Psychogeography, or the study of the effects of the built environment on the mind and behaviour of an individual, has fascinated artists and writers since its introduction in the 1950s by the Lettrist International and the Situationist International as a means of subverting the conditions that control our daily existence.
The drawings of Farrukh Adnan are keenly and complexly informed by the history and the culture of ruination. His work has long drawn on the more politically pressing contemporary reality of urban planning and public architecture. The political and aesthetic substructure shows through the palimpsest of drawn structures, gestural marks, and glyphic artifacts. At first glance, Adnan’s drawings simply continue his research into the built, unbuilt, and unbuildable environment. Once more, the streetscape is stratified and stretched across vast tracts of space and time; remains of structures remain a key motif in his arsenal of real and imaginary edifices; notorious instances of architectural destruction proliferate, whether the results of natural disaster or military action. But there is a sense too that his intricate representations of ruin have been rendered less easily recognizable, that they have lost even the minimal integrity they might once have possessed and become suddenly more dispersed, particulate, spectral. This is not merely a question of subject matter – of scenes and structures that refer more explicitly to historical examples of ruin.
Adnan’s practice – his sedulous engagement with the traditional typology of ruination, his reanimation of the modern ruin across an unruly expanse of line, mark, and accretion – might be said to court an overt and literal reference to the historical depredations on a site. Indeed, his archival investigations point initially to a familiar repertoire of such images. The carefully amassed source images for Adnan’s recent works reveal a city which Sebald, in On the Natural History of Destruction, conceives as having fallen out of history.
To draw upon such a catastrophe, however abstracted, would be to risk both a historical literalism and an ahistorical universalism. Adnan’s response is, rather, an oblique one. What Adnan conjures is a paradoxically modern city whose very modernity was destined to become almost overnight an image of a vanished past, recoverable now only in the form of antiquarianism.
Adnan has long been aware in his drawings of the extent to which the accretion of images and motifs is its own form of erasure. The cloudlike swarming of architectural drawings has the effect of blurring distinctions between forms and effacing the outlines of familiar historical narratives.
Typically in his work, the underlying lattice of architectural or cartographic forms has then been further confused by the drama of line, symbol and mark that exercise but almost occlude the images beneath. In these latest drawings, however, a new form of disappearance is evident; the artist has begun to erase selected areas of drawing and marks alike, producing an effect that is only on the surface that of an allegorical obliteration or seething dust cloud.
It would be more accurate to say that the moments of articulate erasure in the drawings amount to a kind of restoration of openness, contingency, and potential at the level both of the mark and character and the underlying architectural motif. If there is an archaeology of the recent past in Adnan’s work, it is the archeology of an atmosphere charged with the dust of demolition and rebuilding. There is a new grayness and indeterminacy in these drawings that it would be trite to conclude is merely melancholic or phantomic.
A city is constantly in flux. Its boundaries mutate as it expands and contracts; buildings are demolished or decay and then are rebuilt or replaced. History lingers, with modern development abutting older neighbourhoods or the damage inflicted by natural and man-made disasters – earthquakes, hurricanes, war – remaining as evidence of the past alongside fresh growth. An
archaeologist might excavate the traces of bygone times, uncovering relics and customs of past communities in the strata of sediment that settle amid the new. City dwellers, on the other hand, must live in a landscape of temporal shifts, routinely maneuvering through them as they go about their daily lives. In so doing, they create a unique, personal negotiation of past, present, and future.
In Farrukh Adnan’s drawings renderings of cartographic and architectural plans form the foundation for the layered compositions. Throughout his young career, Adnan has culled source imagery from city maps to investigate the physical sites and less literal structures where social, economic, and political activity unfolds. The areas of dynamic markings that overlay and animate the drawings – strokes, arcs, dots of sumi and india ink – may resemble diagrams of weather patterns or shifting air masses, but to the artist, they signify human activity. He has referred to the marks as “characters,” describing their development as a means of articulating a relationship between the particular and systematic. “I began to look at my mark-making lexicon as signifiers of social agency, as individual characters.” The relationships between the marks portray the interaction of individuals and communities with each other and with their environment. They assemble and engage in dialogue or debate, presenting a multitude of stories in the chronicle that plays out in the image. More recently, as in the new drawings, such markings denote a place’s atmosphere and feeling tone; looser gestures cause them to resemble less figures than forces of energy, action, and intent. As Adnan notes, he strives to create a picture that appears one way from a distance – almost like looking at a cosmology, city or universe from afar – but then when you approach the work, the overall image shatters into numerous other pictures, stories, and events. The viewer pulls apart various facets of the work to piece together a narrative, just as one’s experience of a city comprises distinct moments, scenes, and acts. The physical engagement with the artwork by the viewer, who is compelled to change his/her position with regard to Adnan’s canvas works in order to take in their shifts in scale and layered imagery, mimics the active, perambulatory way an individual navigates city streets.
Adnan’s explorations of the psychogeographic landscape take various forms. Sometimes he produces atmospheric compositions, other times intimate analyses. A cacophony of lines, marks, and shapes may dominate. In other cases, a comparatively spare accumulation of overlapping wiredrawn plans may be primary, with only a slight interjection of innovation into an otherwise nearly monochromatic image. This latter approach, suggesting the ghostly confluence of multiple realities, is apparent in most works.
Frequent encounters with physical vestiges of the past near Multan and elsewhere in southern Punjab encouraged Adnan to contemplate what was once present but is now missing from today’s landscape. The viewer follows these traces to uncover the artist’s methods, a process parallel to the imaginary excavations Adnan himself has performed to make the work.
The layering and partial veiling of information, along with the integration of multiple vantage points, creates a kaleidoscopic configuration that recalls the meandering experience of everyday life in a city. One might feel that one recognizes a building or has a fleeting impression of a familiar locale in Adnan’s vivid, overpowering images – and, indeed, one might. But these sensations quickly recede in the face of the ethereal world depicted on canvas. The multiplicity of marks, of vantages, of representations of space and time offers a reassuring openness. One is inspired by the infinite potential of human interaction and the sheer mass of human endeavor.
Adnan’s most recent suite of drawings does not exactly enact his return to the utopianism of a time gone by. The drawings are too obviously marked by the violence of the modern and, in their gestural expansiveness, too ravishingly at war with the idea of merely representing the history of modern decay. Rather, they seem at once to mourn the passing of a material and visionary reality and to set it in motion once more, insistently telling the story of a certain hope.