Bea Maddock, Being and nothingness by Jean-Paul Sartre 1982, Artist-made box containing 27 pages of hand written text on artist-made paper impregnated with wax. Sheet: 29.2 x 21.2 cm; box: 33 x 24.6 x 3.5 cm. National Gallery of Australia, Canberra. © Bea Maddock 



Bea Maddock’s artist’s book Being and Nothingness by Jean-Paul Sartre (1982) is a devotional work of transcription of a portion of Being and Nothingness: an Essay in Phenomenological Ontology (Sartre, 1943) that pays homage to the philosopher who significantly informed the artist’s interest in Being and embodied consciousness. This work takes the form of a stack of pages that are approximately the same size as a large book. The artist’s script is compact, and transcribed in uniform blocks that are steady and sequential, yet gestural. On both sides of hand-made paper, the text is considered and deliberate, without being calligraphic or decorative. These stiff, yet fragile waxed pages are loose leaf, stacked, and enclosed within a deep fabric covered box.

Such a time-consuming and work is intriguing, giving rise to questions about the nature and purpose of transcription as a visual arts practice. Works of transcription in general, and Bea Maddock’s in particular, establish a relationship between artist and text. This relationship occurs within the object itself, which at once embodies the text in a material object and indicates the absence of its author. The tension between presence and absence that marks Bea Maddock’s Being and Nothingness by Jean-Paul Sartre has wide-ranging philosophical implications.

The philosopher Walter Benjamin implied the embodied nature of transcription, likening the act of reading to flying over a landscape, and copying out a text to being submerged within the landscape, asserting that ‘the power of a text is different when it is read from when it is copied out’.  (Benjamin, 1979:  50)  His account of transcription indicates that while the reader loses structural coherence via the writer’s submersion in the text, they gain a powerful rapport with it, which aids a particular kind of understanding. This understanding is through the body, which Merleau-Ponty designates ‘the general instrument of my “comprehension.”’ (Merleau-Ponty, quoted in O’Neil, 1989: 12).

This corporeal understanding of text through copying is explored further by American art theorist Johanna Drucker, whose discussion of the materiality of the written word gives an account of her own ‘desire to copy marks which already existed, to incorporate myself into them by repeating their shapes in the disciplined exercise of my own hand.’ (Drucker, 1998: 239) This statement indicates a very personal approach to the written word. Drucker draws out the sensory dimension of written language. Writing is here understood as an act of concretisation, which gives material body to a text.

Bea Maddock’s Being and Nothingness by Jean-Paul Sartre is one such concretisation, which has historical precedent. Texts have been copied in a visual format throughout history and across cultures, ranging from illuminated manuscripts that transcribe liturgical texts to the Chinese practise of copying books, and an array of contemporary strategies that either venerate or subvert historical writings. Maddock’s work is informed by her background as the daughter of a clergyman. In reference to this work she says; ‘I decided to write Being and Nothingness out by hand because I’d been looking at lots of lettering and illuminated manuscripts… so it was writ out by hand and then the pages were waxed… They’re to be looked at as they are. Not to be displayed.’ (Butler and Kirker, 1999: 95) On the first page of the object, titled preface, Bea Maddock quotes a passage from a text from On writing, illuminating and lettering by Edward Johnston, which sets out some of the formal considerations that an artist might take into account when crafting a transcription as a visual image. In particular, it emphasises that they should consider the material qualities of their work in relation to the text that they transcribe, choosing their methods and materials sympathetically. Maddock has chosen her materials of paper, wax and fabric sympathetically, yet her use of materials does not literally illustrate the meaning of this text. Rather, her material rendering of Being and Nothingness allows the artist to experience the text sensuously – writing it out slowly, word for word - and to convey that experience of it to the viewer. This is in keeping with the spirit of phenomenology – the broad basis of Sartre’s philosophy - which foregrounds sensory and embodied experience.

Here Sartre’s text is charged with a sense of the artist’s presence that can be understood as a gift of the body to the text. Maddock’s handwritten word bears a trace of the scribe’s body; it a seismographic body register that records the writer’s corporeal presence in the act of writing. This establishes the relationship between artist and text as specific to the artist’s body. At the same time, the text’s material form is its own body, and this body can be touched. In the act of transcription, the artist touches the text in the process of re-inscription. This ranges from being able to see the text, to touching and taking hold of it: to make a visual image out of a text is to repeat the text word for word, and in so doing, move through the motions of what the philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy has described (modifying a quote from Roland Barthes) as ‘ “the beating (enjoying) body” of the writer’ (Nancy, 1993: 193). This repetition of the writer’s movements indicates that transcription enacts the desire to occupy the same space as the writer: to, as Drucker has suggested, ‘incorporate’ them into oneself, or oneself into them.

This desire to ‘incorporate’ through transcription has philosophical resonances. In The work of mourning, the philosopher Jacques Derrida spoke of the desire to ‘take [the deceased friend] into oneself, to identify with him in order to let him speak within oneself, to make him present and faithfully represent him’ (Derrida, 2001: 38). In pursuit of this, Derrida re-read the texts of philosophers and colleagues who had died. In his essay of Max Loreau, for example, he wrote ‘I would like to quote everything, read or re-read everything aloud…’ (99). In mourning, Derrida felt compelled to ‘give life’ to the words of the departed, and he sought to do this through quotation of the texts that they had written, noting that after death it is the corpus, not the corpse, that remains.

In 1981 the philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre died. In 1982, Bea Maddock began making Being and Nothingness by Jean-Paul Sartre.  Sartre’s death – recent at the time of making – suggests that Bea Maddock’s work is one of mourning. The object is aesthetically and conceptually informed by awareness of the author’s irretrievable absence (his nothingness, as opposed to his being). This is established at the outset by its title, which is the first image that we encounter upon opening this book. The words ‘Being and Nothingness by Jean-Paul Sartre’ is written across three lines on the upper centre of the book's title page (figure 1). This inscription names, and thereby acknowledges the author of the text. In addition to signaling the artist’s debt to the text from which the object derives, this stark inscription refers to and reveres an absent person. It signifies his loss, indexing someone who is not present, and will never be present again.

At the same time, Sartre's absence is contrasted with, and amplified by, the physical dimension of this object. Being and Nothingness by Jean-Paul Sartre gives body to Sartre’s text, in place of the absent author, through reference to the body of the artist. Further, it parallels a body in its material structure. The fabric-covered box encasing this work clothes and protects the pages stacked inside it. When opened, its content appears naked, vulnerable and exposed. These wax-dipped pages are reminiscent of human skin. In itself, paper recalls skin because it has a thin, supple and often porous structure that can be punctured, perforated and slit. The pages comprising Maddock’s work are a warm tone and dark colour. When handled, they conduct heat from the body, and soften slightly. They have the sweet smell of wax, an olfactory dimension that amplifies the sensate experience of the object. The translucence and goose-pimply sheen of the wax, combined with the heavily textured paper furthers this skin analogy.

This work is like a fragile body; wax can be both melted and cracked, while paper can be torn. We apprehend this object as corporeally vulnerable; open to destruction at our hands. This vulnerability is a defining feature of the corporeal encounter with human bodies. Upon opening this book, Bea Maddock’s rhythmic and repetitive handwriting recalls the flowing of blood in the veins, and the regular movement of breath or heart-beat beneath the skin. The gesture of her handwriting implies her body. To handle Being and Nothingness by Jean-Paul Sartre, to unpack and read the artist's handwriting, is to enter into proximity with an object that traces and recalls the body of the artist.

Bea Maddock’s transcription of Being and Nothingness engenders a relationship with an absent author, by inserting a tangible form in the space between the absent writer and the present reader. This artist’s book conjures the body by virtue of its form. Books are designed to be held, hence the book is often used as an analogy for the body. Books and bodies have a generic form, and yet each book, and likewise each body, is singular and individuated. Ironically, Bea Maddock reconceives the mass produced text of Being and Nothingness as singular through her repetition of it. This object testifies to the repeatability of Sartre’s text, but is not itself repeatable. It is a unique copy. Maddock’s book is like, but not the same as, any other copy of Sartre’s text, just as my body is like, but not the same as any other body.

While Bea Maddock’s Being and Nothingness by Jean-Paul Sartre lends bodily form to Sartre’s text, the object also indicates an absolute void, which underpins its nature as a work of mourning. The work is corporeal, bringing the text into the presence of the artist and viewer. However, as Jean-Luc Nancy has said, ‘giving presence means giving to someone who is not there something that one cannot give him…it gives to something that, being absent, cannot receive it.’ (Nancy, 2005: 66). This work is spurred by and founded upon Sartre’s absence. However, while Maddock confers new life on the text, she cannot do the same for the author. The object comes up against the absence which predicates it, and testifies to the irreducible gaps between artist, text and author. While Being and Nothingness by Jean-Paul Sartre cannot replace the personal presence of Sartre, its gift of the body creates a new corporeal form for the text, giving body to commemorate a lost body. In this sense, Being and Nothingness by Jean-Paul Sartre is at once a celebratory and a truly mournful work.

Cited references:

Benjamin, Walter. 1979. ‘Chinese Curios’, In One-Way Street and Other Writings, 49-50. London: Verso.

Derrida, Jacques. 2001. The Work of Mourning. Edited by Pascale-Anne Brault and Michael Naas. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Drucker, Johanna. 1998. Figuring the Word: Essays on Books, Writing and Visual Poetics. New York: Granary Books.

Jose, Nicholas. 2009. ‘Australian Literature and the Missing Body.’  In Australian Book Review 313 July-August :  22-24.

Nancy, Jean-Luc. 1993.  ‘Corpus.’ In The Birth to Presence, 189-211. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Nancy, Jean-Luc. 2005.The Ground of the Image. New York: Fordham University Press.

O'Neill, John. 1989.  The Communicative Body: Studies in Communicative Philosophy, Politics and Sociology. Evanston: Northwestern University Press.

Butler, Roger;  Kirker, Anne. 1999. Being and Nothingness: Bea Maddock Work from Three Decades. Canberra: Australian National Gallery.

Sartre, Jean-Paul. 1943. Being and Nothingness: A Phenomenological Essay on Ontology. Translated by Hazel E Barnes. 1992. New York: Washington Square Press

Selenitsch, Alex. 2008.  Australian Artists Books. Canberra: National Gallery of Australia.

 Background reading:

Benjamin, Andrew.  1989.Translation and the Nature of Philosophy: A New Theory of Words. London: Routledge.

Chamberlain, Lori.  1983. ‘How Dead Men Write to Each Other.’ In Translations: Experiments in Reading:  51 - 56. Cambridge, Massachusetts: O.ARS.

Classen, Constance. 2005.  The Book of Touch, Sensory Formations. New York: Berg Publishers.

Cree, Laura Murray. 2001.  ‘Maddock and Macpherson: A Groundbreaking Combination’. Art & Australia 38 (3 ): 377-79.

Critchley, Simon. 1999. The Ethics of Deconstruction: Derrida and Levinas.  Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Derrida, Jacques. 1999. The Gift of Death and Literature in Secret. Translated by David Wills. 2nd ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Derrida, Jaques. 2005. On Touching-Jean-Luc Nancy. Translated by Christine Irizarry.  Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Fredman, Stefen. ‘Not Understanding’. In Translations: Experiments in Reading: 19-24. Cambridge, Massachusetts: O.ARS.

Maddock, Bea.  1996. ‘Saying and Seeing’. Siglo: Journal for the arts (6): 16-21.

Morley, Jonathon.  2003. Writing on the Wall: Word and Image in Modern Art. London: Thames & Hudson.

Schmidt, Dennis J. 2005.  ‘Words on Paper: On Language and Script’. In Lyrical and Ethical Subjects: Essays on the Periphery of the Word, Freedom and History:131-41. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Thomas, Daniel. 1998.  ‘The Elder Bea Maddock’. Art Monthly Australia 112,  (August (1998): 6.

Thomas, Daniel. 2008 .’Bea Maddock’.  Art and Australia 45 (3 ): 352-353.

Thomas, Daniel. 1992. ,Bea Maddock: Being’. In Art Monthly Australia 50 (June):  6-7. 

First published as a peer reviewed paper in Luke Morgan (ed) Intersections and Counterpoints: Proceedings of Impact 7, an International Multi-Disciplinary Printmaking Conference Monash University Press: Melbourne, 2013