The generic self and its adversaries (The Rome Series)

Open end
Resistance increases: Each new series of drawings has a larger format. It is uncertain whether the project can ever be brought to a close. Nine series have been produced so far, seven are awaiting realisation.

The outer impetus
The series take their names from the enemies of Rome, who also structure the entire project – beginning with Brennus, the gaulish general who plundered the city in the 4th century BC, and ending with Vercingetorix, another gaul, who made a final attempt to oppose Roman domination in 52 BC. The enemies of Rome invoke its history, although only the period up to the transition from a republican to an imperial form of government. According to many historians this changeover to a repressive imperium, which supposed its enemies more within the state than without it, was the beginning of the decline; for Robert Harris too, whose novel imperium was the impetus for this work. Raabenstein determined seventeen main enemies of rome in the period from the foundation of the city to Julius Caesar’€™s coup. There is a series of 70 to 120 drawings devoted to each one.

The technique
The paper is initially grounded with a monochrome glaze, and the image is created while the paper is still damp. It is this – that the paper remains sufficiently damp as long as it is being worked on -€“ that becomes increasingly unlikely as the format is enlarged. A thin brush is used to define the outlines of a physiognomy, which is filled in with a slightly thicker one. The mouth is simply marked negatively, as a lack of filling in. This hole – together with the portrayal of the head without any suggestion of a body, and the strictly frontal view – gives the faces a mask-like appearance. Each series defines a physiognomic type, which is minimally differentiated by the individual act of drawing. The play of identity and difference which characterises the individual series is repeated in the relationship of the series to each other, as the same graphic technique is always used. Raabenstein mixes the techniques of sumi-e, japanese ink-and-wash painting, and watercolour, which leads to the overlapping of two difficulties. On the one hand the material properties of the paper or ink condition the aesthetic result, on the other – as is typical for the technique of sumi-e -€“ everything depends on the swift brushstroke. Both techniques share an immediacy that makes correction impossible. It is an immediacy in which subjectivity and mediality envelop one another. The aspect of handwriting is maximised, while the handwriting itself is superimposed and de-personalised by the requirements of the media. The latter occurs through the dynamics of the drawing materials – the absorbency of the paper, for example -€“ but also through adapting the hand to the medium as far as possible, something which in the culture of sumi-e is based on permanent practice to facilitate the unconscious gesture.

Substitutions
The Roman republic is not the direct subject matter of the drawings, but is represented by its adversaries. Also the judgemental juxtaposition of ‘open’ republican and ‘repressive’ imperialistic forms of government, made by Rob Harris with a critical side glance at current developments in the us, the modern Rome, occurs indirectly: Simply through the fact that the enemies without show their faces here, instead of those hidden enemies within, whom state repression imagines everywhere and hence mistrusts the open society. But whom do we really encounter in the drawings? Each series shows the same head in multiple repetitions. their titles suggest the portrait of a general – Brennus, Pyrrhus, Hannibal, etc -€“ but are they not rather portraits of their armies? the sequences of almost identical heads allow both interpretations to exist side by side, thus mirroring the ambivalence of historiography in naming the generals but meaning the collective of insurgents.
However, the virtuosity of the entire work and the handwriting aspect of its execution also latently allow the head to appear as something else: as a cumulative series of self-portraits. The procedure is a ‚giving of faces‘ into which the self inscribes itself. But what does it mean when the effort of completing the drawings gradually becomes insurmountable? That one’€™s own struggle -€“ no matter who the adversaries are -€“ appears increasingly hopeless? Or that one’s adversaries are increasingly difficult to keep under control?
Who defends or takes on whom becomes an open question. Raabenstein envisages an appropriate presentation of the work on three walls of an exhibition space, an entire series on each one -€“ a total of 210 to 360 drawings. Does the viewer, on entering this space, take on the position of rome besieged? Or does the artistic gesture come to the fore, confronting us with the hundredfold presence of the artist himself? Is this a case of the many rallied into a united front, or the multiplied one? Are the images portrayals of others or reflections of the self?

The generic
The work’s generic procedure, for its part, ensures that the content of the drawings becomes as destabilised as the confrontation of image and viewer. The theme of Rome and its enemies is generic in its provision more of a framework within which the series of drawings can develop than the depictive subject matter; the individual physiognomy is generic, seemingly caught in the transition from provisional form to provisional form -€“ like a morphing without aim or outcome; the drawing technique is generic in its strict seriality and aesthetic of blurring; and the working process is generic, as it makes an issue of its own progression – up to the point where it has to be abandoned.

A battleground
So what does it mean to orient oneself within Raabenstein’s in every sense colossal work, with its hundreds of drawings? What does it mean to orient oneself to a way of thinking that can link the calligraphic flow from drawing to drawing, from face to face, with the history of the beleaguered republic of Rome? What motifs become recognisable if by motif we understand not only the subject matter of the images, but also the motivation to deal with this subject in precisely this way? The artistic practice becomes a martial art of drawing, in which self-discipline and technical mastery converge. The graphic performance becomes a battleground, which differs from ancient Rome, however, in that Raabenstein tests his mettle against opponents of his own creation – opponents in the form of self-chosen graphic challenges. The work is also a challenge to its exterior requirements. Because of its monumentality it needs larger halls, in order to be able to show what it is and enable the kind of experience it aims for. And the work is also a challenge to the viewer, who must stand his ground in the face of these hundreds of solemnly frontal, over-coded and under-determined mask-like visages, but also in the face of this massive act of artistic self-manifestation.

© Michael Lüthy, June 2011