The Genealogy of Smoke in Adrian Barron’s Smoke/Sybils/After john White’s Algonquians

By Christabel Harley

fig 1

The combusting houses in Adrian Barron’s series Smoke/Sybils/After John White’s Algonquians sit in ambiguous, darkening, domestic landscapes. In 1  (see fig 1) smoke billows and curls up from the cellar to engulf the colonial wooden frame, lights remain on ambiguously summoning both human presence and absence. Where is this house? Did the inhabitants get out or are they already dead?
Barron’s use of traditional engraving invokes the figure of the professional printmaker; the historical genealogy 1 of this character is conjured particularly through the artist’s depiction of smoke. I want to explore the idea that in this series the processes of the etchings are insistent; the smoke is at once an index of the artist himself 2 , a historical recurrence of the specific material processes of etching in a new context and, I will argue, a source of the feeling that this is implicitly an image of war for this viewer. Wars are waged on villages and in towns and domestic architecture is reduced to smouldering rubble after all.  I suggest that I’m not being told about war but I am experiencing something disturbing, and it is something to do with the smoke.

In these renditions of the smouldering homes that I take to be under attack, I will argue that it is the smoke that produces the emotional affect. How is this achieved? These destroyed homes are brought close because they are blueprints. Not in the sense of being unchanging, timeless, but in the sense of being common to most of us. Writing in the Fifties, Gaston Bachelard likens the architecture of the house 3 to the structure of the mind, it has a cellar and an attic, an unconscious and a conscious aspect. Memory, power and imagination animate it 4 . He links architectural space to existential space; his dreamlike ‘house’ is a topography of our intimate being.

fig 2

So what of the specific topography of Barron’s houses, based as they are on Belizean colonial architecture? They have no cellar, instead an empty space for storage between structural stilts. They are a melding of Europe and the local Belize home, this is significant and with the title of the work, is evidence of Barron’s looping back to the historical printmaker; for this 16th century figure was the first to bring images of the ‘New World’ to Europe.  In his title Barron references the early colonial watercolour drawings by John White and the subsequent corresponding engravings by Theodor De Bry of native New World peoples (see fig 2). Michael Gaudio focuses on the differences between De Bry’s engravings and White’s original watercolours from the 16th century 5 in particular he points to De Bry’s elaborate, graphically rendered curlicues of smoke. Gaudio says such etched and decorative renditions of smoke represented to the 16th century audience the mobility of the interpretive processes and he likens this to Bachelard’s 20th century discussion of smoke as the as-yet-unformed poetic image. I think Gaudio’s comments are useful in relation to Barron for he too uses smoke for its interpretive mobility, the smoke asks us to consider it as many types of representation; as index of the artist’s process and of his intervention, as suitable depiction of smoke and as source of reverie and imagination.

In order to understand Barron’s allegiance to De Bry and his ilk, one could consider another idea from Bachelard: that the poetic image is made anew in each imagination 6. I suggest that the smoking foundations of his Smoke/Sybils/ series occupy the viewer’s mind anew as a poetic and affective image. Because of this disturbing poetic image, the smoking home is index of destruction and rupture in my house; a vivid destabilising affect is produced in one’s mind, a threat that is not habitually felt in this my liberal democracy. For me the work can be said to summon up the un-presentable trauma of war (as it destroys the homes and the minds of its victims) via a poetic etched image of smouldering houses.

Barron invokes the historical genealogy of the printmaker in relation to, among other things, colonialism but we no longer picture and understand the world as White and De Bry did during the 16th century. So how does the printmaker’s art fare when imperialism, in the form of military interventions, is brought to us by the screen? 7 Though Barron doesn’t use line in the renditions of smoke, like that of his historical forbears the smoke is both real and imaginative, trace of  the artist’s process and index of depicted fire, and  site of the artist’s subjectivity, of conjuring and witchcraft 8. Witches are reinvented and dignified as Sybils in Barron’s title, they are no longer the inferior side of the binary Christianity/native magic.

To return my question about Barron’s smoke to our current regimes of representation,  Do Barron’s lines and pools of smoke disturb contemporary smoothed-out and disavowed imperial interventions brought to us by news media? There is plenty of discussion and artistic work on the representational space of the cinematic and digital screen and subjectivity. How do we understand the images and narratives about Post-Colonial wars in other countries when images are brought to us from the nose cones of remotely piloted weapons with no context for us to make sense of them? The image stream of the news is both a screen to project aesthetic digital images of explosions onto and something that hides the specific context of the destruction, the people, the towns and villages. The digital has been understood as non-indexical, there is no physical trace from the object to the image and this has been seen as the quality that lends digital culture a disconnection to context. I am not so sure, images emerge in current discourses, get their meanings from them 9. Our contemporary culture is undoubtedly lacking in empathy but I do not feel that it can be derived from technologies of representation alone. I am not posing the indexical etching as a remedy to the digital.  Instead what we have here is etching re-entering the fray, representing difficult contemporary matters, framed by reference to historical colonialism and operating as imaginative poetic image.  Barron’s engraved smoke caused by acid pooling on the plate has an ambiguous relation to naturalised regimes of representation; the smoke works to disrupt contemporary conventional pixelated depictions and in so doing it brings the disavowed ‘there’ home to me here.


1 Foucault maintains in his essay on historiography that history is discontinuous, originary events (that are understood as the cause of subsequent events) are produced by both Judeo Christian and Rationalist historical narratives. Instead he posits emergences and recurrences. Rabinow, Ed. (1991) Nietzsche, Genealogy, History, Penguin, London
2 See Gaudio on Pierce’s icon and index p 53
3 in mid 20thc European cities
4 See Joan Ockman’s review of Bachelard, G (1994) Jolas, M, Trans. The Poetics of Space, New York: Orion Press 1969, Beacon Press. Ockman makes the point that Bachelard’s imaginary is based on the early 20th c city where stairs are common as opposed to the current dominance of flats and lifts.
5 See Gaudio, Michael (2008), Engraving the Savage: the New World and techniques of civilization, University of Minnesota Press, USA
6 See Bachelard’s introduction to The Poetics of Space
7 Gaudio points out that the in the past the printer’s use of both ornament and smoke played a disruptive part in the historian’s ethnographic discourse, not through any proto-rights activism on the part of De Bry but because the printmaker’s decorative linear puffs and curls of smoke offer a display of the engravers art. An art that is distinct from the more realistic because see-through smoke in the corresponding watercolours of White and in its efforts to produce illusion, De Bry’s etched smoke is both icon and index and this is part of the way they were understood by their audience.
8 See Gaudio p 55.
9 See Ranciere, J (2007), The Future of the Image, Verso, London