Detail drawing Thomas Palme

“Memory is not an instrument for exploring the past but its theatre.”
Walter Benjamin

Over the last few years, the fine arts seem to have recovered their past glory. In today’s Western societies in which images and information are being produced and consumed at an exponential pace, some still seem to keep faith in the originality and truth- value of the creative task and its product: the work of art. This apparent revival of the ethic and aesthetic Modernist judgment and theory would function as a perfect background to the understanding of Thomas Palme’s drawings as sequels of the so-called, nineteenth century, art de fin de siècle. The femme fatale seems to play a major role; the material sincerity of the charcoal on the blank paper and the creation of a personal style and symbolic language; all these elements take up and reinforce the thematic and technical precepts of l’art pour l’art. Thomas Palme’s bodies are majestic death-like figures adorned by burdening prostheses. These tumors that have grown in place of their extremities have the symbolic shape of crosses and skulls and intimate the weight of guilt and shame. Written banners unroll along their flanks and above their heads. There is an unavoidable fascination at looking at these mysteriously labeled beings that appear to have been pinned up as insects, rather than merely drawn. Their tormented appearance and resistance to delivering us their meaning would corroborate the Modernist myth of the artist featured as social outcast and keeper of some higher secret.
 However, it is also possible to apprehend Thomas Palme’s drawings according to other parameters. When comparing their forms, symbols and one-liners to spatial coordinates, references and indices, Thomas Palme’s drawings reveal themselves as territorial maps that can be deciphered. This space at which Thomas Palme’s drawings point is the site from which memory is being questioned and where the very excess of artistic production and falsification of documents become strategies to reflect on questions of identity. Thomas Palme’s drawings challenge the very notion that an objective knowledge about the past is possible and reveal memory’s crucial mediating function in inventing this past. Ultimately, the very constructed nature of both Thomas’s drawings and memory reveal their importance in helping creating the person we choose to be –our preferred identity.

At the turn of the twenty-first century, Thomas Palme is able to produce no less than four thousand drawings in one single year. A quantity that largely outnumbers the total sum of the life production of most of the Modern masters that his oeuvre seem to reference and hybridize –Félicien Rops, Edward Munch and Egon Schiele to only name a few. This frenetic activity that can be said to parallel Thomas’s personal urge to document his life experience can also reveal the obsolescence of this very idea and process. On the one hand, the drawings display a spontaneous energy. The lines seem to have been quickly drawn and the compositions always look simultaneously achieved and fortuitous. These elements would corroborate and authenticate the hypothesis of taking Thomas’s drawings in their whole as constituting a graphic diary. However, most of the representations around which the drawings are organized –sometimes the representation of a famous author or most often of a woman—take their cue in other fixed representations as bill-board advertisements and ‘official’ portraits. Thomas’s drawing ‘re-present’ images that are already peculiar constructions, public representations of their subject. They constitute representations of representations –reinterpretations of what has already been interpreted. Strictly speaking these works therefore do not constitute a diary. They do not document any actual encounter, but rather mirror Thomas’s desire for such encounters. They display fantasized emotions and imagined relationships between Thomas and the images of people and personalities –the recreation of non-existent relationships. In this light, what seems to be the scan of past events becomes the archive of possible futures –the marker of desire. The drawings and memories themselves subsequently appear as reflections of present interests; the past appears less as the deposit of some truth to research and preserve than as the kaleidoscopic projections of interests rooted in the present. The apprehension of Thomas Palme’s drawings as constructions of an experience-to-come highlights the importance of memory as a device for creating identity. Memory is the hollow show-device that gives legitimacy to our actions and thereby defines who we are. Understanding memory as an instrument that mediates experience, it is possible to reconsider the very legitimacy of the choices that pave our existence. Taken-for-granted norms and values are being challenged, since their grounds appear to have never been firm in the first place. Furthermore, the quantity of drawings produced by Thomas deprives them of any ‘truth’ value. In the same way as they can be flapped through in a continuous flow, each drawing seems to call for the existence of another one. When apprehended as attempts to capture some past essence, each of the drawings comes to account for the failure of such an enterprise. Their meaning seems to endlessly be deferred, constantly slipping away. Together these drawings form a machine that actualizes itself thanks to its very inability to function, mirror of the human memory that relies on the very selection and destruction of its own material.

As a conclusion we might say that whether one wants to see an authentic exegesis of Thomas Palme’s emotional life in his drawings or something else, his graphic work keeps on fascinating and puzzling. By asking questions about the conditions of access to the territories of the past or about the privileged and outcasts of our history, Thomas Palme’s ‘drawing machine’ challenges our action and thinking habits. It offers us the chance to change the track of our own memory.

Catherine Somzé, Amsterdam 2006

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