When I first visited Christian Capurro in his studio I came upon him bent over a desk working. In front of him, a magazine, half the pages blank, the other half typical of a glossy fashion magazine. To one side of him a pile of rubbings. Capurro was partway through erasing the magazine, leaving behind on the desk a growing pile of fibrous debris, a mix of rubber and printer’s ink. Capurro looked up when I entered, reminding me of a file clerk over his ledger.
He and his friends, colleagues and other contributors have since finished and the magazine is completely blank. It is has been widely shown over the last few years around the world, alongside the pile of rubbings. And like a clerk, Capurro kept count: “246-page Vogues Hommes (September 1986), completely rubbed out by approximately 260-odd people: 267 hours, 49 minutes, 5 seconds of work… valued at A$11,349.18…”. The value is the sum total of hourly rates declared by participants whose time was involved, which ranged from zero to $1000 per hour.
More recently, Capurro has been exhibiting a series of erased fashion and lifestyle magazines from 1996/7 (with the covers intact) that he alone has erased over the past ten years. The rubbings are exhibited alongside, in large mounds, and in several cases in smaller piles corresponding to individual pages.
In other works, magazine pages are whited out with correction fluid. Or images incidentally formed on the blank reverse side of pages while they are being erased – where ink has transferred between pages under pressure – have then been whited out.
Other pages have been painted over with acrylic but due to various rates of absorption of the printed page, the original image is seen in low relief. In other works, the surface of a mirror – the tain – has been blanked out with liquid paper blown across the surface, preventing any reflection, any representation.
In each case, the blank pages are not really blank, and the small traces of original ink, or the low, barely perceptible relief of liquid paper or paint, or the various tones of white, or the creases and folds and abraded fibre on each page from all the rubbing or overpainting, belie the significant collective and individual labor involved in removing the image and text. In fact, the constituent materials are the same but for a little added rubber and spirit or some other media. It is the labor, the energy spent, the breathing and combustion that is transformational.
Capurro describes the works as the ‘fastidious labouring of the body against the image’. It’s the hard committed and lowly work of a saint with a higher purpose, which leaves Capurro exhausted – sick even – but closer to God, having realized the error of his ways as a graduate of printmaking and photography. While once enthralled at ‘bringing-into-being an image’, Capurro now systematically un-makes them – calculating, itemizing, documenting and exhibiting the process by which they disappear.
But perhaps it’s not that surprising given the surfeit of images and communications that characterise our ‘information society’, and the key roles of printmaking and photography in the transformation. Since Gutenberg invented moveable type and permanent ink in 1440, information has tended toward ubiquity. The invention of photography in 1837 set in train today’s image saturation. More recent digital technologies have only supercharged the already exponential rate of production and dissemination. Today the world’s fastest camera takes 4.4 trillion frames per second and Google is on track to convert the world’s 129,864,880 unique books into electronica by 2020.
Some suggest there is less and less significance attached to more and more information. “Information dissolves meaning and dissolves the social”, said Jean Baurillard. And of course Capurro’s specific target in this “ecstasy of communication” is lifestyle and fashion magazines, which do not encourage learning and understanding (the original higher purpose of Gutenberg’s revolution) but our most excessive aspirations, which sustain a new information economy. From fashion apparel to white goods to porn our desire for one thing or another keeps pages like these turning.
And so 246 blanked-out pages can seem like a small, defiant gesture in light of the information overload, a symbolic act to restore human scale and values, to question the importance of so much media and information, to remind us of the difference between what is real and what is fantasy, between what is palpable in our lives and what is just pulp-able.
Since between 25-50% of publications are remaindered or pulped, taking just 10 out of circulation has practically no effect. But when you view these disemboweled magazines (their ‘insides out’ as Capurro puts it) lying on a slab in a gallery that feels more like a mortuary, the dramatic display of their undoing seems like a public demonstration of justice, with Capurro as reformer warning all: this is the fate of the mass-media image.
Indeed, Capurro honors another modest reformer in the ongoing title of his project: Etienne Silhouette, the parsimonious French finance minister who not only saved the country from bankruptcy by taxing the rich but who became synonymous with the popular and inexpensive art of blank paper cut-outs.
Further, Capurro himself was leader of the Free Pencil Movement, a successful attempt in 2004 to repeal state gallery policies prohibiting sketching with pen or pencil at exhibitions.
Perhaps Capurro is a new kind of iconoclast reforming the excesses of the information age; he prefers a pencil drawing from life to a blank slate, but prefers a blank slate to a fashion plate. By the heat of a human body opposed to the frivolous image, or, in some other other works, by the very breath we exhale, he and his band have brought glossy advertising and media undone, leaving the page bare – free for more vital inscriptions.