a fetus growing in the womb, recalling the three trimesters of pregnancy and a changing body beset by the experience of morning sickness and the innate foreignness of a second body inside one’s own.  In one, a corporeal, multi-breasted mass reclines on a page, challenging our discomfort with profuse, anatomical womanliness and pushing us to see something beyond the sanitized surfaces we are taught to prefer.

Ohne titel, 1979-2010
Charcoal on paper, notebook
14.96 x 10.63 inches (38 x 27 cm)


Indeed, Cahn’s world is anarchic and ritualistic.  In a written passage, she refers to throwing white plasticine at a surface covered in black chalk as if it were a Molotov cocktail.  In a video, this action is performed with a giant plasticine brick that is dropped on a charcoal covered floor again and again.  It is an image of labor and ritualistic repetition.  Her drawings can have the graphic, emblematic nature of graffiti—crosses, dots and houses.  A suction tube uncomfortably suggests a torture device, with its tunnel rent by the excess of matter that chokes bloodily through.  A painted black grid suggests confinement behind the small, grated window of a cell door.   A dress and long tresses are shorthand for the female.  Pleasure is entailed in the disruptive peek-a-boo humor of lifting a skirt.   It is hard to describe the boldness of contrast with which these images are rendered on the white page, but a life-size vagina covered in hair receding into the fold of the page matches the nuclear explosions that so interest Cahn.  It is so simple, and so distant in nature from the centerfold, that its undeniable echo is ingenious.  As a sketchbook can also be turned upside down, every image can be rotated, so mountains can also become mons veneris.  Powerful, spinning, abundant motion-lines of air currents pull apart Cahn’s representations into thousands of drawn strings.

das wilde Lieben (weibliche waffen, wurfgeschosse,waffenfalschklungen), 1984
black & white video, (00:45 excerpt), 9 minutes 48 seconds


As Cahn writes: “with a knife I shave the black chalk into dust, I chop the rest into little pieces like housewives or cooks do…” At its crux, Cahn’s preparatory practice in prelude to drawing has a heretical ethos.  As “work” is anxious, guilty capitalist production, reproduction is and is not work by way of its organism, from ovulation to final labor.  Its inverse is “free time,” which Cahn disdains because of an inability to adhere to this punch-card mentality.  So instead she adheres to cycles, which are spontaneous and cannot be written into a schedule.  In addition to biological cycles, there are also creative cycles of inspiration that occur as if by magic.

The manifestations of post-colonialis­m in places like the Persian Gulf or Lebanon, as well as the refugees of the Yugoslavian conflict, belie the impassive thin-lipped meanness (meaning cheapness) of the Occident’s quest for bullion and treasure.  Orderliness (from 9:00 to 5:00) is drab without the fantastic, meditation or dreams (“drawing with eyes closed,” or “writing in dust,” as Cahn puts it).  Following the precision with which a bird dips a wing and spreads feathers to land, one must peel oneself like an onion  to have the lucidity to see the presences that occupy Cahn’s pages before they are articulated, shaman-like.  These meditative moments outside of the anxious capitalist “work” are a mythic projection.

Eine kotzende frau, 1978
Charcoal on paper, notebook
8.27 x 11.81 inches (21 x 30 cm)


Cahn’s imagery includes mask-like faces, train tracks or roads in one-point perspective, animals, televisions, warplanes (especially the popular Swiss manufactured Pilatus) and houses.  The house image fixes maddeningly in the brain, as it is expressed using elemental basic geometry.  Additional oblongs represent windows, doors and chimneys.  In one house drawing, the line of a wandering pathway leading us to the door is continued in a line of chimney smoke.

At times Cahn draws configurations of flat boxes on the page that are reminiscent of Bauhaus design, only they are interconnected by lines suggesting movement and energy-flows.  These configurations relate to her houses and one-point perspective spaces, but are in stark contrast to her mountain landscapes, although they may recall our system of dividing nature into lots that can be bought and sold—fields of grass suggestive of agriculture, lined by trees.  These works also bring to mind blueprints and the aerial photographs and military satellite views that so interest Cahn, showing the organization of refugee camps or potential bombsites.  Human forms may be contained within these rectangles: in one image a fleshly body is crushed within a box, hugging what might be children, as though seeking shelter from destructive catastrophe beneath a table.  In others, we float down a river in a glass coffin, only we have a twin at our side.  Who is this other woman?  She is small on the page, a mere stick figure far away in the distance.  Or is she a woman at all, or is she we?

EINE CONFUSION heimat, 1977
Pencil on paper, notebook
11.42 x 7.87 inches (29 x 20 cm)


Also in the realm of landscapes, one drawing book captures the passage of seasons in the quiet foothills of the Swiss Alps, where Cahn lives, with great soggy expanses of overlapping color.  This is a place of exiles, refugees, bankers and revolutionaries, the repository of the world’s treasure because it does not take any moral or ethical position on conflict. Up here close to the sky, the individual feels small, and Cahn’s drawings reflect this. The sun rotates low, as if round the surface of a sundial, in late winter or early spring, and we alone look to the left as the foothills accompany us towards a bit of yellow warmth on the upper right corner.  Or else, we face a spiny rock ridge in white snow, or the fleshy intersection of two hills on which sparse grass grows as though human hair.  The sense that one is finite in the largeness of nature is like seeing the immensity of a horizon at sea.

Cahn uses naïve flat drawing techniques to great effect, as they allow for play, symbolic excess and the happenstance of error. For example, there is a grouping of many beings side by side that suggests a familial subset. To the left, a delicately shaded person with a round head cries charcoal tears. This figure evokes the vivid childhood memory of playing in the dirt, and suddenly scraping one’s knee on a rock. As tears stream down one’s cheeks, they mix with sediment before drying as dirty vertical streaks. A large ant hurries underneath the rock as if it had things to do and places to see. But this delicately shaded being, whose round cranium is ever so lightly visible, is defined not only by its tears but by a flowing, diaphanous gown of light billowy fabric. To the right of this figure, a companion stands more firmly. A harder charcoal line suggests a more ornate costume with a decorative collar. The exotic nature of these two characters could not be more different from the woman and child on the right, who as “mother and child” populate interminable artworks. This particularly ragged pair has the sparseness of the Shetel or the Pale. The woman wears a puritanical dark dress tied at the waist, her hair falling naturally behind her head as she looks upwards. The stocky little creature that belongs to her creeps (quite realistically for Cahn) along at her side, the most grounded and volumetrically stable figure in a composition of ghosts.


o.t., 1975
Mixed media, notebook
8.27 x 5.91 inches (21 x 15 cm)


Tellingly, Cahn called the room reserved for a charcoal drawing show the “war room.”  The messy media of charcoal coats the pages of her sketchbooks with the tragic, ash-like dust suggesting an aftermath.  War, and its particular atrocities, has always been a key influence in Cahn’s life and work.  For example, in the course of a body of work about the war in the Balkans, she helped war refugees seeking asylum.  Other works (a series of paintings of nuclear test sites, concentration camps and dye factories) remind us that we occupy states whose foundations and prosperity are the work of accumulated wars.  Rarely are we the occupants of a state in which this paradigm is inverted, and we crouch as disembodied cogs while war hovers above us, threatening to smelt us from the sky as missiles.  The position of the refugee is so frequently a liminal status within a camp—no longer among the victims of a land of violence, but not fully accepted in the land of peace across the border—they are personifications of alienation and isolation.  The unsettling and destructive aspects of War generally inform the work I think. And if one lists the each of United States’ twentieth-century conflicts, and then adds in the French wars, the English wars, the German wars and all the other wars, it is apparent that we have forever awakened to the noise of war, even if it is not within earshot: the hum of Humvees, Mirage jet fighters, helicopter gunships, and AK-47 fire, somewhere in the world.  Yet by its very nature, war must ignore the human condition.

What was so singular about the first Gulf War, a conflict that fascinated Cahn, was the control the state exercised over images of war.   It unfolded in bloodless low resolution, seen aerially through night-vision goggles, making the flat square of a building green.  As a falling lozenge-shaped thing decreases in size, the tidy flat square of the building below it implodes, dematerializing as dust. There is not a human being anywhere in sight.

o.t., 1975
Mixed media, notebook
6.89 x 8.66 inches (17.5 x 22 cm)


Not so of Cahn’s sketchbooks, however.  She acknowledges our wish to gloss over the individual, corporeal man, woman, and child in favor of a glossier, public-relations-approved vision of life, by vigorously forcing them into our consciousness.  In one drawing, a woman is up very late.  Her bulging eyes express fatigue and she seems occupied with the cares of the world.  A stark dutch angled boxy television set and a telephone cast dark, dense shadows.

As war is historical, it is so often not seen as dimensional, as corporal and as human.  Its passage is noted by a new boundary line on a map bisecting a once-coherent country into two parts, as recently occurred in the Sudan, or in the political change in the name of a country, as in the 1949 transition to People’s Republic of China.  So often these events expose the individual (who we so highly regard in liberal democracy) as a vivid being outsized by the larger structures of the time.  Hence, it is relevant to, like Miriam Cahn, crouch and create.  One ought to make a little female mark in which to vestige and store one’s humanity in an inhuman age.

Weisse frau, 1984
Charcoal on paper, notebook
12.2 x 16.93 inches (31 x 43 cm)


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