Reading what was never written
Thierry Davila

In 1973, Maurizio Nannucci undertook to write with his right hand on the surface of the Arno, the river that runs through Florence, a message that would be forever unreadable; he traced signs and marks in any case short-lived; while making them he pointed out fleeting, evanescent inscriptions, invisible as such because unidentifiable in pictures. Scrivere sull’acqua, composed of twelve black-and-white photos, all the same size, explores the paradox of aquatic writing that depends on its effective disappearance at the very moment an operator performs it, its instantaneous elision on the unstable support of a fluid sheet (of a notebook?), of a labile horizontal plane. And the artwork is the visualization of this unreadability even though the act of writing has occurred, has taken place on the surface of a body of water, on its skin.

The nearly three thousand notebooks used by Marco Godinho to create the installation Written by Water are also the materialization of an unreadable-because-invisible aquatic writing. By immersing the blank notebooks in the Mediterranean between 2013 and 2019 at numerous, geographically diverse locations (Ceuta, Djerba, Carthage, Lampedusa, Catania, Marseille, Nice, Ventimiglia, Umag, Trieste) to collect the texts, the aquatic stories, of the near-interior sea, the artist recorded no sign or written mark, only the mute, unwritten movements of the sea, its returning rhythms, its recycling moods. And while Nannucci’s action testifies to a desire to write, a determination to inscribe words (the sign returned to its natural character), Godinho’s consists of allowing the (supposed) life of signs to do or to be: the bulk of the work – keeping watch – assumed by the operator involved awaiting the hypothetical manifestation of a text, preparing its welcome and aiming to let no part of a silent alphabet slip away.

Earlier, Jean-Pierre Richard had noted a “wave-like writing” at work in Baudelaire’s poem “The Balcony,” seen in the fact that “the start of each stanza [is based] on the repetition of an essential, but already overtaken, motif belonging to the preceding stanza.” The resulting oceanic poem is thus such only to illustrate the very movement of the water, its ceaseless, fitful, returning flow, by an arrangement of words – of verses – identified with it. Godinho does not seek this illustrative writing, this way of (re)taking the sea and its movements in the very composition of the text, which, in any event, does not exist here. And if there is in his work, as in Baudelaire’s writing, an “oceanic materiality,” it is, unlike in Baudelaire, truly observable in the physical object destined to receive the signs, in the notebooks deformed and (re)configured by the waves of the writing – or so declared – Mediterranean.

The sea does not write, at least visibly it gives us no sign to read, no text to decode, no story to peruse or consult. However, it says something in the notebooks it has materially altered, it expresses to a certain extent a state of the world and things, a possible face of their memory. Therefore, what is proposed here is text that cannot be recited, a sum of words and phrases that cannot be spelled and that could be the silent version of a fundamental writing, ancient if not primordial. “‘To read what was never written.’ Such reading is the most ancient: reading prior to all languages, from entrails, the stars, or dances.” Perhaps Godinho is proposing this avant toute lettre reading, this phraseless writing that even so can be decoded. So, a very ancient, oracular reading, which is expressed, as Walter Benjamin posits, in dances, and Written by Water offers precisely that, a dance of liquid matter, of water which moves in ebbs and flows, which travels in a naturally choreographed way materially recorded in these notebooks.

As a result of dances expressive in terms of matter and mute in terms of sign, the nearly three thousand notebooks of Written by Water become authentic fossils. For the sea transfigures the notebook into a manifestly material object – an object shaped by the ebbing and flowing of the liquid matter, by the life of the fluids (sea, wind, rain) – in other words, into a temporal object, into the trace of what has taken place, into the physical recording of an elapsing of (liquid) duration. Thus, the sea introduces time into the notebooks it invades while leaving them to themselves, it temporalizes the supports it could just as well wash ashore after marking them with its phraseless movements, embraces. And the water’s memory is transparent, unmarked. Blinding, even, in the radical starkness that transforms us all into helpless readers, visually impaired.

In his own way, through the multitude – the avalanche – of notebooks arranged on a monumental, south-facing, inclined platform exposed to the sun, Marco Godinho is contributing to the development and activation of “the material imagination of water.” And this imagination reveals itself in what can be seen – the shaping of the pages – without being read; it lives according to the folds of the engendered and imagined metamorphoses, the formations and deformations. This materialization is, in fact, tactile; it results from the work of the hand that held – maintained – the notebook in the pulsing liquid. But it also concerns the subject himself, who, heeding a call, touches with his eyes the almost endless expanse stretching before him, makes contact with the objects with a glance. A haptic gaze, then, arises from this shaping of the page. And a liquid sea is changed in/by the notebooks into a material expanse, a plane, a tactile plateau.

In 2013, Marco Godinho produced Universal Declaration, a work likewise unreadable but for other reasons and using procedures other than those for Written by Water. It consists of a copy of the entire Universal Declaration of Human Rights hand-written on a sheet of A4-size paper. Because there was not room enough for the whole of the text, the copyist superimposed the sentences in a grid pattern, turning the paper 90 degrees each time. The outcome: each line of the tight grid holds several sentences seamlessly written on top of each other, so that each vertical and each horizontal ultimately becomes indecipherable. This is illegibility by overwriting, by text saturation, the opposite of illegibility by absolute reduction, by the disappearance of signs, produced by the shifting sea. The general appearance of Universal Declaration – a grid of lines visually similar to barbed wire – conveys the political dimension of the written form, of the oppressive revival of a major motif in modernist art and architecture: this is the grid of incarceration being built, line after line, on the page repeatedly turned to saturate it with straight lines, cross-hatched graphic paths. Contrary to such a concentration-camp universe – and to what it says about failure in regard to the current state of human rights – the lines of the notebooks of memory exhibited in Written by Water (squared lines, vertical lines, horizontal lines, no lines, all these configurations, as well as the white of the pages, vary with the notebooks’ geographic origins), the ready-made lines, forever uncharged with signs and traces, printed and active on the very surface of the support, free the possibility of an elsewhere through the white – a Mallarméian white writing. They attract the eye to deliver it to its own ability to make associations from the marine transparency they record and expose. Thus it is with Godinho’s work of paper, oscillating between oppression by written saturation and liberation by absence of trace, by absence of graphic deposit.

The history of art in its inaugural versions afforded a prominent place to a series of gestures designed to demonstrate the plastic value of the invisible. In Natural History, Pliny the Elder (23-79 CE) relates the famous anecdote about the rivalry between the painters Apelles and Protogenes: the competition ended with Apelles victorious as the greater artist because he had managed to paint a line practically invisible to the eye, which Pliny pronounced an “absolute work” (absolutum opus), a masterpiece. Disappearance, and not the form that asserts itself in its full and complete visibility, is therefore an inaugural moment, foundational in the history of the invention of the history of art. And it is this plastician elision that sustains the coefficient of art. The history of the invisible has seen numerous and various stages. Considering only the recent period, we see for instance and no doubt too quickly, that, in the 1960s, Walter De Maria created a series of “‘invisible drawings’ [that] can be considered ‘reduced visibility’ works. On large white sheets, a few words written lightly in pencil can be made out clearly if one gets close enough to the support to see that the framed white has not been left blank. Then one can read, for example, ‘New York Eats Shit.’” In 1986, Gianni Motti performed a clandestine action in the exhibition Les Immatériaux curated by Jean-François Lyotard. In a Centre Pompidou gallery where works by Piero Manzoni and Yves Klein were hanging, he splashed the contents of a bottle of invisible ink onto a wall. The blue ink was visible for only a few minutes, thus thwarting the intervention of the security guards who could do nothing but note the disappearance of the result of the act – its invisibility – the memory of the gesture surviving only in a Polaroid taken by Motti. Written by Water, in its way, belongs to the history of invisibility of art, of invisibility as art, by making the white page the site of reception and dissemination of a story, that of the Mediterranean and its tragedies, which does not allow itself to be decoded, which is received without being able to be spelled out. And this visual silence in terms of text inserts itself into the work’s arresting material eloquence in terms of form, into the expressiveness of the notebook in terms of page.

For La Pluie (projet pour un texte), 1969, Marcel Broodthaers filmed himself in his Brussels garden on Rue de la Pépinière, home of his Musée d’Art Moderne, Département des Aigles, Section XIXe siècle. Seated before a notebook lying on a wooden crate, he dips his pen into an inkwell to write a text. Suddenly, as he is filling the open pages with phrases, rain begins to fall, drenching him and the notebook, completely effacing his words. Unable to continue with water storming the notebook to destroy the contents, obliterate the letters, Broodthaers gives up and stops working. This is a striking example of the interrelation of material support, inscription, erasure and liquid matter (vertical water) producing an invisibility leading to renunciation.

Marco Godhino’s Mediterranean (horizontal water) is in no way materially destructive. And the pages that it shapes, and reshapes, are never victims of its ever-changing moods. There is even an almost ritualistic dimension to the way the artist opens the objects to the sea, offering them to its brooding, which makes them the recipients of all the precautions and all the hopes. And these Anadyomene-like notebooks, exhibiting the unaltered result of their immersion, offer the viewer their material evidence, their silent unreadability – their promising whiteness – none of which precludes their mystery.

While Roger Caillois speaks of the writing of stones, Written by Water exhibits a quest for a writing of water, the writing of the sea. The Mediterranean is deemed an open book from which the notebooks presented to it collect the various paragraphs, fractions of text, natural literature. Indeed, the idea that nature’s truth is written is quite ancient. It is found at least with Galileo, who believed that nature was a book written in mathematical language. From this perspective, then, there is always a text to decode, an operation to read, a decisive formula buried in each of the world’s phenomena – mountain, sky, sea, etc. – as its profound being, as its pivotal raison d’être. Moreover, in this writing as world, the theme of the legibility of beings and phenomena is crucial: the entirety of the world is to be read, since the truth of the world is deposited, absolutely written, within it. However, this does not mean that the book of nature is accessible to all readers. In his important study on the readability of the world, Hans Blumenberg is careful to specify that “nature is a book, but a book written in hieroglyphics, in coded language, in mathematical formulas – a paradoxical book that refuses to have readers.” Hence, a book written but resistant to reading, a text seminal yet unreadable, perhaps even invisible to the human mind. Without appearing to, Written by Water addresses this situation: for the impossible knowing of nature’s (liquid) book by a reader, it substitutes the perusal of its pages by a viewer. And in experiencing the unreadable, in surrendering to the invisible, the viewer discovers the metamorphic power of the notebooks of water.

Thierry Davila is an art historian with a background in philosophy. He is curator in charge of publications at MAMCO, in Geneva, and teaches at Geneva’s HEAD (Haute école d’art et de design).

  1. See Maurizio Nannucci, Where to Start From, exhib. cat., ed. Bartolomeo Pietromarchi (Rome: MAXXI, 2015), 76-77.

  2. Jean-Pierre Richard, “Mettons-nous au Balcon!,” in Pages Paysages. Microlectures II (Paris: Seuil, 1984), 13.

  3. Ibid., 19.

  4. Walter Benjamin, “On the Mimetic Faculty” [1933], in Selected Writings: Volume 2: 1927-1934, trans. Edmund Jephcott (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 2003), 722.

  5. Gaston Bachelard, Water and Dreams: An Essay on the Imagination of Matter [1942], trans. Edith R. Farrell (Dallas: Pegasus Foundation, 1983), 6.

  6. On this subject, see Olivier Razac, Barbed Wire: A Political History, trans. Jonathan Kneight (New York: New Press, 2003).

  7. See Rosalind Krauss, “Grids,” in The Originality of the Avant-Garde and Other Modernist Myths (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1986), 8-22.

  8. Thierry Davila, De l’inframince. Brève histoire de l’imperceptible de Marcel Duchamp à nos jours [2010] (Paris: Éditions du Regard, 2019), 7-8.

  9. Denys Riout, Portes closes et œuvres invisibles (Paris: Gallimard, 2019), 73.

  10. For recent exhibitions on invisible art, see Ingrid Schaffner, Bennett Simpson and Tanya Leighton, The Big Nothing (Philadelphia: Institute of Contemporary Art/University of Pennsylvania, 2004); Ralph Rugoff, A Brief History of Invisible Art (San Francisco: CCA Wattis Institute of Contemporary Arts, 2006); Ralph Rugoff, Invisible: Art about the Unseen 1957-2012, Nadine Monem, ed. (London: Hayward Gallery, 2012).

  11. Roger Caillois, The Writing of Stones, trans. Barbara Bray (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1985).

  12. Hans Blumenberg, Die Lesbarkeit der Welt [The readability of the world] (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1981), 18.