Ruth Barker

Works on Paper




A sheet of paper is an alchemical thing.

Hold it in your hands. Your thumbs make small dents in the surface.

Hold it up to the light. You can see the ghost of the world in the daylight that bleeds through its once-woody pores.

Spread the first two digits of one hand in an open V. Run the paper’s edge along the sex of your finger-join. See the red line, biting, and the sting.


A fresh sheet of paper is a space of the mute not-yet. It is the opening of my mouth before I have spoken. It is the opening of my hand before I have brought it down in a fist. It is my mind’s eye on waking (empty, waiting, in the space between the sloughed off dream and the gaze).


Paper comes in sheets, in reams, in quires, in bundles, and bales. It is eloquent stuff, full of fetishised potential. A quire of paper is sometimes called a gathering, which makes me think that paper must be about the bringing together of things, words, marks, moments.


The blank surface of a sheet of paper is a landscape in which one mark may encounter another, or one word may find another next to it. Each word, once inscribed on the paper’s surface, is pinned, unable to move, and unable to readjust its context. The word, the mark, must stay where it is put until the paper itself disappears from under it, torn up by fingers, dissolved in water, chewed by moths or mice-mouths. And so the paper gives us back the world; the fallible, casual, deliberate surface on which we measure one thing against another and see them as related, and try to make them make sense.


The mouse takes the paper into her nest. She pulls it into shreds and shreds and shreds and weaves the pieces into her fur and her waste to make a home. This is her work. The wasp makes her own paper by collecting dry fibres and mixing them with her spit. Then she builds her greyish paper citadel, slowly, making first a canopy and then a stem, and then her tiers and tiers of cells. This is her work.


And us? We pull the thin paper sheet towards us. We smooth it out and look for imperfections. We hold it tight, and we see the way that the marks of our hands have left paper-wounds and creases in its surface. We remember that this is the skin of trees, a landscape of wood and glue and rags and chalk, all pulped and pressed and cleaned. And we remember that this is our landscape, a basin of potential meanings, in which (remember) one mark may encounter another, and one word may find another next to it.


Our papers are the moments that we have gathered together. We make marks that bark, or sing, or whisper. We tear and spill and rub and stain and trace. We drip and we burn. We find a place that may never have been there and we enter its potential space, drawing it out, bleeding it, effacing its boundaries and borders.


Our papers are a sheaf, a ream, of almost, maybe, could be. And the marks we make on them may be indelible. Sheets of paper are alchemical things. See the red line, biting, and the sting.















RB 2012.