Virtually Anywhere: Simon Faithfull’s Drawings of Dreamland

Catalogue essay by Donna De Salvo for Dreamland at Turner Contemporary, 2003


Almost eighty years ago, Swiss artist Paul Klee offered an analysis of the primary visual elements of line and colour in his influential book, Pedagogical Sketchbook. Commenting on line’s potential for dynamic expression, the artist wrote, ‘A line is a walk for walk’s sake.’ Klee’s words are still relevant, and seem an especially apt way to think about Simon Faithfull’s evocative digital drawings of Dreamland. The result of his summer residency in the town of Margate, Faithfull’s drawings – made using a Palm Pilot, take viewers on a walk through the magical theme park that began life in 1920.

With its proximity to the sea, Margate has long attracted visitors and artists. JMW Turner made his first visit to the town at the age of eleven and many of his subsequent works were inspired by Margate’s beauty. Faithfull is fascinated with another aspect of the area, an amusement park whose origins can be traced back to the 1860’s. The advent of railway travel brought an increasing number of visitors to town, leading to the creation of hotels and Dreamland’s predecessor, The Hall by the Sea. The now run-down and shrinking amusement park still attempts to be a world of fantasy, mini-cities in which children can play and adults can revisit childhood.

Produced quickly using a Palm Pilot and finger, each of Faithfull’s drawings is made from life, and constitutes a map of his walk through Dreamland. Like the modern day flaneur roaming the park, Faithfull captures the momentary pleasure of looking. Some drawings are complex compositions, including views of the undulating landscape of the grade II listed Scenic Railway, or the frenetic movement of a car as it speeds along the rails of the Wild-Mouse, or even a solitary person and a gull on their respective perches by the sea. In others, he offers glimpses of life – a half-empty soda-fountain glass left behind, or the incomplete outline of two figures hidden behind sunglasses. These images can be read as pages from a sketchbook, albeit one that uses software to endlessly reproduce and then reintroduce them back into the world. He has said of them, ‘They are distillations of moments filtered through my head, but not my memory.’

Dreamland has many manifestations. As with previous projects, Faithfull is sending an e-mail with an animated drawing to an open list of recipients. The drawings are also embedded in the fabric of the town of Margate, appearing as laser-etched plastic signs in shops and café windows. The encounter with each of these signs replicates the artist’s act of drawing. The installation in Droit House acts as the hub of these diffuse transmissions. Here, the drawings have undergone another transformation as they are translated from positive to negative images and then transferred to slides projected on the gallery walls in random fashion using three carousel projectors. The effect is kaleidoscopic. This installation seems to be a paradigm for the human mind, the changing slides suggesting the firing and misfiring of its synapses, or what the artist has described as ‘the residues of the real Dreamland filtered through my dysfunctional mind.’

At the core of Faithfull’s practice is the hand-drawn line, however, it is a line that has been filtered through layers of technology. Instead of a slick finish, he uses digital technology to produce something surprisingly crude – black and white pixels that retain the idiosyncratic nature of the hand-drawn line. It seems more analogue than digital. By using a high-tech process in a low-tech way, Faithfull retains the expressive immediacy of the hand and the connection between the viewer and recorded moment. His approach evolved in reaction to the excesses of technology or what the artist sees as ‘image overload’, and in the end, he is more intent on controlling the software than have it control him.

Faithfull is one of a generation of artists schooled in the conceptual strategies of of the late 1960s, and the technological developments of the 1980s. He compares his practice to that of Sol le Witt, the conceptual artist whose wall drawings are replicated by a team of assistants. In much the same way, Faithfull allows his line to be mediated by the computer, which translated into pixels, exists only as what he calls a ‘recipe for a drawing.’ This approach lets him reproduce the exact image in any format, to animate it, to introduce colour (which he is doing for the first time in these drawings) and to sculpt with it, to work with space, virtual or real.

At the heart of this and many other of his projects is an artist intent on dissecting how we perceive the world, by using its very systems to create and disseminate his work. Throughout his drawings and sculpture, from Tripod: Requiem for Three Legged Dog to his site-specific investigation, Civil EngineeringTermite Hat Project in Namibia to Dreamland itself, Faithfull never loses sight of the human dimension. He prefers to show us the vulnerability of human existence in a world consumed with the promise of technology. This seems something worth remembering as we take that ‘walk for walk’s sake.’