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Tracing Plymouth's history through Rajk inspired frottagés

Collaborating with students in Budapest and curators in New York, 'Drawing As Monument and the Material of Memory' was an exploration of László Rajk frottagés by our School of Arts + Media students.

From the 9-20 November, the PS1 Gallery Space on campus played host to the exhibition 'Drawing As Monument and the Material of Memory', a display of frottagés by our School of Arts + Media students, organised and curated by Stephanie Owens, Head of School Arts + Media.

The exhibition was the culmination of several workshops celebrating the launch of Plymouth College of Art's new Drawing Lab. Inspired by drawings and socio-political art of the late Hungarian architect and artist László Rajk, the workshops examined the process of drawing as an engagement with the public realm and as a record of the physical presence of objects, names, spaces prone to disappear over time.

The workshops were led by Stephanie Owens, Head of School Arts + Media, Judit Rajk, Rajk’s widow and collaborator, Hungarian curator Andi Soos, New York-based curatorial researcher Isi Litke, and Valerie Goodman, Director of Valerie Goodman Gallery, New York alongside our Arts + Media staff and students and art students from Budapest.

At this time of global lockdown and alienation from the public square we share with others, this collaboration through drawing connects us across cultures and cities in spite of the spaces between us. As our students go out to touch the surface of Plymouth with paper and pencil, we link historically to Budapest and the particular form of drawing used by Laszlo Rajk who used "rubbings" to remember important sites that would otherwise disappear from our awareness.
Stephanie Owens, Head of School, Arts + Media

Students spent two days investigating mark-making as a primary document of the world and drawing as a tangible record of seeing and of "touching" with the eyes. They were guided via a live online streaming video, led by Judit Rajk and Andi Soos, and in-person by BA (Hons) Painting, Drawing & Printmaking Subject Lead Richard Webb and lecturers Monika Rycerz and Robert Manners, through a process of frottagé drawing in the city of Plymouth that echoes the process that László used as an artist and teacher.

The drawing technique of frottagé is the process of placing a piece of paper over a surface or object and, using a stylus like a pencil, crayon, or rock, to rub over the surface transferring its design or pattern to the paper as a mark.

In his own work, Rajk used this process of frottage to record the names and lives of people who ‘disappeared’ through acts of political or cultural violence. Some of his most well-known and powerful uses of this technique include the drawing record as a rubbing of the carvings of messages left by prisoners of Auschwitz in the brick walls just outside the gas ovens where they met their death; of most of the names of those killed in the terrorist bombing of the World Trade Center in New York City; and recently the words of the Hungarian constitution that were being erased by the regime there.

The project was brilliant, being half Hungarian myself and very passionate about the country and its history it was a joy and honour to be involved in the production of such emotional and interesting artwork. An amazing collaboration with Budapest and New York.
Donna Gilbert, BA (Hons) Painting, Drawing & Printmaking student

Following the workshops, students presented their frottage drawings and their motivations for what they decided to capture in the process to the group, in an effort to address the relationship of drawing to society in the context of contemporary art and recent uprisings around the world regarding the debate about monuments as an accurate testament to the lived histories of all citizens.

Sophie Develay Guérin, BA (Hons) Painting, Drawing & Printmaking Erasmus student, described how the workshops encouraged community conversation: "I really liked taking part in this experience, to share discussions and stories with people of other countries and to discover the work of László Rajk. Frottagé was something that I had already used in my own practice, and the work in Plymouth allowed me to experiment further with this medium. The cover plates of water channels I discovered told me a part of the industrial story of Plymouth, revealing the name of different foundries now closed. Making these rubbings was also an opportunity to converse with people, many wondering what I was doing. Some of them discovered with me the details revealed by the drawings and were surprised to see things they had not noticed before in their own neighbourhood."

Students were encouraged to and guided by Andi Soos and Subject Lead Richard Webb to install an exhibition of their work in the Drawing Lab and in the PS1 Gallery Space on campus. The exhibition included a video of the current student protests and public classes being held at the University of Theatre and Film Art in Budapest.

MA Drawing student Amanda Leman said of the experience: “Hearing about László Rajk’s work and life directly from Judit Rajk bestowed the event with an intimacy that added depth and dimension to the act of drawing. Using László’s technique on a 3D replica of one of his works from a wall within Auschwitz was an emotive and highly charged experience. My practice is rooted within the trace/absence/presence dynamic and because of this László’s work resonates strongly with me. I have since continued investigating architectural trace through the drawing practice of frottagé, this event illuminated how relevant this seemingly simple technique is to my own practice. This was my first experience curating a monochromatic exhibition and one that both celebrates and commemorates the practice of such an important artist, activist and architect. The variety and volume of drawings produced during this event made it a challenging yet thoroughly enjoyable experience.”

The exhibition will travel next to Budapest and New York, where shows will be led and curated by Stephanie Owens, and a recording of the live event held in Plymouth Arts Cinema will be archived at Moholy-Nagy University of Art and Design in Budapest.