In a Nutshell: Durvasula’s Sound Picture

Welcome back to the ‘In a Nutshell’ section. This is part of an ongoing project in collaboration with King’s College, London to engage with artists (by interviewing them) and to present the content with a brief introductory summary that contextualizes the artist’s work within current philosophical debates.

Our second interview features Nicola Durvasula. Nicola was born in Jersey, Channel Islands, and studied Fine Art at the Ecole des Beaux Arts du Havre, France, and Kent Institute of Art and Design. During the 1980’s, she lived and worked as an artist in Paris, then moved to Hyderabad, India, where she lived for ten years, and was lecturer in Fine Arts at Sarojini Naidu School, University of Hyderabad. Her work, over the past thirty years, has made multiple references to South Asian culture, including Miniature Painting and Indian temple sculpture as well as Eastern philosophy, elements she has juxtaposed within a Western aesthetic tradition. Durvasula has held solo shows at Galerie Mirchandani + Steinruecke, Mumbai; Thomas Erben Gallery, New York; Rachmaninoffs, London; and Nature Morte, New Delhi among other galleries. She has participated in numerous group exhibitions, among them ‘The Museum of Rhythm’, Muzeum Sztuki Lodz, Poland; ‘Thinking Tantra’, Drawing Room; London, Kochi-Muziris Biennale in Kochi, Kerala; ‘The Sahmat Collective: Art and Activism in India since 1989′ at the Smart Museum, Chicago (2013); and ‘Watercolour’ at Tate Britain, London (2011).

Nicola Durvasula lives and works in Walmer, U.K.

Nicola Durvasula | King’s Cultural Institute | CPVA

The Philosophy of Expression in Art

Whose music is more stirring, Nina Simone or Justin Bieber? We might disagree as to who we prefer, but we are likely to agree that music is stirring. In fact, music is considered by many to be the most effective artistic medium for expressing and eliciting emotions. Yet, philosophers remain puzzled as to how to explain this. One answer, a popular one, is that music is expressive because it shares a ‘contour’ with our emotions and so we experience it as resembling our emotions. According to Peter Kivy (1990), music has special properties which we are correct to hear as being sad or happy in virtue of our proclivity to anthropomorphize them. An alternative account from Stephen Davies (1994) suggests instead that we entertain an experienced resemblance between musical sounds and emotional expressions – such as squealing, sighing or walking in a depressed slow gait. Recently, a more biological account has been put forward by Mitchell Green (2008) who identifies links between our senses and the feel of our emotions. He argues that some visual experiences can map directly to the physiological profile of our emotions – for example, the sensation (or quale) that we get from yellow things is sufficiently like ‘what it is like’ to feel’ cheerfulness’ to be experienced as resembling it. This explains why, for most people, the look of yellow seems to resemble some sounds more than others and psychologists have conducted studies which reveal a tendency to match yellow to piccolo sounds (rather than say to the sound of a dog’s bark). For this reason, Green argues that despite our senses being associated with one sensory character (visual, auditory, haptic, gastronomic and so on) the different senses may have in common or share their qualitative character, which in turn explains why auditory words of art can stimulate multi-sensory responses.

An art-form that speaks to this philosophical hypothesis is the graphic notation. This is a representation of music using visual symbols (pictures) instead of musical notations. Earle Brown and John Cage used them for their experimental musical works and more recently many of Nicola Durvasula’s drawings have been performed . Her fine line graphic notations are influenced by the experimental composer Cornelius Cardew and her mentor John Tilbury.

We caught up with Nicola to share some ideas.

  • VB: Vanessa Brassey (Philosophy, King’s College, London)
  • ND: Nicola Durvasula (Artist)

Transcript excerpts from Interview

VB: Hello Nicola, thank you for meeting us on this extremely hot day in Central London to talk about your Graphic Notations.

ND: Thank you for inviting me. I’m looking forward to talking about them, mainly because I have never really thought about these works philosophically. The experience of making them is quite spontaneous and once they are done, I ‘hand them over’ – much as I was encouraged to do by my musical mentor John Tilbury. So I’m intrigued as to how this might go.

Untitled (Interlude), 2015.jpgUntitled ‘Interlude’, 2015 Watercolour, pencil on paper © Nicola Durvasula

VB: Well, in that case, a good place to start might be to talk a bit about how you started making these.

ND: I think they were a progression and response to my own artistic development. Although I’m known as a visual artist [Durvasula is represented and sells internationally, has exhibited at the Tate Britain, and is a highly valued teacher at the Royal Drawing School] I also studied music from an early age. Funnily enough I was good at sight-reading, but increasingly felt constrained and governed by a Western musical system with its multitude of notes. It was John who suggested I look into the idea of graphic notations – to build a creative connection between art and sound and liberate my musical practice.

VB: So, how do you make them? Do you paint something with a sound in mind?

ND: The process of making can vary, the ones that were exhibited in the Drawing Room were quick, they all ‘appeared’ within the space of an hour. There’s an energy in the lines and that energy came out quite unprompted. My interest in the concept of line is central to my visual practice and is connected to the idea of creating form. Overthinking or laboring the process can just interrupt the moment, and inhibit the quality of a line. Quieting all the thoughts down is a big part of getting into the right zone for drawing. I guess that much of my method is influenced by the many years I spent living in India and the kinds of concepts that permeate that culture. In many ways, it is at odds with the traditional Western style of careful, imitative, perspective bound drawing which attempts to capture on paper something that describes the outer forms of objects. Traditional Indian drawing and sculpture in contrast, is more concerned with conveying inner forms or shapes that link to what we might call our consciousness (I use that term non philosophically)…a ‘truth of feeling’, a capturing of the non material essence of a thing…without necessarily having to look at it or ‘check’ it against some object sitting in front of you.

Nicola Durvasula 'Brockley Variation' watercolour, gouache, pencil on paper 2014, 'Thinking Tantra'    .jpg‘Brockley Variation IX’ watercolour, gouache, pencil on paper 2014 – ‘Thinking Tantra’, Drawing Room, London 2016/17 © Nicola Durvasula

VB: How does this interest in the line influence the graphic notation drawings?

ND: I’ve always been deeply interested in the nature of line. For instance, what went on in the head and/or heart of the very first man (or woman) –the Caveperson – when they created a line which had the ability to ‘stir’ another? I think this is fundamental to what drawing is, or can be. The way in which I draw is visceral, immediate and there is a certain sensuality in the curvilinear qualities of the lines. I’m quite intrigued by the idea that these could actually be connected to our sense of movement or other sensory capacities. That seems to make sense on one level. On another, it’s not as if I consciously hear sounds when I’m drawing.

Untitled (क्षण), 2015.jpgUntitled (क्षण), Watercolour, pencil on paper, 2015 © Nicola Durvasula

VB: We talked earlier about some of the philosophical explanations offered for why lines/colours or shapes might be stirring. That it’s a kind of hardwired common or garden synaesthesia, connecting our senses. Does that kind of idea resonate with you?

ND: Yes, although I’m not synaesthete (as far as I know) I do intuitively feel that one or more senses can merge and emerge as one. Also I’m fully aware that emotions can colour our view of the world and shape our thoughts. The Russian composer Scriabin, at the end of his life, was working on a seven-day-long, multi-sensory spectacle to be performed at the foot of the Himalayas. I like that idea.

VB: Do you respond to some internal sound when you draw the notations?

ND: Perhaps on a subtle level it’s there, feeding into my work or vice versa. Yet, on the surface the process is seemingly silent. It’s always interesting to see how a performer subsequently responds to the work and each time it seems just right, without being too predictable. I don’t think for instance, ‘this mark will sound like that’ as that could bring in the idea of outcome and with that, an audience, which could ultimately corrupt the creative flow.

VB: Why is that?

ND: I’m not sure, maybe it’s to do with feeling intruded upon. When I left art school, my sketchbooks generated a great deal of interest, I guess they were quite unusual. I read widely and would be working on ideas from life, art history and my imagination continuously. Anyway, one day I was invited to exhibit them, which meant removing each page and framing it. Unfortunately this act almost put an end to the intimacy I once felt between myself and the page. I became conscious of end result/audience and it all felt too contrived.

VB: Do you think recent trends to ‘show it warts and all’ in the media are encouraging a lack of privacy?

ND: Yes, maybe. About 10 years ago I produced a work, inspired by Malevich, called ‘No Search’. It was a framed square of black glass – like a phone/laptop screen switched off. I felt that all this searching was missing the point.

n durvasula 'no search', glass, steel frame, 2012.jpg
‘No search’, glass, steel frame, 2012 © Nicola Durvasula

VB: That’s intriguing. Do you often play with words and image like that?

ND: Not so often these days, but I used to. In the late 1990’s, I was working on a series of fine lined drawings when one of my eyelashes fell, by chance, on the empty sheet of paper. I copied the lash with a tiny stroke and added the title ‘death of an eyelash’ I was interested in the idea of a single, small line becoming an object in itself, in this case an eyelash. I was reminded that a drawing is just one or a series of strokes, for example like the kind of strokes Rembrandt immortalised in his etchings. The graphic notations have helped me to use line in a completely abstract way in which perhaps the sound becomes the immaterial object…perhaps this takes me to a another level.

n durvasula 'death of an eyelash' watercolour, pencil on paper 1999.JPG

‘Death of an eyelash’ watercolour, pencil on paper 1999 © Nicola Durvasula

VB: Could you say how the sculpture/ceramic notation relates to the graphic notation?

ND: Well, it’s still a notation with similar shapes and lines except here the notation can be read and interpreted from a three dimensional form rather than from a flat surface. The performer can physically move around a sculpture or a bowl and have multiple view points therefore allowing a less static way to shape space with sound. I am reminded of a book which inspired me decades ago, in its examination of dimensions; Edwin Abbotts 19thc novel ‘Flatland’

n durvasula Untitled (मौन) 2018 .JPG
Untitled (मौन) 2018, Glazed stoneware © Nicola Durvasula

VB: What about when you perform one of your own notations. What’s that like?

ND: Well, oddly, I never have.

VB: Oh, now I’m surprised. You’re a musician. Are you not intrigued to see what your interpretation would be?

ND: Yes, definitely. Now you mention it. Maybe I’ll do the first performance with you guys at King’s.

VB: We’d love that! Let’s sort it out.

Further Reading

ADAJIAN, T. 2006. Visual music: Synaesthesia in art and music since 1900 edited by brougher, Kerry, Olivia mattis, Jeremy Strick, Ari Wiseman and Judith zilczer. Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 64, 488–489.

GREEN, M. 2008. Empathy, Expression and What Artworks Have to teach, in Art and ethical criticism ed Hagberg, G. pp.95-122, Oxford, Blackwell.

IONE, A. 2004. Klee and Kandinsky polyphonic painting, chromatic chords and synaesthesia. Journal of Consciousness Studies, 11, 148-158.

MATRAVERS, D. 1998. Art and emotion, Oxford, Clarendon Press. Excellent overview of the philosphical terrain and the only plausible defence of the so-called Arousal Theory.