Textile metaphors are often used in daily language, but they also play a role in the discourse of the various disciplines of the humanities. Inspired by Jacques Lacan’s ‘upholstery button’ (‘point de capiton‘), (Lacan 1956, p. 377ff),1 and by the notion of ‘suture’ (Lacan 1964, p. 228ff / Miller 1965, p. 37ff),2 I ask the question: How can rhetorical figures and graphic topologies serve as a methodological resource or stimulus for an artistic process? Diagrams and topologies consist essentially of lines and help us to grasp certain facts or notions or to visualize various parameters and their interrelationships; and they can embody complex thought structures. Even a slight alteration of a component can generate new content. Can modifying a graphic representation generate new questions? What happens when I take a textile metaphor literally and give it a material form? Manipulated by my hands, the topological structure metamorphoses into an experimental tool for reflection.
The project Stitches and Sutures focuses on visually representing bodily sensations in the form of pencil drawings, textile structures and photographs of biological membranes.
Physical sensations, being personally experienced phenomena, are deeply subjective.3 As a consequence, fundamental questions arise as to their ability to be represented. What language do I use and to what kind of imagery can I have recourse in order to make something invisible visual? Is a visual representation of a sensation something that can even be conveyed, and what responses might it trigger? These questions lead to an exploration of experiences of the past, memories and images that serve as a basis for formulating what we perceive. How can experiences we remember be linked to those of the present? An unconscious link is established quasi automatically; but how can aspects of an unconscious process be transformed into consciousness and an active practice?
The project concept stems from my personal experiences of paresthesia caused by what was diagnosed in 2017 as multiple sclerosis (MS). The project’s title, Stitches and Sutures, expresses, on the one hand, my psychological coping with the illness as a metaphorical sewing up of a wound; on the other hand, it is a reference to notions and topological configurations put forth by Lacan.4 Terms that he uses and that refer to textile structures seem to be metaphors at first. In fact, however, as graphic representations, they constitute topological configurations that indicate positions and movements (predominantly) of the unconscious. As structures in space, they are not metaphors; and both terminologically and with respect to structural formation they have a direct connection to textiles. For example, the Möbius strip or the Borromean knot. In Lacan’s topology, this knot, according to how it is represented, can be seen rather as a chain showing how the symbolic, the real and the imaginary, although displaceable and deformable, are indissolubly interconnected (Evans 2017, p. 58f). The Möbius strip demonstrates the intertwining of contraries. Contradiction is on one side of the strip, while always being on the other side as well (Evans 2017, p. 176f).
A notion of particular importance concerning the Lacanian signifying chain is that of the point de capiton (Lacan 1986, p. 179ff),5 a term that he borrowed from the upholstery craft. If this term is understood as indicating a textile structure, the word “point” might be misleading. It is not merely a question of an externally visible point or button on the upholstery. The idea is that of connections of points, of movements and relationships. In its literal sense, the French term point de capiton6 refers to stitches in the upholstery that penetrate it and thereby give structure to the filling. This filling has sometimes consisted of silk waste; but, to this day, vegetable fibers and animal hair are also used as stuffing material.
In psychoanalytical terms, this stitching, linking movement describes the retrospective production of meaning. With an event in the present as a starting point and by means of a figurative needle and thread, a stitch is made into a seemingly insignificant past memory, which thus acquires significance retrospectively. The punctured point is only a more or less fixed link. This continuous process – the creation of a suture – constitutes the subject and connects the signifier to the signified.
If the suture is thought of as being a material structure in the upholstery, the thread disappears completely in the mass of fibrous filling. If, however, one imagines the process in cross-section, the penetrated upholstery – or mattress filling – then it resembles the wave model put forth by Ferdinand de Saussure (de Saussure 1995, p. 155ff), a model to which Lacan refers in Seminar III (Lacan 1956, p. 377). In Saussure’s linguistic diagram, the basic concept is also that of an amorphous mass that needs structuring, the vertical dashed lines indicating the relationship between the signifier and the signified. Both models involve flowing movements that need structuring (Lacan 1956, p. 378). In Lacan’s model, the points de capiton regularly establish the fixed points. The signifier cannot be isolated here; it performs something of a loop; and it is only afterwards – at the end of the sentence, as it were – that the meaning emerges (Lacan 1956, p. 379). Unlike Saussure, Lacan does not see the signified as being directly assignable to the signifier; rather, the former finds itself constantly sliding underneath the latter.
Inspired by these topological structures,7 I transform these models for use in my artistic context by means of a pencil and textile material.8 I take the models into my hands and utilize the flexibility of textiles. By doing so, I am able to turn relationships inside out, shortcut them, knot them, crosslink, contort, intertwine and dissolve them. It is an attempt to create an artistic tool not only for discovering relationships but also of reformulating questions in unexpected ways, breaking up familiar linkages and following the thread of surprising figurations.
Transferring a model to a different context and then transforming it as well may seem to smack of faulty symmetry. What is more, it could appear presumptuous – a situation I could perhaps avoid only by describing the effort as fabulation that takes existing systems as its point of departure and remains underpinned by them. In addition, a new figuration can disengage from its point of departure or develop a momentum of its own. Taking the two extremely complex systems named above, both of which primarily describe movements of the unconscious, and transforming them into tools for conscious action may also seem to be an inadequate undertaking and raises the question as to whether a partially “misunderstood” thought structure can become artistically productive.
A seam or suture closes a breach or a wound; and as Manfred Pabst (Pabst 2004, p. 80) and Karl-Josef Pazzini (Pazzini 2015, p. 169) write in reference to the concept of suture,9 along the edges of the hole that is to be sewn closed, new holes are pierced so that a linkage can be created that will (partially) close the breach. Over and over, the subject reconstitutes itself by piercing little holes along the edges of this gap. The psychoanalytical suture differs from that of surgery in that it is a never-ending process. In order to describe how an imminent disintegration of the subject can be avoided, Karl-Josef Pazzini draws on the notion of textile material and the technique of sewing and refers to Lacan’s signifying chain (Pazzini 2015, p. 184):10
If there were no images/texts – inner or outer – subjects would fall apart. Images sew subjects together and are important for survival. Images are first and foremost models for self-images, orthopedic. Images function as sewing machines by virtue of their very occurrence, their role in projection, identification, gestures, Pathosformeln (Warburg). […] Hence the fascination with image machines, furnishing, as they do, the material and the threads.
In the meshwork of these threads, tensions, knots, tangles and disentanglements, I create links among various visual representations. I go back to my earlier artistic work, work that I produced before I was diagnosed with MS; I compare them with recent drawings that represent forms of paresthesia caused by the chronic disease, looking for similarities and differences. In addition, I utilize images taken from extraneous contexts but that give a good idea of these physical sensations.
Many of the sensations have a textile character11 evocative of material coverings and fibers. These sensations are, at times, deceptively real but also produce a sense of alienation. Whether these sensations produced by the nervous disorder belong to one’s body or are foreign to it remains ambiguous. In order to understand my body in its transformation12 again as my own and to make inner bodily sensation visible, I also refer to my earlier visual representations and found images as well, as a kind of stitching process. Furthermore, “the transfer of disturbing and painful sensations into the pencil line and onto the paper makes it possible, through this transfer, to look at the symptoms differently” (Graf, Altmann, Löffler-Stastka 2022, p. 107ff [transl. B.G.]) and, as a transition from introspection to externalization, signifies a coping process.
The use of textile material as a representation of a physical sensation is combined in the project with the textile structure of a methodological tool. Various seam or suture structures, shifts in relationships, entanglements and even “incorrect stitches” constitute the experimental framework within which questions and meanings are generated. Can a signifier be combined with a signifier, and how might this affect the signified? What does a quilting point (point de capiton) leave behind when it has been removed? What happens when the thread gets tangled or snarled during the sewing?
This contribution shows only exemplary images from the phenomenological archive of bodily sensations, but punctures, so to speak, into the heart of the underlying reflections and procedures. The two terms of my project refer to structuring and reflective aspects of my approach. The Suture serves as a conceptual and methodological structure and the Stitches as a kind of tool. Here, I would like to explain the point of departure of this artistic exploration. When the strange physical sensations caused by MS appeared, it reminded me, with irritation, of the expressions of my earlier works. This might suggest the hasty conclusion that I had artistically anticipated my illness. Of course, as this can be neither proved nor disproved, the question of prescience remains open. In order to avoid the short-circuit of anticipation, but nevertheless, to work with the already developed artistic resources, I introduced a structure of thought that connects experiences of the past with the present through similarity, but also in its difference and even contradiction.
To reflect on ways of visually representing physical sensations and from where the images retrieve their language, I draw models,13 which I would like to describe as methodological artistic tools. The term “tool” may be misleading here since it has no direct application like a pencil and furthermore keeps changing itself through the working process. The drawn models do not ostensibly illustrate a proposition but support the process of reflection and evoke new questions and relationships through the quality of the ambiguous fixations. Reflecting something different from what seems plausible requires a kind of disruptive vehicle to think of relationships in a reversed, twisted, and ambiguous way. Therefore, structures that were initially considered linear rearrange themselves and alter temporal-spatial relationships. This is more in keeping with our process of perception, which is like an inextricable network of wires.
Drawing a bodily sensation can impact the sensation itself, as the process of drawing relates not only to the current physical experience but also to remembering experiences (conscious and unconscious memory),14 and the affective response to the drawing interacts with the corporeal perception. The retroactivity of the suture changes the past and the present, but also influences future experiences. The ambiguity of a graphic scheme can be productive since it also allows seemingly contrary interpretations. For example, an informal laying thread (Fig. nr. 9) can be understood as one left from unstitching a seam (a context of meaning that has lost the importance but still leaves traces) or not yet used (a potential intension). Or a thread that is not tightly knotted can be considered a knot that is loosening or still being tightened. The suturing of images can also proceed via visually similar phenomena, and the meaning is sliding underneath is generated differently and not via the same cause. For instance, the drape on the foot with the biological membrane (SCOBY)15 (Fig. nr. 1) embodies the irritating feeling of whether a disturbing body sensation belongs to one’s own body or is alien to it. This foreign living skin has an appearance similar to human skin. The real sensation of touch of the slippery membrane has little in common with the sensation of touch caused by the nerve disorder, in contrast to the drawn foot envelope (Fig. nr. 1). Here, it embodies exactly the physical sensation of a covering layer, even if it is an illusion. Thus, the connection is not through the real or illusory sensation of touch but through the similarity of the images and through the inverted thematization of the body perceived as alien, but which is one’s own.
In search of images for the invisible, the focus is not only on the inner corporeal perception and its representation, but also in relation to its similarity in appearance with other images (e.g. in the comparison of a signifier with another signifier), a content can deepen or also be irritated in order to escape too firm fixations. Comparable to the game of string figures, in which the threads change sides and sometimes get knotted or unexpectedly loosen again.
To be able to actively intervene in a drawn or textile topology supports the coping, opens up possibilities to understand the physical dilemma differently, but also generates new artistic possibilities and through the linking, merging and shifting of the present, past and future, it is also possible to think artistically what will have been.
Claude Augé (ed.), Larousse Universel en 2 Volumes (A-K), Paris: Librairie Larousse 1922.
Havi Carel, Phenomenology of Illness, Oxford: Oxford University Press 2016.
Dylan Evans, Wörterbuch der Lacan’schen Psychoanalyse, Wien-Berlin: Turia + Kant 2017.
Barbara Graf, “Stitches and Sutures – From Physical Sensations to Forms of Perception, Imagination and Representation”, in: Envelope #4 online open access, ed. by Alexander Damianisch et al., Research Catalogue 2021, URL: https://www.researchcatalogue.net/view/1193650/1264769/0/0, accessed on July 28 2022.
Barbara Graf, Patrick Altmann, Henriette Löffler-Stastka, “Die subjektive Verarbeitung chronischer Symptome und Schmerz bei Menschen mit Multipler Sklerose: Visualisierung und Externalisierung als Ausdruck der Lebensqualität“, psychopraxis. neuropraxis, Zeitschrift für praktische Psychiatrie und Neurologie 25/2022, pp. 107-112, DOI: 10.1007/s00739-022-00779-8.
Barbara Graf, “Stitches and Sutures”, in: Envelope #3, Alexander Damianisch et al. (eds.), Zentrum Fokus Forschung, University of Applied Arts Vienna, 2020, URL: https://publiccolloquium.uni-ak.ac.at/2020/ZFF_ArtResearchEnvelope_3_web.pdf, accessed on July 20 2022.
École Lacanienne, Jacques Lacan, Séminaire du Mercredi 6 Juin 1956 (later published in Le Séminaire,livre III), URL: https://ecole-lacanienne.net/wp-content/uploads/2016/04/1956.06.06.pdf, accessed on July 20 2022.
École Lacanienne, Jacques Lacan, Conférence du Mercredi 11 Mars 1964 (later published in Le Séminaire, livre XI), URL: https://ecole-lacanienne.net/wp-content/uploads/2016/04/1964.03.11.pdf, accessed on July 20 2022.
Jacques Lacan, Schriften II (1960), Weinheim, Berlin: Quadriga 1986.
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Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Primat der Wahrnehmung (The primacy of perception) (1946), Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp 2003.
Jacques-Alain Miller, “La Suture: Éléments de la logique du signifiant, Repris d’un exposé prononcé le 24 février 1965 au séminaire du docteur J. Lacan”, pp. 37-49, URL: http://cahiers.kingston.ac.uk/pdf/cpa1.3.miller.pdf, accessed on July 26 2022.
Rolf Nemitz, “Freuds Polsterstich oder Die Gouvernante“, Lacan Entziffern, 10.10.2015, URL: https://lacan-entziffern.de/herrensignifikant/freuds-polsterstich/, accessed on July 28 2022.
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Fig. nr. 1: Barbara Graf, Photograph from the Catalogue of Aliveness, 2020. Drawing no. 193, graphite pencil on paper, 29.7 x 42 cm, 2018. © Barbara Graf
Fig. nr. 2: Barbara Graf, Drawing no. 246, graphite pencil on paper, 29.7 x 42 cm, 2021. © Barbara Graf
Fig. nr. 3: Barbara Graf, Photograph: Cloth 7 – Suture, 2014. © Barbara Graf
Fig. nr. 4: Ferdinand de Saussure, Cours de linguistique générale (1916), Paris: Payot & Rivages 1995, p. 156. Jacques Lacan, Schriften II, Weinheim/Berlin: Quadriga 1991, p. 179. (images slightly edited by Barbara Graf). Textile Topology by Barbara Graf. © Barbara Graf
Fig. nr. 5: Barbara Graf, Drawing no. 217, graphite pencil on paper, 29.7 x 42 cm, 2019. © Barbara Graf
Fig. nr. 6: Barbara Graf, Photograph Cloth 3 and glove, 2012. Drawing no. 218, graphite pencil on paper, 29.7 x 42 cm. 2019. Photograph from the Catalogue of Aliveness, 2019. © Barbara Graf
Fig. nr. 7: Barbara Graf, Drawing no. 174, graphite pencil on paper, 29.7 x 42 cm, 2009. Photograph Touching the Sole of the Foot, 2017. Drawing no. 196, graphite pencil on paper, 29.7 x 42 cm, 2018. © Barbara Graf
Fig. nr. 8: Detail of the painting Jupiter and Io by Correggio, around 1530, KHM, Kunsthistorisches Museum Vienna (Photo detail B.G.). Barbara Graf, Drawing no. 226, graphite pencil on paper, 29.7 x 42 cm, 2020. Barbara Graf, Photograph from the Catalogue of Aliveness, 2020. Barbara Graf, Sculpture Hand Box no. 9, cardboard, 11 x 24 x 26 cm, 2005. © Barbara Graf
Fig. nr. 9: Barbara Graf, Drawing no. 199, graphite pencil on paper, 29.7 x 42 cm, 2019. © Barbara Graf
Fig. nr. 10: Barbara Graf, Drawing no. 204, graphite pencil on paper, 29.7 x 42 cm, 2019. © Barbara Graf