When drawing with the sewing machine I am producing a three-dimensional line. The top of the line is on the surface of the paper, while the bottom of the line (not identical to the top) is visible on the underside of the paper.
After drawing for a long time with the sewing machine on paper, about four years ago I started thinking about the reverse side of my drawings as being as important as the front, and I began to look for a simple way to have access to the other side. The outcome was a book.
At that time I was very aware that my research into, and desire to reveal, that other side was part of the heritage of Lucio Fontana, the artist who first revealed the hidden underside of the canvas or the paper. So it seemed natural for me at one point, just for the fun of it, to “transcribe” some of Fontana’s paintings in a book. Why couldn’t I transcribe Fontana’s works into a book made with a sewing machine, just as for centuries musicians have been transcribing music from one instrument to another (e.g., transcriptions of J. S. Bach from violin to piano)?
By perforating the canvas with various tools, or cutting across it, Fontana revealed to us the other side. He opened the surface space of painting, the space that though Western art history supported the representation of everything we knew in our world, ourselves, our landscape, our homes, and also what we believed to be in the other side, beyond our sky: God, angels, heaven and hell.
He did this at a moment when humans, for the first time, were dreaming of exiting the atmosphere to see its other side with their own eyes. Open to the immensity of the universe, the Earth could be seen as one among many planets and stars; an immense unknown space was revealed. The breaking of the atmosphere, the braving of outer space, coincided with Fontana’s breaking through the canvas.
After Fontana, for many artists it became impossible to take the surface of painting for granted. It could no longer be denied that the other side existed, and this was somewhat uncanny. Some artists responded by deconstructing painting, some turned the canvas over to offer the plain view of its other side, some extended their paintings into sculptural dimensions. For us, now, the other side of the atmosphere is not as dramatic and scary as it was in the 1950s. If breaking the atmosphere for them was something radically new, for us it is just the beginning of further exploration. In fact, it is just one of the many limits or “pages” we have to go through to explore space.
As far as I know, no one thought at that time of the implications of the book and the sewing machine. I wonder why. While in painting the revelation of the other side has a very heavy conceptual weight, in a book we can access the other side simply by turning to the next page.
By using a sewing machine without a thread, I am able to perforate a surface, more easily and considerably faster then with Fontana’s technique, but often looking remarkably similar. The paper being pushed downwards by the needle produces a series of perforations that are quite different on the two sides of the paper. Since the bottom of the sewn line is unlike the top one, by using the thread to draw with a sewing machine, what is produced is a true three-dimensional line with a top and a bottom moving through space.
ELENA BERRIOLO is a New York based artist. Her previous contributions to the Brooklyn Rail include: "Why didn't Lucio Fontana use my sewing machine?" (August 2012).