The Well-Tempered Us
(dmp editions, 2020)
In the first half of the 18th century Johann Sebastian Bach produced the two books that comprise The Well-Tempered Clavier, a collection of solo preludes and fugues for all 24 major and minor keys of the keyboard. It was the first collection of its kind and has served as an important source of study for composers and musicians in the 300 years since. The Well-Tempered Us, the latest book from Taiwanese artist and publisher Son Ni, trades the harpsichord keys for graphite lines, assembling and disassembling them into all manner of new forms that quickly shift and warp as the numbered pages turn, continuing her study of structuralism and serial drawing.
Son Ni’s work, which began as drawing and moved into comics, now falls somewhere between, free from narrative but tied to the timeline, accumulating meaning through repetition and transformation rather than through dialogue or conventional visual progression. Travel (2016) is most recognizable as a comic, with drawings contained in panels from page to page with recurring identifiable characters, the most central being a bouncing golden ball that moves through each frame and setting, acting, and reacting as it passes. The book was printed by Risograph, a Japanese copier that peaked in the mainstream during the 1980s and has since seen a resurgence in comics and zine communities for its screenprint-like ability to layer colors combined with the quick and slapdash efficiency of a Xerox machine. The follow-up book, Eternal Sunset (2017), is a minimalist flipbook, giving motion to the frustrating process of trying to align layers on a Risograph, a machine notorious for registration errors. The golden globe from Travel is seen at its peak in the sky, flickering in and out of alignment with its outline, only contained for a moment at a time. An everlasting sunset, never gone, never rising, always setting. According to the publisher, Son Ni compares it to the titular storybook character in The Little Prince, who could spend days watching the sun set just by moving his chair. But Eternal Sunset is also the story of printing, the tossed-away misprints that pile up only to be discarded, and the layering of inks on the page each time it’s passed under the Risograph stencil.
Following these previous works of serial narrative focused on process and technique, The Well-Tempered Us, tells the story of drawing, how a line on the edge of a comic panel can easily be bent into the curve of a soft body. The drawings have been arranged rhythmically across the pages, sometimes three or four at a time, positioned everywhere from the far corners of the book to the gutter. The page itself is a plane of interaction. Occasionally the bodies are seen in jubilant motion, stretching, and bouncing across curvy landscapes, running away toward an unseen horizon, or slipping into a massive cluster of grapes, where the difference between the curve of a stomach and the curve of a fruit disappears. More often though, the bodies are constrained and pushed into uncomfortable spaces, both architectural and abstract, like blueprints for rooms that could never be built. At some points the figures are able to bend lines to find better accommodations, while at others they seem resigned to their fate, accepting of their cramped quarters. These boundaries never dominate the space on the page. Their limited space is not the result of limited territory. There is always space to expand but the dimensions of confinement have been chosen.
Son Ni’s line is quick and imperfect, slight downward flicks cross points of intersection, others stop just short of meeting or closing a loop. She has spoken about her preference for entirely redrawing instead of digital editing, drawing the same image over and over and in the end selecting the “right” one for her needs. There is a process of accumulation here, even when unseen, that cannot be made through deleted layers or erased lines in a Photoshop document. Like a simple prelude, worked over until the fingers glide effortlessly across the harpsichord keys, there is no room for a reliance on the magic of editing, only repetition.
For the last year Son Ni has been filling the frames of her Instagram page with drawings of this sort, many of which have now found their way into this book. The variation in size between individual drawings on the page doesn’t necessarily point to a to-scale representation of the originals—some have been quite obviously blown up, the rough texture of graphite on paper made visible while other drawings appear small with lines nearly liquid in character. A few erased images make ghostly appearances underneath new lines. Sometimes wrong turns are made, but this is not a sketchbook, not a peek into the private practice. Like Bach’s collection, this book offers a distillation of possibilities. A short composition for each key, a simple form for each line.
The individual compositions of The Well-Tempered Us explore the possible points where bodies and boundaries can converge, a catalogue of tensions between the soft corporeal forms and the rigid constructs they find themselves surrounded by. A two-page spread near the end of the book features a single drawing, a character holding a mirror across their body, hands on either side, with a few toes poking out from beneath. Under the weight of the glass they look down into the reflection of their own mildly disappointed expression. Like every piece drawn and redrawn, the reflection is not exact. By circling the pencil around again, Son Ni has made a face like all the others but she has placed it somewhere new. The boundaries of a panel have become the edges of a mirror pane, round bellies shrink to become the tips of toes and fingers, and a face reflected becomes something new.