Fantastic voyage: The strange journey of a graphite pencil

I have a fond memory of my mineralogy class in university: it was a lab session in which we were studying metamorphic minerals and were presented with boxes of samples to identify. My eyes gravitated towards a darkish silvery lump that was so soft its residue rubbed off on your fingers. Taking the specimen, I started sketching with it in the margins of my notebook since I didn’t need to look up the characteristics of this particular mineral in order to identify it—I knew it was graphite.


Graphite sample (Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons and USGS)

Graphite is the topic of a new exhibition at GV Art, a London art gallery that specialisesin work sitting at the art/science interface. The Graphite proposition is a powerful one since the graphite is an indispensable tool for almost any working artist, and is also an incredibly interesting material in its own right. Made entirely of sheets of hexagonally arranged carbon atoms, the weak bonds between the sheets allow the layers of carbon to slip by each other when you press a pencil to paper, leaving a mark. It is also this property that makes graphite an incredibly good industrial lubricant and electrical conductor.


The exhibition explores the visual aspects of graphite—scientific, artistic, and those falling somewhere in between—and there are a range of interesting works in the exhibition, from thin sections under a microscope to a fun interactive pencil sculpture and some delicately executed drawings. However, I would like to focus on the work by Anais Tondeur, which I found particularly interesting and moving, as it engaged with graphite poetically and intelligently as an artistic medium, while also actively exploring its nature as a geologic material.


Through an installation of drawings, maps, and a real quasi-anatomical-geological specimen, Tondeur tells an interesting story: early last century, a young French girl swallowed a pencil and survived to tell the tale. Ultimately, she—and the pencil—travelled to London, where doctors removed the writing implement in 1914. Tondeur simultaneously imagines, unravels, and explores the story of how the girl first came upon the pencil and the strange journey that they undertook together.


Anaïs Tondeur, I.55 from the series: Graphite Geologic Veins, graphite on arches paper, 6 x 16 cm, 2012. Image courtesy of the artist & GV Art, London.

Working with geoscientists, Tondeur takes this story as a launch point for exploring the nature of graphite, tracing Carboniferous coal-bearing seams to an area of contact metamorphism at the entrance of a mine containing graphite (graphite is often formed by contact of coal seems with hot fluids or magma). Part historical research, part geologic exploration, and all tied together by an imaginary (but not entirely imaginary) narrative, the artist presents this story with some delicate graphite drawings, a map of the girl’s and the pencil’s journeys, and the pencil itself, which is on loan from St Bartholomew’s Hospital in London.


I find this piece of work deeply appealing, as it elegantly connects the geologic history of southern France to an unlikely human narrative. While I may be seeing what I want to see in this work, I feel that there are echoes of the great land artists Richard Long and Robert Smithson. Working both in the landscape, as well as the studio, Long and Smithson imbue a certain narrative on the land through their conceptual studio-based works; and so too it is with this work by Anais Tondeur.


Despite my interest in art that engages with science, I find that sci-art can often be mediocre, didactic, too… concrete… and not always terribly sophisticated. I was therefore happy to find that this work in Graphite really touched me: Tondeur explores graphite from an unexpected angle, imbuing an unsuspecting scientific specimen with a narrative all its own. Here we can see the real beauty of what art can contribute to science; in coming at science from a tangent, she makes us think a bit differently about the world around us.

Graphite is on view at GV Art 5 October – 8 December 2012. The full story of this fantastical graphite pencil can be found in the Graphite exhibition catalogue.

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3 Responses to Fantastic voyage: The strange journey of a graphite pencil

  1. Old Geezer says:

    Johanna –

    It having been a long time since I spent five years in art school, I thought I had finally recovered from the jargon infusions I was exposed to there. Having just read the artist’s statement in the exhibition catalog, I am having terrible flashbacks. I’m pretty sure what she was saying is that if you scratch the graphite (or really any other material) it will vibrate in a manner that microphones can detect sounds and software can translate those sounds into images. Is that about it?

  2. Johanna Kieniewicz says:

    Yes, that’s my understanding– they have a large number of implements that she (and visitors on the private view night, I think) used to create vibrations in the graphite that were picked up by computeres and visualised. My understanding is that due to its chemical structure, graphite has some interesting accoustic properties that result in the patterns shown in the catalogue.

  3. Old Geezer says:

    Johanna –

    Without belaboring the point (which I fear I already am doing) what I was trying to point out in two or three simple sentences was that all that long, jargon-filled paragraph really said was that she was hooking up a mike to some rocks and letting a computer print out the results. She could have used a tuning fork, some pie pans or a bass drum. The fact that vibrations can be turned into graphs is interesting, but not really worth the mystical verbiage she and most art critics choose to lend to the field of art description. Plain English is a wonderful form of communication