The Weight of the World

Etel Adnan
The Weight of the World
(Serpentine Galleries and Koenig Books, 2016)

“‘I am a rendez-vous of experiences,’” Etel Adnan writes at the start of her book-length essay The Cost for Love We Are Not Willing to Pay (Hatje Cantz, 2011), quoting Nietzsche. Adnan lingers on Nietzsche’s use of “rendez-vous” and the ways in which it conjures the “double attraction” of Nietzsche’s relationship with the world that marks what she calls his great “generosity” as an artist. For Adnan, the job of an artist, regardless of form or medium, is to participate in that double attraction: both to hear and see the world actively, to meet and collide with it.

Adnan has been professionally producing work for more than sixty years, and is commonly described as a poet, novelist, painter, journalist, teacher, and filmmaker. Indeed, the scope and form of her output are so extensive that in The Weight of the World (2016), the clothbound, hardcover catalogue that accompanied Adnan’s recent show at London’s Serpentine Gallery, more than four lines of text are needed to describe it all. Her show at Serpentine, with whom she is a frequent collaborator, marks her first solo exhibition in the United Kingdom and features a range of work from canvases painted in the 1960s to new work completed specifically for the show—a series of oil paintings entitled The Weight of the World, from which the show took its name. 

The catalogue, designed by the famed Swedish designer Henrik Nygren, is, as an object, striking. It features a range of textures: the smoothness of the inset cover image (Adnan’s 2016 painting Le poids du monde 11) sits within a debossed edge that both frames the work and, through its shadow, generates a sense of depth and dimension. Four rectangles, each of rough gray-woven textile, ripple out from the image, acting as counterbalance to the image’s smoothness and calling up Adnan’s preference for painting on rectangular canvases. The red circle at the top of the painting’s image, reminiscent of Adnan’s movement away from the red square that dominates so many of her early canvases, announces that the catalogue will encompass decades of Adnan’s work. Underneath the image, in a debossed font that mimics handwriting, rests the exhibit title and artist.

The text itself begins with a foreword co-written by former Gallery Director Dame Julia Peyton-Jones and current Director Hans Ulrich Obrist, followed by three essays on Adnan’s work: Obrist presents a timeline of Adnan’s life so far; critic Kaelen Wilson-Goldie places the work within its social and political contexts; and sculptor and the Post-Apollo Press founder Simone Fattal offers a reflection on Adnan’s practice. Language poet Robert Grenier closes the text portion of the catalogue with a poem responding to Adnan’s landscape work. What follows then are 104 images documenting the show’s wool tapestries, watercolors, ceramics, Super 8 film stills, and ink drawings. 

The majority of the contributors are established critics of Adnan’s work, but their focus here is one of admiration; the essays reveal the writers’ sincere appreciation of the artist. The order of the essays is fairly conventional, moving from Adnan’s birth to a text inspired by Adnan’s work; at times, they make direct references to each other, and, at others, they tell the same story from a slightly different angle. The echoic effect is one of intimacy, conveying an image of an Adnan who is warm and very human. Wilson-Goldie begins her essay by describing Adnan’s Paris studio, wherein she keeps two separate desks with a small space between: “One desk is for painting, strewn neatly with brushes, palette knives, tins filled with tubes of paint, various trinkets, and a stray roll of toilet paper. The other desk is for writing, and sometimes for drawing, scattered with pencils, inkpots, and charcoals.” Fattal, picks up on the palette knives, explaining in her essay that when she first met Adnan, in Beirut in 1972, she invited her to paint in her studio whenever she had a break from her job at the newspaper Al Safa. As Fattal recalls, Adnan worked “the canvas like a sheet of paper, the canvas laid on the table, using a palette knife instead of a brush.” Adnan regularly finished an oil painting in one sitting, Fattal tells us, and we learn from Obrist that those paint tubes on Adnan’s desk are, and always have been, typically applied directly to the canvas. 

All of Adnan’s work, Fattal proposes, can be separated into two categories: palette knife work and pen work—anything including “the brush with ink and watercolors, crayons and pencils.” The author of more than twenty books, Adnan preferred the paragraph as her primary unit of writing. Wilson-Goldie reveals that Adnan typically writes in sections or fragments of verse or prose that she collects on index cards, piling them in the drawer of her desk until a novel, a collection of poems, or an essay is formed. The drawer collects moments of looking, of listening, of meeting each other in a double attraction, or what Wilson-Goldie describes as “the closeness of how she works.” 

When Adnan quotes from Nietzsche’s notebook in her essay about love, she attributes the quotation directly to him, but Nietzsche’s published Last Notebooks 1888 has it this way: “The little book said to me: ‘I’m a rendezvous of experiences.’” In Nietzsche’s telling, that is, the personified book, frustrated with its reception, declares its position and becomes animate as both site and meeting point. Adnan’s index cards collecting in her desk, a series of paintings, and her leporello notebooks form these rendezvous of experience between Adnan and the world. Nygren’s catalogue design—where the top image of Le poids du monde 11 evokes the Adnan of the palette knife; the bottom handwritten title, the Adnan of the pen; and the space between the two images, mirrors the space between Adnan’s desks—acts as an invitation to meet Adnan across mediums or, as Robert Grenier writes it, “rest in one’s own weight (and reside awhile within and against the heavy weight of the world) and make marks.” Adnan writes that every book has a history and makes a history. The Weight of the World creates a history of some of Adnan’s many marks. 

Contributor

Avra Spector

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