Nearby the Tiber – For Paula Doepfner

Paula Doepfner rests on a drawing board with her left arm, a pen in her right hand. The board is leant up against the wall of her studio in Esquilino, the district just behind the central station in Rome. Affixed to the board is a large sheet of gampi paper. The gampi is so delicate that the underlay of the drawing board shines through the fibres of the paper. The cotton gloves on Doepfner’s hands protect the paper and ink. She sits on a footstool, calm and concentrated. The sun moves past the windows and comes in through the half-open blinds. Doepfner is writing a drawing.

She looks to one side every now and then. There’s a sketch and an open book on a side table. She made the sketch a number of weeks ago while sitting in an operating theatre at the Charité in Berlin. A patient’s cranium was opened up and the smell of internal organs filled the theatre. The brain surgeon removed a tumour. Doepfner sat a metre away, looked at the exposed cerebral gyrus and drew.

The sketches are now laid out next to her. She’s using them as patterns for her large-format drawings. She sits close up to the board and concentrates on every stroke she makes. The Rapidograph 0.13 she’s holding is the finest ink pen currently in production. The strokes she puts on the paper are letters no taller than a millimetre. You have to screw your eyes up to decipher them. The title of the book next to her is A Radiologic Atlas of Abuse, Torture, Terrorism, and Inflicted Trauma. It’s a guide to documenting the effects of torture. They use X-rays to reveal and decipher traces concealed deep in the body.

There are other books on a table next to Doepfner: Decreation by Anne Carson, poems by Giuseppe Ungaretti and Durs Grünbein, and theory: The Conscious Mind by David Chalmers, a book on the philosophy of mind. Later she’ll take one of the books and write a few lines into her drawing. She often mixes theory, literature, practice. It’s part of her search for subjective experience. If you take just one step back from the board the lines disappear and an organic form comes into view, the sort of thing that often occurs in nature: nerve cells, rivers, lightning.

The studio is small and there’s not much room for her other work, so the next day Doepfner travels to a garage in the south of Rome. The Tiber flows nearby. From her bag she takes pressed flowers, resin and pigment. Leant up against one of the garage walls is a smashed pane of reinforced glass. This sheet of glass is from an attempted robbery in Doepfner’s neighbourhood of Rome. Doepfner fixes the plants to the glass and works over them with the pigment, the cerebral regions from her sketches always at the back of her mind. In front of her she sees the violence inscribed in the glass.

On her way back to Esquilino she stops off at an ice factory. She has instructions, a branch of rhododendron and a sheet of strong paper, onto which she’s written a passage from David Chalmers’ theory on the hard problem of consciousness. The paper and the branch are going to be frozen into an ice block weighing two-hundred-and-fifty kilograms. The block of ice will later melt into a metal form, the plants and text will be made visible again, legible again.

That evening Doepfner is sitting in her studio space and looking at the letters of her drawing. What Is it Like to Be a Bat? In about four weeks the drawing will be finished.

Leszek Stalewski
December 2019

Translated by
Jonathan Blower