the mark, space and mimesis of the body

Drawing is closely related to writing and functions as a bridge between my literary and visual work. In addition, drawing suits an ongoing interest in paper, including investigations with rice papers, folding and cutting, ink and text. Themes explored are generally contemporary political and social issues such as the environment, post-colonialism and history. Influences include Australian indigenous artist, Julie Gough and Nigerian born British artist, Yinka Shonibare,[1](fig 1), both of whom explore themes of identity, memory within a Post-colonialist discourse. Building on interests in Japanese culture, textiles, art and poetry, influences include contemporary Japanese artists Motoi Yamamoto and Tomoko Shiyoyasu.

The relationship of the mark to the ground is explored in terms of the white space, more importantly, within Eastern theories of white space rather than the Western philosophy of positive and negative space. This focus includes the energy and trace captured either on or within the ground and is why Japanese, Chinese or Taiwanese rice papers are used alongside traditional drawing and watercolour papers. Furthermore, the energy and trace of the physical act of making the mark is linked to mimesis of the body as discussed by interdisciplinary scholar Maxine Sheets-Johnstone[2], clinical psychologist Marilyn Charles[3] and philosopher and Sinologist, Mathius Obert[4].

Obert (2013), defines body mimesis as the movement of the body rendered visual and uses Chinese calligraphy as evidence of body mimesis, (Obert, 2013, pp. 523 -543). Obert (2013), uses Chinese brush painting as an example in building a case for mimesis and the body, arguing that ‘what philosophy since Plato has been calling mimesis should not be reduced to the problems of simulation and representation, (Obert, 2013, p.526). Art historian E. H. Gombrich (1962), noted the ‘kinship’ of Chinese brush painting to calligraphy including the Chinese art theory of expression through absence of brush and ink observing that, ‘the empty surface of the shining silk is as much a part of the image as are the strokes of the brush’, (Gombrich, E. H. 1962, pp. 174 – 175). British born artist and calligrapher Christine Flint-Sato (1999), expands this theory, focussing on the activation of the white space by the ink mark in Chinese and Japanese calligraphy. As Flint-Sato puts it;

The line is a sensitive dynamic, an energetic expression which is complemented and, in a certain sense, defined by the white space through which it runs. The relationship of line and space is as intimate as form and space in sculpture, the spaces between the dancers and their gestures in ballet or the pause in a musical score. The space is an almost palpable presence, interacting positively with the line and contributing its own beauty to the piece. This awareness of space within the Japanese art of calligraphy is, I feel, particularly acute and articulated, (Flint-Sato, 1999, p.1).

These connections of mark and space within music, dance and mimesis of the body are also made by philosopher John Taylor, (Taylor, 1964, p.74). Obert (2013), arguing that body mimesis is present in Chinese ink brush painting, quotes prior work undertaken in this field by Adorno,  Merleau-Ponty, Taussig, Feidler and others, (Obert, 2013, pp. 523-527). Obert’s arguments support Flint-Sato’s observations. In other words, ‘body mimesis’ potentially exists in all forms art, integrated as a form of language and operation to various degrees on both conscious and unconscious levels.

The mimetic, sourced through the body is also present in dance and music, in a relationship that psychoanalyst Marilyn Charles (2013), describes as patterns of knowing (Charles, 2013, pp. 2-4). Dancer and choreographer Martha Graham[5] (1991), described this instinctive ‘memory’ of the body and dance as ‘a blood memory that can speak to us…we carry thousands of years of that blood and memory. How else to explain those instinctive gestures that come to us…,’ (Graham, 1991, pp. 8-9). What Obert, Charles, Sheets-Johnstone and others essentially identify is the body’s learning through action, gesture and the engagement of the senses. This begins with visual assimilation, progressing through the analytical, to trial and error learning and the honing of fine motor skills through practise to perfect actions, (Charles, 2013 pp.2-9: Sheets-Johnstone, 1999, pp. 30-70). As Charles (2013), and Obert (2013), point out, this is not simply an act of mimicry but a mimetic process, (Charles, pp. 2-4; Obert, 2013, pp. 523–543). Applying Charles’ theory of assimilation and relationship of pattern is formed establishing the mimetic. The earliest patterns that we assimilate into our consciousness are pulse and beat. We hear and feel the heartbeat of our mother, feel the pulse of blood as it is pumped through the body. These early patterns and rhythms constitute our first understandings of our world constituted through the senses and mediated through the body, (Charles, 2013, pp.2-4). Beat and cadence are felt as well as heard and are important in poetry and music where a pause, a silence operates in a similar manner to the mark and its surrounding space, (Taylor, 1964, p. 82).

Together these elements conscious and unconscious form a poetic of beat, pattern, rhythm, space and cadence. This poetic, linked to the mimesis of the body is the ongoing philosophical underpinning of visual investigation.

Within the discussion of cognitive psychology, pattern and mimesis the theory of gestalt[6] has to be acknowledged. Discussing the Chinese concept of shi[7], in relationship to movement as gestalt, Obert (2013), states;

Shi designates what may be intuited from vision, as well as a specific impulse of mode of motion which may be expressed by a visual gestalt but still has actually to be achieved by means of body movement. This is exactly the point where description of visual properties has to be enhanced by our bodily experience of motion, (Obert, p. 535).

Again, Obert’s explanation of body mimesis is supported by the experience of overlaying the silver ink pattern used in all second semester works, where the ink was captured and absorbed by the ground. Similarly, the motif viewed as a whole builds a pattern and may be considered both mimetic and gestalt. However, there is a reversal of this when the silver ink catches the light it shimmers and the motif gives the illusion of floating on top of the work resisting the notion of body mimesis and gestalt.

As stated previously, pattern is referenced in terms of cognition, psychology, beat, rhythm and the visual in terms of repetition and relationship rather than ornament. Philosopher John F.A. Taylor[8], (1964), differentiated ornament from pattern and rhythm, arguing that rhythm consists of qualitative and quantitative contrasts which are found in pattern but which are redundant in ornament, (Taylor J F A, 1964, p. 80).

[1] Shonibare uses brightly coloured, patterned batik fabrics permeated with associations to African culture.

[2] Sheets-Johnstone proposes a link to the body and human consciousness in the Roots of Thinking, with an emphasis on the learned abilities and limitations developed as semantic templates which are acquired during infancy.

[3] In Patterns: Building Blocks of Experience, Charles proposes that experiences coalesce into patterns which form part of the infant’s understanding of its world. Essentially, patterns of experience devolve into meaning through a pre-lexical form of communication based on sensory imagery which is then repressed as language develops, but remain as building blocks for future identity. As well as being a psychoanalyst, Charles is an artist and poet, (pp. 2-3 2013).

[4] Obert’s essay, Chinese Ink Brush Writing, Body Mimesis, and Responsiveness, argues the ‘performative relationship of artistic mimesis and the living body.

[5] Martha Graham is considered one of the most important artists of the twentieth century, ranked alongside Picasso, Stravinsky and James Joyce. Graham worked with Helen Keller, Aaron Copland and many notable stars including Gregory Peck, Bette Davis, Woody Allen, Madonna, Rudolf Nureyev, Margot Fonteyn and Mikhail Baryshnikov.

[6] Gestalt theory developed in the early twentieth century. Gestalt relates to perception and in particular how the brain ‘fills in the gaps’ to complete a picture, including patterns, (Woodfield, 1996 p. 28; Saw, 2000).

[7] According to Obert, shi refers to ‘impulse and gestalt’ and at the same time means the dynamic tendency of a movement as well as the fixed gestalt, (Obert, 2013, p.535).

[8] John F A Taylor wrote and lectured on art.

(fig. 1),  Shonibare, Y  2008,  left, La Meduse, wood, foam, Plexiglas, Dutch wax-printed fabric and acrylic paint installation, 212.1 x 167.6 x 137.2 cm), and right La Méduse, 2008,
C-print mounted on aluminium,  182.9 x 238.8 cm, Framed: 215.9 x 271.8 cm, edition of 10, viewed 14 April 2014, < >

Copyright Janet Bayliss 2014