The death of John Berger at the start of this month led me to root out this piece I wrote about his 2005 show of collaborative drawings with Marisa Camino, held at the Vangard Gallery in Cork. On drawing, writing, communicating, understanding and telling stories…

Entries, Drawings 1999 – 2005
Vangard Gallery, Cork until 21 January 2006
By Cristín Leach

In his latest book, which accompanies an exhibition of drawings in Cork, John Berger recalls meeting a Turkish writer whose work he had admired in translation. Sitting next to Latife Tekin in a restaurant in Istanbul, he fobbed off all offers of interpretation and instead broke the awkward silence by taking out a notebook and pen and drawing himself as one of her readers. What followed was an incredible, wordless exchange of ideas and stories: she drew bulldozers destroying houses built in the night, he told her about a woman who lived in a van. As the evening drew to a close, Tekin held up a walnut she had cracked in two, as if to say the writers were like two halves of one brain. At least that’s how Berger saw it.

The story illustrates something that is key to the way Berger, one of the twentieth century’s most influential art theorists, has made his way in the world: he has always had a firm belief in the superfluity of language when it comes to communication. Three of the chapters in his seminal 1972 book Ways of Seeing are wordless picture essays, their argument no less thought provoking than if they had been written in words, although admittedly less definitive in meaning. Yet, in many ways, open-endedness is what makes a wordless, visual discussion so appealing.

Marisa Camino and John Berger at the Vangard Gallery in 2005

Marisa Camino and John Berger at the Vangard Gallery in 2005

Berger’s latest project, the swansong for the Cork 2005 visual art programme, is a collaboration with a visual artist whose language he does not speak. Marisa Camino lives in Spain, while London-born Berger resides in the French Alps; their partnership was facilitated predominantly by post. One would begin a drawing and send it to the other, who would sometimes take a few days, sometimes a few months, to add something and send it back.

Berger describes how a line begun by one might suggest a shoulder to the other, and how the originator, on receiving the altered page, might change the direction of the emerging image again before returning it. This silent communication was carried on with a palpable degree of gravitas, but it also became something of a game, a game that required a childlike attitude of openness, and a surrender on the part of the participants, not just of ego, but of control. Each image was complete when one party simply decided there was nothing to add and, instead of returning it, began another.

The drawings on show at the Vangard in Cork date from 1999 to 2005, although this long-distance collaboration has been ongoing for more than twelve years. While much of the value of the resulting works lies predominantly in the process they reveal and the correspondence they record, some rather remarkable drawings have been produced along the way.

The alliance is so absolute that any attempt at identifying either the hand of Berger or Camino in a particular place becomes immediately irrelevant. Papers of various textures have been folded, stuck together, torn and soaked. Out of numerous creases and bleeding ink marks on fibrous surfaces, mountains and horizon lines, faces and body parts, flowers, architectural structures and prehistoric-looking animals emerge.

Drawings by John Berger and Marisa Camino

Drawings by John Berger and Marisa Camino

This link with the drawings of early humans on cave walls springs most immediately to mind, and it is made explicit by the titles of several of the works: a mysterious animal leaps across the surface of Cro-Magnon IV, a round-bellied rhinoceros pokes its horn through a ripped, ink-soaked sheet in Cro-Magnon I. The artists’ acknowledgement of this ancient tradition of mark-making and its function as a universal language, reminds both themselves and us, that on rock faces in Southern France, Cro-Magnon man is still telling stories, which have survived for tens of thousands of years.

In the 1950s, Berger wrote that drawing is discovery. Investigation is an integral part of this project. Many of the pieces are as much experiments to see how the surface would take the pigment, as anything else. Together, the artists feel their way, slowly, over time. Some elements appear to have emerged from that art-school exercise where sketching an object from life is done without ever looking at the page, in order to achieve a pure (if often haphazard) link between hand and eye, on paper.

But if drawing is a way of seeing, it is also a way of being. In drawing, from life or imagination, artists immerse themselves fully in the task for a period of time. In this meditative state it is easy to get lost in the details. There are times when the curl of an earlobe or the pursuit of a hairline becomes the most important element of these fragmented compositions, to the exclusion of all else.

Of course, there are elements of this collaboration that recall the Surrealist game of Cadavre Exquis (Exquisite Corpse), an old parlour game in which players take turns to add to a story of which they are privy to only the last few words. In another version, one person begins to draw a figure, folding it over so the next player continues with only the protruding lines of a neck or torso to work with. The result is a shared achievement, a creation owned by none and all at once.

Although Berger is best known as a writer, he has always drawn. In fact one suspects the latter may come more instinctively to him. Where there are words included in these drawings, mostly in English and therefore presumably added by Berger, they tend to pull the eye away from the image, like a magnet. There are poems in places, or words linking the image with a thought: a misty grey mountain in West Coast I sits alongside the words, “hair the last veil before everything”. In Mountain I, words struggle to describe what Camino and Berger are doing: “Perhaps this is something now, what we see at the end, and if we see it together, we’ll see it together at the end.” But in the end the images speak loudest, proving what Berger has long advocated: that words are not necessary for telling stories.

It’s easy to get carried away with the attractiveness of the concept behind this show. Imagine a love letter written in this way, or a letter between a mother and daughter, father and son, between siblings. Imaging a letter without words that is all the more eloquent for it, a letter requiring silence, a kind of soul communion. What springs to mind again is that drawn conversation Berger had with Tekin in Istanbul.

He reports that the Turkish writer responded to his initial advances by drawing an upside-down boat, to show him that she couldn’t draw. He turned it the right way up to show her that he understood anyway. The point about this interchange is that neither really knew if the other was receiving the message as they had sent it, or if they were communicating what they had originally intended. It illustrates a truism not just about drawing but about art. When words and explanations are put aside, what matters most in the moment of encounter is not so much what the artist was trying to say, but what the viewer understands by what they see. That’s where the unpredictable exchange takes place, a moment of communion requiring trust, belief and a kind of letting go. It’s something Berger has long understood, and long been comfortable with, and it’s what makes the results of his collaboration with Camino so endlessly enjoyable to look at.

A version of this article was first published in The Sunday Times Ireland on 8 January 2006.

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