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8:10

Art as a Second Language

Drawing is a translation of all my voices and words — an attempt to draw nothing

I write to fill the page, preferably with nothing.

This ambition was in me before I could write. I grew up in a family of refugees speaking Russian, a language that, as my teachers and classmates took pains to remind me, did not belong to me. Over time, it became almost exclusively the language of abuse — only the more perverse of Russian writers (Gogol, Bely, Kharms) could break and rearrange it into new shapes that were at odds with spoken (heard, rather) language.

English, then, came as an escape, a secret code shared between me and no one — not even English speakers, at least not in the form it took through misheard lyrics, approximated words, and half-digested novels. It was a language that could write me, and not the other way.

In Russian, I don’t write at all — if pressed, I will write in English and translate afterward. And when I write in English, it comes as a transcription. Who does the writing, I’m not exactly sure — I think there are a few of them, a family perhaps, some of them aren’t so great, others are getting better, but none of them is me. This is an obvious lie I’d like to keep believing.

Writing in English is a vanishing act—incidentally, the title of my next graphic novel (first plug of two). It’s more a sum of all I’ve read and heard, minced through residual Russianness into an awkward guise of some forgotten bastard child of, say, Joyce and Proust (although it changes daily), who, even if they had a shag (both their relative geography and timelines permit it), would not conceive anything more tangible than nagging disappointment. The aim is to stage, within the privacy of my mind, an unprecedented orgy that will chafe off last vestiges of my own voice and render me anonymous.

The reasons here aren’t purely artistic. In my formative years, standing out, let alone asserting one’s identity, was an open invitation to a beating (or worse). My only wish was to disappear, to seep through the days inoffensively in search of a quiet spot where I could speak and not be heard.

Each summer I go in search of such a place (no luck so far), often against my will and with a sense of dread — an obligation I must fill to live the words and anchor them against the fluff of vague romantic expectations. I relish the letdowns, ignore the sights, and usually plow through dreaming of home, which, in my life of endless rootlessness, is more of an unattainable dream-state than a place of present habitation.

At times I have a memory of a trip I didn’t take — a dream-memory — so I pack my bags and write it, and afterward, upon return, a hefty part of me would not acknowledge, not under any circumstance, that this account is fiction.

From real trips (or trips for which I have the evidence of boarding passes), I bring back only slight inexplicable clusters of words that contain within them the entire placeness of the place, condensed and heavily encrypted.

Chicago, for example, is a woman on the phone saying, “All my friends are investment bankers.” As soon as I heard the phrase, I took out my notebook and wrote: All my friends are investment bankers. On the hour-long walk to my host’s apartment, past the discount grocery, the park, and Dunkin’ Donuts, and all throughout my stay, I kept repeating to myself: All my friends are investment bankers. The woman on the phone would be justifiably surprised (possibly alarmed) to learn that her throwaway remark defined her city more than the Art Institute, the horrid weather, the cakes and the after-parties, all 20 endless afternoons at the residency; more even than even the empanadas, which were admittedly quite mediocre.

New York: A local tabloid cover showing a photograph of tangled hockey players, captioned (in caps) “STRESS BARF.”

Austin: On Doing Nothing, the title of my talk and my eventual book on the artistic potential of idleness (plug two of two).

Bologna: A voice filling my jet-lagged room, “Roman, you’re super-late.”

Paris: Gare Montparnasse; a man, dead drunk at 9 a.m., threatening to bring the sea to Paris from Marseille.

Moscow, meanwhile, is blank.

As for drawing—and I suppose I should expound on that, since it is what I’m mainly known for — drawing is translation, however loose, of all those voices and words; an attempt, futile again, to draw nothing. Nothing — not a blank.

Occasionally, rarely — too rarely — the image comes without a word. It has the sound of a word and is itself a word, albeit a word I can’t transcribe in written language. These drawings come fully formed and effortless, although their significance is clear only to me. To others, they don’t stand out among my other work; in fact, they’re likely to appear a bit more quarter-assed than usual, which is to me a hefty part of their appeal.

I’m not a natural drawer (is that a word?). I never really drew much as a child, less so as a teen, and at the start of my career, at weekly drink-and-draws, I’d mostly drink and rarely draw.

Therefore, when a drawing comes unplanned, unprompted, I can’t quite put it to use as a mere illustration—although I will use it as such right here (context permits). These drawings are a private pleasure—not even the drawings themselves, but the process of their creation, the -ing of drawing, which is, unlike the tortured and protracted births of all my books, like an early morning dream: forgotten on arrival.

I know I cannot replicate them no matter how I try, and facing such impotence before my own creation gives me a bit of hope. Somewhere inside there is a voice beyond my understanding — a voice I can’t dissect and readily identify—and so, for now, I’ll call it mine.

So, yes, it’s all rather mysterious: a series of doomed attempts to move and leave no trace, leaving each time a smaller trace, eventually (never), nothing — if not that, almost nothing, wherein the coefficient of lines and words will be the almost to my nothing.