Etel Adnan

I am thinking about how this might be performed in a room, what kind of cuts we’ll need to make, how we dramatise the meandering loops of our lines, where we collapse into mutual squares of silence? Is the line a manifestation of the infinite, or merely its gesture—and is there even a difference?


1-6 January

Dear Maria,

A week ago I was standing looking at a deep red-orange rectangle oozing from the side of a seawall on the northeast coast of England. Closer up you could see the bank was hardened, compacted industrial sludge, interspersed with coal debris. The local colliery had dumped its waste here as a coastal defence measure until its closure in 1994.

This wasn’t just ferrous earth or rust; it had oil-slick sheen, metallic glimmer, caught obliquely in the corner of my eye as I turned again towards the sea. In the distance, wind turbines are cut against a painterly sky. The intensity of the toxic substance is deeper, with a shine I can’t quite describe.

The crude red of my amateur photos is a minuscule detail observed on and from the ground, in contrast to the god-trick scales of Edward Burtynsky’s aerial landscapes of oil and mines. Yet I repeat the conflicted desires of a toxic aesthetics, the catastrophic imaginary of an abandoned sublime. Consensus is that the tide will slowly erode the seawall, dispersing its chemical and mineral waste.

Would I see the leaking substance as a red square if I hadn’t spent so much time with Etel Adnan’s painting and writing recently? Simone Fattal, artist, publisher, and Adnan’s partner writes:

It was as if from the red square that all the rest of the composition emerged. Around it the world—its lines of forces, the large picture—organised itself. (2002)

Seeking the red square in the landmass before me painfully diminishes Adnan’s work of perception but reveals the proximity of materials in the composition of a place as shifted and mutated earth, powering and wasting the bodies that move through it. The red square is a knot, symbolically overburdened, but also somehow unassimilable, residual.

I think back to watching the industrial leakage, absorbing and absorbed by it, seduced by entropy, the sites and non-sites of Land Art, energy transforming/terraforming towards chaos.

Where would you say Adnan’s work is ‘sited’?



31 January-4 February

Dear Katy,

In my kitchen I have these chunks of rectangular sandstone gleaned from the isle of Cumbrae. In 2016 I revisited for the first time since childhood and discovered a shipyard where all the pebbles of the beach were mixed in with chunks of rusted iron and soft, bleached wood. You rubbed two objects together and they started to dust and moult; I could write with this granular substance. Everything we wrote that day was a sort of residual language.

I’m thinking about what Jeffrey Jerome Cohen says, that maybe writing doesn’t necessitate words and might extend to ‘lithic architectures’ and ‘nonverbal petroglyphs’. (2015) Adnan’s colours as an abstract ‘thick speech’; her mountains languages, her languages mountains. ‘We speak both.’ (2018) What is it to speak red?

In the opening of Sophocles’ Antigone, Holderlin translates: ‘You seem to colour a reddish-purple word, to dye your words red-purple.’ Anne Carson writes that kalchainous, translated literally by Holderlin as ‘to colour a reddish-purple word’, is ‘a verb, a metaphor and a problem for translators’. Carson asks, ‘if there is a silence that falls inside certain words, when, how, with what violence does that take place.’ (2016) I wonder if Adnan’s blocked colour is a kind of silence, the red square as a space for absorption and pause. Or a surge, a lack and excess, a sort of cadmium khora, the spacing of a hesitation?

Red square as trace, a record of violence and yet also an entrancement into richer multiplicity, overflows of desire. Maybe this is what we mean regarding our ethical responsibility to colour: preservation of colour as such, uniqueness in being but colour also as a photic event, blendability, opacities of the possible, between things. Colour as material residue, synecdochical trace of mineral origins: my horror at the toxins in varnished nails.

Adnan says to Lisa Robertson, ‘There are layers of images […] There is thickness. Vision is multidimensional and simultaneous.’ Why do we look for a ‘site’ in an image, what is our need for this dwelling, or point within optic relation?



Etel Adnan 6

24 February-4 March

Dear Maria,

I’ll never fail to be surprised by the difference it makes that it’s light in the mornings again. But what is ‘it’ here—perhaps the weather-worlds of bodies that Astrida Neimanis and Jennifer Mae Hamilton describe as ‘across a thickness of historical, geological and climatological time’? (2018)

Last night I stayed up looking at Etel Adnan’s Oil Fields. I assumed the work was a painting but it’s a tapestry, hand-woven from wool. Are the colours painted on top or woven in? I used the zoom function on the website and I still can’t tell. Kristen Kreider writes of art as a spatial communication event, Walter Benjamin of its changing aura of art in the age of mechanical reproduction.

How close are oil fields to ‘pure energy’? Adnan’s tapestry suggests energy is networked, laborious, an infrastructural aesthetic broken into component colours.

You spoke of ‘cadmium solarity’ and I think of the sun as a protagonist across Adnan’s work, there alongside the mountain as source of energy and light integral to colour. In The Arab Apocalypse, which Adnan began in 1975 just before the outbreak of the Lebanese Civil War, she writes, telegraphically, ‘… a yellow sun a blue sun a black sun the language-circuit has burned STOP.’ (1989) What happens when language burns out?

I perceive what Manuel De Landa calls ‘flowing reality’ in Adnan’s work (1997), but The Arab Apocalypse simultaneously attends, alarmed, to convection at the crust. The world’s end, burning air, ‘sulfuric dreams’, violated bodies, mountains, birds and fish, ‘petroleum’ militia’, sea and plasma, ‘oil wells’. In the midst of extinction, ‘Spring will refuse to come Earth will not have seasons anymore’. (1989) The kaleidoscopic blots of suns in The Weight of the World.

Adnan turns to ‘obscurity’, the obverse of which is ‘luminosity’ not transparency. Iridescence—Greek and Latin—having a tendency towards. Back to ‘flowing reality’ again. Is Adnan’s work fast or slow? What are its colours’ temporalities; are they during or after apocalypse(s)? I think I’m stuck in the khora somewhere.



PART TWO and THREE published 29 and 30 April 2021