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Rules of the Game: Reason and Repetition in the Work of Channa Horwitz and Emma Kunz

Two concurrent exhibitions in London use mark-making as a way to get at something beyond what we see

Life is messy. Death is likely messy, too, but I can only speculate. For something that remains at the whim of linear time, life has a stubborn tendency to tack and twist. To squirm. To become tangled in knots that, when pulled, tighten.

We respond to disorder in one of two ways. Either we amplify the chaos or we break it down: we destroy all that we have built and, in its place, construct lists, lines, ledger notes, graphs, grids, diagrams, tables, routines, replicas, rituals. Optimistic that imposed structure will engender order on a cosmic scale, we enter a machine-like state, laying our faith in the repetitive logic of an overriding system that remains unseen. We, the devotees of the grid. We, the structuralists of the contemporary. We, the new pious. 

Channa Horwitz, Canon 10, 1983, casein on mylar, 61 × 66 cm. Courtey: Estate of Channa Horwitz and Lisson Gallery, London/New York/Shanghai

In The Hour of the Star (1977), Clarice Lispector writes: ‘I cannot stand repetition: routine divides me from potential novelties within my reach.’ For Channa Horwitz, who passed away in 2013, novelties were the first things to go. Horwitz was a radical retractionist, a reductionist anarchist, a savage editor of the world who scraped every semblance of life from her work until all that remained was a prescribed set of shapes, lines, colours. And then, per the title of her current exhibition at Lisson Gallery, there were the ‘Rules of the Game’: the strict conceptual guidelines that dictated both the emergence of these forms and their stuttering passage through time.

For Horwitz, this was not systematic limitation in the name of creative self-censorship. Rather, it was an attempt to excavate an aesthetic language so pure and untouched by the significations of the wider world, that it could render the passing of time (thus, life) with something close to precision. ‘If I wanted to experience freedom,’ Horwitz told Chris Kraus in 2005, ‘I needed to reduce all of my choices down to the least amount.’ This campaign of subtractive emancipation pushes up against Samuel Beckett’s quest for a language of the ‘unword’: a linguistic system void of all connotation. (‘Is there any reason’, Beckett wrote to a friend in 1937, ‘why that terrible arbitrary materiality of the word’s surface should not be permitted to dissolve ...?’)

Channa Horwitz, & Then There Were None (Sonakinatography Composition #5), 1980, ink on mylar, 73 × 78 × 3 cm. Courtesy: Estate of Channa Horwitz and Lisson Gallery, London/New York/Shanghai

In & Then There Were None (Sonakinatography Composition #5) (1980), Horwitz dissolves into a single breath: a lone black dot rising and falling as it edges through a grid of 105 squares. Rhythm of Lines (c.1983) is a pleasantly vibrant counterpart, the colours of its casein paint lines switching with each step, while in Variation and Inversion on a Rhythm V (1976), Horwitz assembles a dense grid across a series of 120 frames, inked mark by precious inked mark. Outside of this, there is little to tell but lines, repeated, in space. It is, as Kraus wrote in 2013, a ‘collision of pure concept and human presence’: a distillation of gesture, intention and the unwavering continuation of time. Four lines, three lines, two lines, one.

When Lispector spurned repetition, she renounced the lush novelties that repetition itself can produce. ‘Iteration,’ George Eliot wrote in The Mill on the Floss (1860), ‘like friction, is likely to generate heat instead of progress.’ And, on occasion, we must heat a moment in order to see it boil, condense and harden into some crusty, colourless distillate that can be examined with greater ease. (Horwitz enacted such molecular separations in a series of two-dimensional scores for sound and movement, a method she termed ‘sonakinatography’ – a compound of the Greek words for ‘sound’, ‘motion’ and ‘notation’.) Lispector also overlooked the fact that, in both an art-historical context and closer to home, frustrated repetition can often become a visual stand-in for that which evades pictorial representation. For Horwitz, it was time, movement, process. For Emma Kunz, whose work currently hangs at the nearby Serpentine Gallery, it was something deeper still.

Emma Kunz, Work No. 012, n.d., crayon and oil crayon on graph paper. Courtesy: © Emma Kunz Zentrum

Described interchangeably as a healer, a naturopath, a mystic, a telepath, a botanist, a prophet and, on occasion, an artist, Kunz employed repetitive systems of circles and lines as a cryptograph, of sorts: a visual code through which to capture and convey the torrent of divine vibrations that she felt pulsing through the natural world. (It is said that Kunz took off her shoes near trees in order to channel the earth’s energy through her feet; it is also said that she instructed marigolds to grow additional blooms.) While her ability, to this end, was miraculous, Kunz gave no credence to the word ‘miracle’ itself. She sensed a spiritual intuition within all humanity: it just needed to be roused.

In 1938, 25 years before her death, Kunz began to experiment with radiesthesia, a technique similar to cleidomancy and rhabdomancy that involves swinging a prosthesis in order to open a channel to the non-physical world. Kunz would pose questions to her divining pendulum and, having traced its swings, stutters and swerves, would construct reams of intricate geometric diagrams in graphite and colour pencil. The resulting drawings were not dated or titled but numbered and, as a result, we remain clueless as to which answer pertains to which question. But we know that Kunz and her jade and silver conduit spoke of nature, politics, philosophy and philology. We know they spoke of human intent.

And we know what form these answers took. To wander Kunz’s exhibition is to pick through a veritable cornucopia of drawings on graph paper that, while bound to and born from the rigid mathematics of velocity, speak of flowers, stars, sea creatures; crystals, crucifixes, compasses; mandalas, shockwaves and twisting bursts of energy that, at times, approximate human figures and, at others, the arcing struts of church windows. In the jagged pinks of Work No. 011, the grinding spirals of Work No. 028 and the pylon-like mesh of Work No. 012, we see sequential lines becoming something other than what they should be: something sweeter, more distant, less known. 

Emma Kunz, Work No. 011, n.d., crayon and oil crayon on graph paper. Courtesy: © Emma Kunz Zentrum

Kunz did not aggrandize this material. (Indeed, she did not conceive of herself as an artist and, confident that her drawings were destined for the 21st century, did not exhibit them during her lifetime.) This was not the stuff of immaculate creation, after all, but a markedly kaleidoscopic form of translation: an ageless and ostensibly untameable spiritual energy harnessed by, and spoken through, an uncompromising methodology of line and reiteration. As Horwitz wrote: ‘The world plays out in an apparent chance that is really a system.’ As Kunz wrote: ‘Everything happens according to a certain regularity.’

To speak life through line; to speak reason through repetition, repetition, repetition. To do over is to remember, reckon with, refine. We repeat to evade the trauma of having to create something afresh, just as we repeat when we happen upon something singular that deserves a second, third, fourth iteration. We repeat because momentarily breaking from the merciless forward-shunt of time might allow us access to something a little more like clarity.

In Archive Fever (1995), Jacques Derrida notes that ‘the logic of repetition, indeed, the repetition compulsion, remains, according to Freud, indissociable from the death drive’. And, while we might project onto it our fears of total dysfunction, what is death but absence and what is absence but a rare moment of pure, unadulterated clarity? Four lines, three lines, two lines, one. Three lines, two lines, one line, none.

Emma Kunz, 'Visionary Drawings' runs at Serpentine Galleries, London, until 19 May 2019. Channa Horwitz, 'Rules of the Game' was on view at Lisson Gallery, London, from 15 March until 4 May 2019.

Main image: Emma Kunz, Work No. 0041 (detail), n.d., crayon and oil crayon on graph paper. Courtesy: © Emma Kunz Zentrum

Harry Thorne is associate editor of frieze and a contributing editor of The White Review. He is based in Berlin, Germany.

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