Updated: Nov 24, 2020
by Angela Bartram
For the leap year of 2016 I exhaled on an etching plate every day, at roughly 8pm. 366 breaths layered on the same surface, in the same place, and at roughly the same time. Each breath took about four seconds to lay on an A5 zinc etching plate. So, roughly 1464 seconds in total, or just over twenty-four minutes, or a third of an hour…that is a lot of breath. I had worked with the mouth as an instrument for drawing and object making in performances and other ways for years, and this work is part of that practice. The mouth, what some theorists would term a vulnerable orifice, made useful and invulnerable (perhaps) through creative process. But surely this was doomed to failure, for how could breathing produce an image in this way? Really, I didn’t care. For this was an exploration of repetition within process, the mundane within the order of making.
Despite the odds, and of being told that it simply wouldn’t work (unless I ate a ton of eggs a day, perhaps - eek), the plate bore no signs of being etched by my mouth until October of 2016, when, in the second week, it began and from then on the drawing rapidly developed. A representation, or semblance, of my mouth and nose began to emerge on the plate, as if composed of micro droplets derived from my lungs, oral and olfactory systems. The dotted and hazy image developed for the remainder of that year until finally I was left with a fairly detailed plate from which to print. This is the image you see here – it is a photograph of the etching plate taken on the 1st January 2017. I must admit to feeling somewhat bereft that this part of the process was over, an action that had become a part of my daily routine over 2016. The plate was in fact a weird and slightly delightful (to me surely, although an artist friend described it as a ‘beautiful thing’) object of the process which made it. For it was always the process I was interested in, and the reason why I was willing, nay, invited the opportunity for the drawing to fail. Had it never surfaced on the plate I would not have cared, as the focus was the endeavour itself. The image was an irrelevance to the process (although a happy one once it appeared) led by the performative and regulatory within creativity. The fulfilment of a task, if you will, to engage with repetitive process within an everyday structure, to give the creative act space within an otherwise academically consuming year.
It was always my intention to take those breaths back through process, however. They were not meant to lay on the etching plate forever, or to be immortalised in one solitary print taken from it. The accumulative breaths charted the act of isolating and capturing those layered singular exhalations, and I intended the act to be reversed through an additional repetitive method. One of printmaking itself, using a press, roller and ink. One which would attest to the number of days needed to make the plate.
The process of printmaking now is methodical and perfunctory. I wet the paper(s), ink the plate with scrim and tissue paper, move to the press and print. One after the other, and usually ten to thirty in one session. As the process has evolved so has the drawing, for the image began to break down quickly (as technical print professionals informed me it would as the image on the plate was so delicate) to be replaced by the actions within the process itself. When adding and removing the ink the scrim and tissue paper erase the image a little more with each print, only to leave their own marks, the marks of the printmaking process. Now the mouth and nose is diminishing to be replaced by a new drawing made of scratches and marks attributable to the method. An erasing of a drawing to be another – yet, despite this the process and image(s) remain undeniably and incontrovertingly linked. They cannot be separated, cannot be seen in isolation – for they are as one. The process stays true, and for me, remains the constant in the artwork as it evolves.
366:366, the accumulating body of three-hundred and sixty-six prints from the same plate, is an enduring ‘work in process’ that has been exhibited in its growing volume since 2017 during four exhibitions, Documents Alternatives (which I curate). The artwork remains unfinished and in a state of process, growing in volume as more prints are added during its time on exhibition until it is finally complete. The artwork also exists in two states: 366:366 (eventually) is a series of prints made from the etched plate to match the number of breaths which scored its image; 366:366 (animated) charts the sequential development of the prints on video with blanks left as space ready to house those yet to come. The first exhibition housed first sixty, and then seventy-two prints (as prints are added as produced throughout the exhibition), the second an animation of the prints, with blanks where they were still to be made, in exhibition two and three, and over a hundred are in the fourth (digital) exhibition. The series of three hundred and sixty-six prints will be completed in this leap year, by 31 December 2020.
Angela Bartram is an artist working in expanded sculpture (objects, sound, video, print, performance event) and published text, concerning thresholds of the human body, gallery or museum, definitions of the human and animal as companion species and strategies for documenting the ephemeral.
Bartram is Professor of Contemporary Art and Head of Arts Research and the Digital and Material Artistic Research Centre at the University of Derby. She is Executive Board member for the Society for Artistic Research (from 2018), and Co-Chair of the steering group for Contemporary Visual Arts Network East Midlands.
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