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  • Pascal Schwaighofer

Royal Batik

It might be risky and somehow shallow to start by saying that the featured artworks "deal" with traces. After all, which artwork does not? Opening a discussion on artifacts by comparing them with traces might lock you up in a mental maze. To put it simply, should we consider traces to be anonymous and mute marks or meaningful signs demanding to be deciphered? Artifacts, indeed, might force you to decide for the latter, but then we might ask: do they really "demand" such a thing? And to complicate it a little bit, one might continue and wonder: do these signs refer to something beyond or "just" to themselves? The main reason I am cautious is my supposition that in this case some of the questions related to traces have become tightly "wrapped" into a form and, instead of unfolding them, it might be more rewarding to contemplate their folded shape. I am saying this not for the sake of mystification or some hermetic détournement, but because sometimes fossilized "wrinkles" get easily spoiled, and the better way to appreciate their untranslatable sinuosity is to keep them "unaltered." To avoid that, therefore, I will refrain from quoting, and try to contain, let's say, theoretical speculations.

To start with, Sketches for a Flag (Royal Batik) is one of several outcomes of a longterm project with the overarching title Royal Batik. As the name suggests, it has as its starting point the wax-resist—mainly beeswax—dyeing process called batik. The etymology of the ancient craft reflects its Javanese and Proto-Austronesian roots referring to "writing" or "tattooing," whereas the contemporary word is the result of British and Dutch colonial butchering of the original term.

The second work is called La mala mimesis; plaster casts of framed honeycombs. While plaster molding is renowned as the pivotal process that facilitated for centuries—and still does—copying and reproducing forms ad libitum, forcing bees to nest into frames is a practice that allows modern apiculture to exploit these laborious tiny workers also, almost—recent bees' colony collapses rectify—ad libitum.

It goes without saying that in both artworks technique and history or, in other words, material culture and politics, meet and mingle; making a thorough "unpacking" difficult. I will attempt, nevertheless, to delve first into the craft, or perhaps the technical aspects.

For many centuries plaster models were considered in the Western tradition only for planning, sketches, or transitory processes. Particularly for sculpture, plaster was considered handy either for scale models in the planning phase or as molds for metal casting. Gessoes sculpture allowed the Maestro—usually assisted by a number of anonymous apprentices—to better control the carving process by transposing with pantographs the statue's features and proportions from model to stone. At the end of the nineteenth century, plaster was no longer deemed a poor and transitory material and was elevated to the realm of creativity. Before that shift, however, plaster casting had already been popular among physicians, ethnologists, botanists, and zoologists. Casts of fruits and vegetables, [End Page 122] animals, and body parts—particularly those deformed by pathologies or not complying with "Western" traits—were common pieces of bourgeois and Eurocentric curiosity. The early birds, that is, the artists who introduced the casting of body parts in the sculpting process were at first labeled by their contemporaries as cheaters. Among the detractors, one might find big names such as Charles Baudelaire and Auguste Rodin. If we consider their historical context, it is no surprise that the liberal arts felt the threatening pressure of impressive new technologies. Plaster casting was in fact associated with photography: the latter a menace for painters, the former for sculptors. Having said that, the strong resistance cannot be reduced only to a reaction against technical reproduction and loss of authority. To cut short a long analysis, up to the end of nineteenth century, artistic disputes took place in the borderlines of metaphysical debates between "realists" and "animists."

As surprising as it might sound, there is something photographic about batik. By this I mean that phenomenologically speaking it is reminiscent of the photosensitive chemical process. Fabric soaked in wax becomes...