The fire and the rose are one

The fire and the rose are one  is second from a cycle of films placing objects, sites and moments of history within the landscape of the modern ‘poverty of experience’ and drawing a network of interconnected narratives suspended between the aesthetic and the political. It follows the narrative initiated in the film The shrine to summon the souls several years earlier and is constructed, similarly, with two parallel narratives.

Shortly after completion of The shrine I begun thinking once again about the motif of the ruin (which I was exploring in my earlier installation work Laocoön Group). Ruin seemed an appropriate entry point for historical contemplations and no wonder it was a popular motif during the beginnings of history as a modern discipline. Man faced with the image of a ruin is immediately tempted to ponder, search, to find a story long gone or perhaps simply recreate a new paradigm for themselves. Each of the sites incorporated into the film offers view on the road which has led global societies to the present socio-political circumstances.

Early into the research I was drawn to the iconic images depicting demolition of Pruitt-Igoe, a housing project in St Louis, which like many major American cities in the early 50s was facing an increasing number of migrants from the rural areas. To solve the housing problem the city council decided to construct a housing project following Le Corbusier’s Athens Charter. A complex of 11-storey high towers was completed in 1956. The project offered family flats with facilities many of its inhabitants-to-be never had had access to: modern bathrooms and kitchens, laundry rooms and other communal areas. Despite that the project started declining only a few years later. The 60s produced a new landscape, the American Dream was not in accord with the idea of community, it propagated an isolated individual whose life concentrated around consumption (something young hippies later on would be vividly opposing). Likewise, inhabitants of the cities would move to the suburbs and a housing solution was no longer necessary. By mid 60s the complex declined. It was occupied only in a third and it became dangerous and crime-infested; it was said police would not even dare to arrive for interventions. Between 1972 and 1976 the whole complex (apart from the school and chapel) were demolished. What followed was a neoliberal period of manufacturing outsourcing which further contributed to the region’s and city’s decline. St Louis was not to recover. Up to this day, in the centre of the city, a quarter of abandoned rubble of Pruitt-Igoe is buried underneath a wild park.

Pruitt-Igoe was a particularly interesting contemporary ruin because of the challenge it presented with its interpretation. The capital depends on ignorance and to anybody knowing history, the general view of housing project representing the ‘failure of modernism’ could not, of course, be convincing. The cultural and political transformations of society occurring during the time of Pruit-Igoe’s existence were also to take the paramount position within my field of enquiry.

The fire and the rose are one became the continuation to The shrine and I worked on it between 2015 and 2020.  As with the first film, I decided to use another historical text for its narration. The same year Benjamin wrote The Storyteller T.S. Eliot completed his first out of Four Quartets. What was striking in Eliot’s text was this urge to keep the experience Benjamin was lamenting to be gone alive. Each of the poems refers to a specific place Eliot would have visited throughout his life and which, could be said, constituted his ‘biography’. As he recalls the places the questions of man’s relationship with time and world are posed.

In this way, in a sort of collage two independent narratives – the text and visual – are combined. The spectator is not provided with answers or any detailed information but rather ‘invited’ to wander around a garden or ruined or desolate cities as if they were recalling them from their memories.

The three sites with their historical, political and social backgrounds elicit contemplation on time, history and meaning of our life in the present. The film gives off a sense of uneasiness due to lack of direct references being provided. On one hand one can’t help but feel unsettled as if they were recollecting scraps of missing memories: what were these places, what happened to those who inhabited them and why did they became as they are? On the other hand, the images of nature, which renews itself, once again, on top of the ruins, offers a certain consolation: perhaps as we forget and the rubble is covered by vegetation, flowers will once again bloom ‘in the rose garden’[1]. The question of the pain of remembering and forgetting as a hope for the future is, after all, a recurring motif throughout both films.

Thus, from Missouri one is transported to the City of Ordos in Inner-Mongolia, without a warning. As in the dream or recollection of personal memories the distance is immaterial and time and space becomes fluid as one suddenly strolls the desolate city placed somewhere in a distant arid landscape.

Several years before the film was being shot Ordos was listed among the so called ‘Ghost Cities’ by the Western Media. These ‘abandoned’ and ‘ruined’ cities presented in pictures, were in most cases projects-in-progress, and so essentially construction sites, as the central government invested in building a 2 mln inhabitants conglomerates over only a couple of years, a scale and speed not really familiar to the Western audiences. The common commentary followed: a typical neoliberal idea, similarly assigned to Pruit-Igoe – a ‘crazy utopian vision’, which could not possibly have succeeded. By 2017 the city was already inhabited in 30%. Nevertheless, Ordos still remained relatively empty in many areas. On its account several rushed building projects were undertaken and many had to be abandoned.

In the middle, the film then moves on to an abandoned Greek village on the Turkish coast. But from that point on the film will move back and forth from Ordos to Levissi, then briefly back to Ordos to then conclude at the seaside.

Ordos city became the middle point of the film, because it is a ‘ruin’ of a different sort than the two others. It is also a place where one could say issues of urban planning (represented by Pruitt-Igoe) and social and racial planning (like in the case of Levissi) meet. It is also the place in-between past and future, as the narration of the text moves both through time and memory. The feeling of desolation also brings a different sense of uneasiness. The issue of cultural minorities in China and the policies of the Central Government – ‘The people of the plains bring culture and wealth to those poor inhabitants of the steppes.’ The locals might be willing to accept the tempting offer, the cost of which we might yet to learn.

Levissi, where the film is to conclude, is a different kind of ‘ghost town’ – ruins of it are located in the historic region of Lycia, now in Turkey. Prior to 1922, the town was solely inhabited by the Greek Christian population. In 1914 the Ottoman authorities began persecution of the local Greeks as a result of larger plans of ethnic cleansing. For the following 8 years the Greeks were tortured and murdered. What is now recognised as genocide of the Ottoman Greeks ended in 1922 with deportations of the small number of remaining Greek population.

The final scene from The fire and the rose are one leads on to the third film from the cycle. Each of the mentioned locations facilitated certain associations. The view of the Aegean sea brings forth another story to mind, after all the ancestors of Greeks in the region, the Lycians, were to fight in the defence of Troy and the sea before our eyes as the film concludes is the one on which the Achaean ships once supposedly appeared. And so a new chapter follows. In the camp of Achilles.

Michal Martychowiec, 2022



[1] Eliot, T.S. (1998) Fourt Quartets London:Faber & Faber