Siriol Troup

The invisible ruin

One of my favourite books, In Ruins, considers our perpetual fascination and joy at the sight of a crumbled wall or toppled tower. Its author, the art historian Christopher Woodward, writes:

When we contemplate ruins, we contemplate our own future. To statesmen, ruins predict the fall of Empires, and to philosophers the futility of mortal man’s aspirations. To a poet, the decay of a monument represents the dissolution of the individual ego in the flow of Time; to a painter or architect, the fragments of a stupendous antiquity call into question the purpose of their art. Why struggle with a brush or chisel to create the beauty of wholeness when far greater works have been destroyed by Time?

Yet in the last hundred years, perhaps since the notion of Total War was born, we are far more likely to rip it up and start again. It was certainly necessary to rebuild from scratch in the wake of bombs that destroyed entire cities (as evidenced in my recent trip to Kassel). Those parts of London which were particularly targeted are conspicuous in their uniform 60s architecture – the Elephant and Castle immediately springs to mind. But the recent (and completely brilliant) BBC documentary The History of Our Streets also told of a desire on the part of local councils to sweep away the old and replace it with the new (sort of like Mussolini’s plans for Rome). Blocks and blocks of perfectly sturdy Victorian terraces were demolished to make way for modern tower blocks (a number of which have already been condemned and torn down, while Victorian housing steadfastly remains standing). It was the Poet Laureate of the day, Sir John Betjeman, who spearheaded the twentieth-century campaign to save older buildings of architectural merit from the wrecking ball. The organisation that he started, SPAB (the Society for the Preservation of Ancient Buildings) continues his work to this day by assigning listed status to buildings in an effort to protect them for the future.

I’m not saying that old is always necessarily better, but more that sometimes it is valuable to remember what came before. The character of London, that mix of ancient and modern, was to a large degree, determined by where the bombs fell, but it usefully shows us who were are and who we were at the same time.

Back to Kassel, where that character is harder to determine. As I mentioned in my last post, 90% of the city centre was annihilated, and so there was little left standing to preserve. Although the Fridericianum was completely rebuilt in 18th century-style, the impulse was to start from scratch, and so most of the centre is permanently locked in the 60s and 70s.

Which is why Tacita Dean’s piece for Documenta 13 is so fascinating. As a long-standing resident of Berlin, Dean understands the impulse to start again (although Berlin, as I’ve said before, is a great city for the recycling of buildings, and you can find traces of the Wall marked in a discreet pathway beneath your feet). She has collected a number of pre-war postcards of Kassel, showing views of the old city centre, and has painted over them to show what stands there now. In my previous post, I talked about my friend Siriol Troup and how she likes to go round Kassel with a guidebook from 1901; Dean’s piece stems from a similar desire – to understand what came before, what it was like before your time.

To understand what it was like before your time is the second dimension to the piece. Dean then sent the cards by post to Kabul c/o Jolyon Leslie, the former CEO of the Aga Khan Trust for Culture. But the project is dedicated to another Jolyon, her late father. So she sent postcards of a place which no longer exists because of war destruction to a place which is currently going through what Kassel went through nearly seventy years ago; and addressed them to a man who shares a name with the father of the artist, who is no longer alive to receive them. The piece seems then to be about inheritance, noting things that have disappeared so that future generations do not forget to record what they have before it is gone.

A related installation is about bringing Kabul to Kassel, having already sent Kassel to Kabul. In the staircase of an ex-finance office (an older building, possibly from the twenties, which survived the bombs) Dean has installed a large panorama of the rivers and mountains of Afghanistan. These are drawn on chalk on large blackboards, so that the viewer could be a child in a classroom learning of this distant place which is being obliterated from the map (I remember a similar experience when I was growing up, learning about Viet Nam while the country in which I lived was destroying it). The chalkboards could also represent the fleeting nature of the landscape (which, like chalk, can be wiped away), although there is something more permanent about a mountain or a river than about man’s built environment, which can be toppled with one smart bomb.

Dean’s double work for Documenta is one of the most moving and beautiful I have seen recently which represents both our time and the past, and the desire to preserve and record, even those things which have already left us.

More images of Dean’s piece here:

Photos by Amy Stein and Andrew Lindesay

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