To isolate line as sufficient subject for particular attention is to recall something of the formalist preoccupations of the twentieth century. At the Bauhaus in Weimar in 1921, Paul Klee described line as 'the most primitive of elements', and famously took it for a walk.1 Klee's line could be anything: it could be figurative, abstract or (more commonly) somewhere between the two; it could be drawn with a ruler or (more commonly) freehand. Whatever it might stand for, it was always also just itself.
Again in 1921, but this time in Moscow, the Constructivist artist Alexander Rodchenko published a booklet called, simply, The Line.2 Like Klee, Rodchenko claimed to have emancipated line from any subordinate role in visual description. On the cover of his booklet was a single ruled diagonal line. Rodchenko's line never stood for anything else: it was only ever itself, and thus an element within a pictorial construction. There were other differences: Rodchenko's line was ideologically committed (to the Russian Revolution and to the development of visual language somehow equivalent to it) and urgently modern; Klee's line resisted ideology, and would be instead released from all but timeless, natural principles. The potential claimed in and for each line was different: Rodchenko's was calculated - produced with pen, rule and compass - and depersonalised. Klee's was unexpected - created by the exercising of a freely wandering point - and singular. Above all, perhaps, Rodchenko's line was real and therefore present; Klee's was the consequence of a process, the record of an action, and therefore the material trace of something that had occurred in the past.
Do either or both of these modern lines extend to the contemporary? The answer is that Klee's probably does - it is still strolling, as it always has been and always will - but Rodchenko's does not, having been deflected by the course of twentieth century history. Within contemporary practice, Santiago Sierra maintains Rodchenko's rejection of art's claim to reproduce nature, and likewise has no interest in pictorial problems, but, in tattooing a 30cm vertical line on the back of a (barely) remunerated individual - as was performed in Mexico City in 1998 - Sierra is inscribing a different line than that constructed by Rodchenko. In 1999, Sierra hired (for 30 dollars) six unemployed young men from Old Havana to be tattooed. This time the line tattooed on their backs measured 250cm when stood side by side. Most infamously, in Salamanca in 2000, Sierra hired four prostitutes to be tattooed. Their pay was calculated according to the local cost of a shot of heroin. Both Sierra and Rodchenko provoke on a material and political level, but the universal, socialist line drawn by Rodchenko has become, in Sierra's practice, a global, capitalist line. Sierra's line asserts economic power of one party over another, and thus separates. Such is the nature of globalisation, and what distinguishes it from the universal rights promised by modern internationalism.
The global has superseded the universal. Gone too, apparently, is Rodchenko's belief that line could function as the primary element in the construction of anything whatsoever. Lines are now at best contingent, and at worst arbitrary political designations of zones of control and power (or absence of control and power). Rather than join disparate points, political lines are now more likely to divide them. As a consequence, perhaps, few artists today seem terribly interested in the formal commitment or the political ambition of Rodchenko's line, and few are prepared to draw as uncompromising, provocative and brutal a line as Sierra. More seem interested in a subjective, organic, unmediated line that, like Klee's, innocently travels without any assumption of precision. Lines are now more likely to be found, recovered or revealed, than created, produced or imposed.
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