Gerhard Richter

A mind of winter

Although it has been an increasingly regular occurrence over the last four winters, Londoners of my generation still consider snow a novelty. Suddenly, the population of the city turns child again, breaking into impromptu snow ball fights, erecting elaborate snowmen in local parks (although the prize for best urban snowman goes to one last winter, constructed atop a toilet discarded on the pavement near my house). To commemorate this common miracle, I decided to take a stroll along the river, starting at the southern side of Tower Bridge, and finishing at Vauxhall Bridge, a walk of approximately 2.5 miles. In all the years I have been exploring London, this walk may have been the most memorable. I chose not to bring a camera, or my iPod; I wanted to concentrate on looking and listening, without imposing extra demands on my attention.

The experience of looking was greatly altered by the haze of snow, steadily falling as my walk began, and continuing for the rest of the day. London is impossibly beautiful in the snow, perhaps because snow seems to cleanse and purify; it softens blemishes (cloaking some of the more horrendous examples of misguided architecture) and renders what is already imposing, such as St Paul’s and the Houses of Parliament and Southwark Cathedral, with an even greater majesty. Somehow, London looks more ancient in snow, and I had a vision of the Elizabethan frost fairs that sprang up on the surface of the Thames (during what was known as the ‘Little Ice Age’) as soon as the river froze. This reminded me of a beautiful poem, ‘The Other Side of Winter’, by my fellow Salt poet John McCullough, where he writes of this ‘crystal weather’:

Overnight the Thames begins to move again.
The ice beneath the frost fair cracks. Tents,
merry-go-rounds and bookstalls glide about

on islands given up for lost. They race,
switch places, touch – the printing press nuzzling
the swings – then part, slip quietly under.

Perhaps what is surreal in John’s poem – the vision of an alternative city balanced on the fragile ice – can still be imagined, as snow erases landmarks, renders ordinary routes unfamiliar, simply by covering our accepted routes of travel: roads and pavements are hidden, margins and boundaries are less pronounced. The snow showed me vistas I hadn’t noticed before, simply by masking others.

It was striking was how quiet the city became. Normally that stretch of the river would be heavily populated on a Sunday by tourists, dogs, families. Apart from the odd jogger and determined Japanese sightseer, the city was emptied, as if the snow had blotted out its citizens as well. Only around the London Eye was there a crowd; a long queue to ride the wheel, which puzzled me, as the visibility was terrible, but I realised it was the miracle of the snow which drew them, as if they needed to reach its source to understand its movement. Snow muffles sound, draws everything closer, so that the peel of City church bells was incredibly clear even from the southern banks.

I have been reading Nick Papadimitriou’s extraordinary book, Scarp, the result of a lifetime’s work of chronicling his corner of outer London, around Hendon, Edgware, Pinner. Not a part of the city I know well, but his book does not necessary require knowledge of the region (although it has inspired me to perhaps take a tour); what he is espousing is the idea of ‘deep topography’ – a complete immersion into a landscape, so that you know not only the names and landmarks, but the native plants, the cast of characters who have populated the area (in the present, and in the past), a full picture of the region in all seasons and aspects. Papadimitriou talks about laying aside knowledge and concentrating on ‘sensory properties of locations encountered while visiting or passed through’, and maybe this was why I (sub)consciously decided against equipment which would aid me in recording my walk (or distracting me from it).

It reminded me why I love London so much (as if I need to be reminded), my adopted city of these last twenty-five years. Johnson was right, of course, it is never boring, in its constant flux and flow, and each time I think I know an area well, it surprises me with some new revelation. I look out the window now and see the snow has begun to fall again; the kid in me wants to get out and be in it, to see what its veiling might uncover.

Here’s John’s poem in its entirety on Declan Ryan’s Days of Roses site:

Images are Whistler’s Nocturne in Grey and Gold: Snow in Chelsea
A 1684 etching of a frost fair by Granger
Snow-White by Gerhard Richter

A suitcase of memories

Kassel is a strange setting for Documenta, now one of the largest contemporary art festivals, held every five years. It was a hotbed of Calvinism, a refuge for the Huguenots in the late 1600s, home to the Brothers Grimm, the capital of Westphalia, and later a Prussian province. It has a grand palace, built by Wilhelm IX (now the main museum, with a surprising collection of old masters) surrounded by the sprawling landscaped gardens of the Bergpark, culminating in a grand monument to Hercules, who lords it over the place. From his vantage point over the Wilhelmshöhe, you can see straight down into the city centre.

While the city centre cannot be described in anyone’s book as attractive or imposing, it stands as another kind of monument (so unlike the mythological hero on the hill) to the horrible history of the twentieth century. As a major industrial area and a hub for the German train network, it was a prime target for bombing, and 90% of the centre was destroyed during WWII. There is an extraordinary photograph in the vestibule of the St Martinskirche of the city completely flattened (the church itself was almost entirely rebuilt; the bottom half of its towers are what remained of the medieval structure, the upper half are 50s modernist), like Richter’s aerial paintings of bombed cities, reduced to a maze of rubble-strewn streets. My friend, the poet Siriol Troup, has a guidebook of Kassel from 1901, and she talks about the experience of going around a city now unrecognisable in its text, the historical city, the archeological city. You could be anywhere, with its anonymous 60s low rises, the hallmark of many British city centres.

But it’s what did happen here that is always present. The Aschrott Fountain, named after the Jewish benefactor Sigmund Aschrott, was destroyed by the Nazis in 1939. In 1987 the artist Horst Hoheisel created Negative Form on the spot of the fountain, a ‘counter-monument’ as he called it, a fountain that exists below the ground (and can be viewed through grates in the pavement).

There was a sub camp of Dachau located in Kassel, and from platform 13 of the Hauptbahnhof rail station, Jews were sent to Auschwitz. A permanent memorial marks their deportation: a wheeled trolley, the kind they might use to transport materials round the station, which holds a glass case containing narratives written by Kassel schoolchildren imagining the lives of the deportees; their stories are wrapped around stones, like the stones you lay on Jewish graves to represent the visit of the living to the dead, and placed carefully in the case.

The Hauptbahnhof is the setting for some of Documenta’s most poignant work: William Kentridge’s exuberant and inventive video installation on time and colonisation; Susan Philipsz’s haunting strings that echo across the empty tracks; and Janet Cardiff’s guided tour which fuses past and present.

Perhaps it’s because Cardiff, like myself, is a North American responding to Europe (the meeting of the new and old world) that I find her work so compelling. The tour begins when you are issued with an iPod and headphones, like so many modern travellers trying to block out the world around them, only this time you are being asked to engage in an entirely different way: you find yourself standing in the station watching a film of the spot you are viewing in real time, so that there is an odd sensation of experiencing the real and the imagined at once. Cardiff provides a narrative that records her thoughts and feelings about this place. As she watches people pass by in the busy station, she reflects, ‘so many people wear black here.’ A trombone player appears from nowhere to provide a soundtrack to her thoughts (like a mourner at a New Orleans funeral procession), a ballet dancer glides across the polished floor, and all the time, we see the people who are occupying the current moment, a moment which will flash by, while Cardiff’s film is about what we preserve, what we keep. There is the suggestion of a relationship, one which is recalled, as if it might already be in the past. She says:

Memories are like a different form of travel; it’s like filling a suitcase that we pull behind us and we open and close when we need to.

Cardiff’s tour is about how we commemorate what we have lost as well as what we can see before us, how certain places, like Kassel, contain invisible histories, which are palpable in our response. The suitcase provides an analogy to the way we move from one place to another, how our lives are portable and fast-moving, but also how we carry the past with us. I’m reminded of the poem The City by Cavafy:

You said: ‘I’ll go to another country, go to another shore,
find another city better than this one.
Whatever I try to do is fated to turn out wrong
and my heart lies buried as though it were something dead.
How long can I let my mind moulder in this place?
Wherever I turn, wherever I happen to look,
I see the black ruins of my life, here,
where I’ve spent so many years, wasted them, destroyed them totally.’

You won’t find a new country, won’t find another shore.
This city will always pursue you. You will walk
the same streets, grow old in the same neighborhoods,
will turn gray in these same houses.
You will always end up in this city. Don’t hope for things elsewhere:
there is no ship for you, there is no road.
As you’ve wasted your life here, in this small corner,
you’ve destroyed it everywhere else in the world.

More on individual works at Documenta in future posts. For the best coverage of the festival, go to my esteemed colleague Vici MacDonald’s blog:

An excerpt from Cardiff’s film here:

Photos of St Martinskirche and the Hauptbahnhof by Amy Stein

Shades of grey

I walk through the galleries at Tate Modern, and through the window, I find a rectangular slice of London; grey river, grey sky. The principal colour of this city. I am wearing a grey jacket, grey skirt, which recalls the school uniform of my childhood, and I can almost feel charcoal wool chafing my skin. On the walls are paintings by Gerhard Richter, which resemble the sort of photos you might discover in an ancient dusty album – monochrome and blurred, but blown large, projected, distorted (as memory is, by necessity). Richter is the painter of ‘damaged landscapes’ (Dresden bombed) and figures in those landscapes who are obscured by time, by newspaper half tone (the funeral cortege of the Baader Meinhof gang). The alps are obscured in a heavy mist, for as Richter says, nature is always against usHis is the century of the photograph, as a way of conveying (catastrophic) news, capturing a face (like a rose pressed in a book). He finds a photograph, makes a painting of it that in turn, looks like a photograph, and in that act he is saying something about filters. We see the world through a camera lense, and so there is always the lense between the real and how the real is fixed. Richter stacks layers of glass in the gallery and through them the Thames fractures, a river of ice. I find myself in his mirrors, a study in grey. Richter says: Grey is the welcome and only possible equivalent for indifference, absence of opinion, absence of shape.

And so we head into winter, the grey season. The clocks go back this week, and then we will be plunged into black. So maybe it is best to remember what Richter’s compatriot Goethe said: All theory, dear friend, is grey, but the golden tree of life springs ever green.