theory of ruin – hylography


– the clouds take on shapes almost recognizable

– the waves on the shore offer smooth gestures in the sand

– the gravestone inscription weathers such that it appears to have lost all form … but not quite

This is hylography – the process of emergence and disappearance, intentional or unintentional, of graphical form out of matter.

– viewing an illuminated manuscript, we are drawn to the imagery and form of the letters, as much as what they say

– the artist Jasper Johns incorporates letters and numbers in his work so that they lose their referential context and become things-in-themselves

This is hylography – when text and graphic are experienced as material forms freed from intended signification and reference.

(hyle – Aristotle’s word for matter; graphein is to write, to make a signifying mark, to draw)

My thoughts yesterday about hylography, inspired by my work with Paul Noble [Link], are lingering.

There’s something in the phenomenon that concerns ruin – the way form dissolves, and the implications. [Link – some thoughts on the theory of ruin]

Then there’s Peirce’s version of semiotics.

An icon is a sign that is linked to its represented object by some shared quality. A drawing of a car may look like it.

An index is a sign that is linked to its object by an actual connection or real relation (irrespectively of interpretation). A finger points; smoke billows and tells us there is fire.

A symbol represents its denoted object by virtue of an interpretive habit or rule that is independent of any shared physical quality or contextual relationship with that which it denotes. The written word and sound “stone” has no intrinsic relation to any actual stone or to the substance.

Hylography interrupts these sign-object relationships. In particular hylography works on and with indexicality. This is a phenomenon far broader than language because it involves material connections. And performativity: the way something is said, done, written, can carry considerable significance and force, independent of the meaning or reference of what is said or written.


A book in a room; page detail. Cliff McLucas for the Three Landscapes Project 2001.


Jasper Johns, 0 through 9


Thomas Percy, Reliques of Ancient English Poetry, 1765. Pages are blown in the wind; buildings fall in ruin, but the song of the poet endures.

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