And so it goes
‘men returned from the battlefield grown silent—not richer, but poorer in communicable experience? What ten years later was poured out in the flood of war books was anything but experience that goes from mouth to mouth. And there was nothing remarkable about that. For never has experience been contradicted more thoroughly than strategic experience by tactical warfare, economic experience by inflation, bodily experience by mechanical warfare, moral experience by those in power. A generation that had gone to school on a horse-drawn streetcar now stood under the open sky in a countryside in which nothing remained unchanged but the clouds, and beneath these clouds, in a field of force of destructive torrents and explosions, was the tiny, fragile human body.’
It was a spring day of 2013 on which I found myself accompanying a beauty to the garden of one of the larger shrines in Tokyo. Upon arrival, it occurred to me what I intended to be a friendly and casual pastime was interpreted as a romantic affair. How not so, after all the garden was filled with couples undergoing, like Don Quixote, ‘an experience without ever having it’. Their gaze turned towards the trees, or rather their branches immersed in pastel pink flowers. Photographs were taken, the one and only kind which can be easily accessed on social networking sites with the use of an appropriate hashtag. I strolled with my partner in the non-evident crime with an uneasy feeling. The beauty of the place and generally festive mood among the surrounding crowd overwhelmed me with poignancy. As beautiful as the flowers and their petals were, they were not meant to last, and even those which did not yet vanish but flooded the ground on which we all treaded awarded no notice.
At that point in time, I knew nothing of the place, its history nor any peculiarities these might imply. But for some inexplicable reason an obsessive memory of the music of Albinoni’s Adagio did not leave me throughout the visit.
Some years before my trip to Tokyo I spent good few weeks in Venice. I participated in an exhibition at a local foundation which commissioned me to do a project involving the space and works of art within it. One of the pieces which could not have been missed was the film Rage by P.P. Pasolini which utilized in its background the very same music I mentioned.
Not only did this score forcibly embedded onto my memory throughout the stay, but it irrevocably associated itself with the archival images Pasolini used in his film: war crimes and domestic unrest, 1956 Hungarian and Cuban revolutions, images of social fear, strive and anger.
Upon leaving the garden I kept pondering, why did this however beautiful and poignant landscape bring back these images of violence. Seeing the garden awoke the music which became intermediary in bringing to mind the associated images. Being a modern man ‘deprived of his biography’ this might have been the experience I subconsciously craved for: utilising knowledge in a sort of post-Kantian, Benjaminian sense, affirming multiple ways of knowing at once. This experience of history, impossible without a medium, was of a sort of temporal enframing, transmogrified into an event or kairological time, which enabled a personal authority beyond that monopolized by the state and capital.
The work produced thereafter became one of the earlier ones setting the course for many of my future inquiries placing objects, sites and moments of history within the landscape of the modern ‘poverty of experience’, which are then activated within mix media installations and draw a network of interconnected narratives suspended between the aesthetic and the political.
Later, I’ve learnt the shrine in which this spectacle of nature and man took place was ‘devoted to the heroes of the country’ among them controversial ones from the period of the World War II. Once considered heroes, now war criminals. The memory which we believe to be paramount to preserve, the nature seemed indifferent to.
‘For if we know that, as pathēma, it [mystical experience] was ultimately anticipation of death[…], the very element which all the sources concur in seeing as essence, and from which the very name “mystery” derives […] – in other words, silence – it is what has as yet found no adequate explanation. If it is true that in its primary form, what was at the heart of the experience of the mysteries was not a knowing, but a suffering. […] But certainly, during the period […] from the fourth century AD onwards, and probably earlier, the ancient world interprets this mysterical infancy as a knowledge which cannot be spoken of, as a silence to be kept. ’
A short film titled The shrine to summon the souls (being the literal translation of the shrine’s name) was produced soon after and combined three elements: the images of the shrine’s garden and events occurring thereon, the music, and the excerpts from the text used by Pasolini in the film echoed by a voice whose source remains unknown.
The narrative is likewise organised in three parts: first showing the wider field of the blossoming trees (the ‘non-experience’ of the visitors and close up images of the falling petals; then images of petals framed as if they were painterly compositions; and finally images of faceless bodies walking over this silent and abstracted landscape while paying it no heed.
‘The silence of the mystery is undergone as a rupture, plunging man back into pure, mute language of nature; but as a spell, silence must eventually be shattered and conquered.’
The music activates a spell which conquers the indifferent silence of nature in order to speak out against our own failures while we remain muted (‘man and nature exchange roles before each finds their own place in history’).
In the spoken narrative of the film one leaps from the events of the Hungarian Revolution and split in the communist party to the prophetic words of Pasolini (later paraphrased in his famous poem The PCI to Young People) foretelling the failure of the 1968 in which, in the Althusser’s perspective, ‘students worldwide staged an “ideological revolt” […] They revolutionized the cultural superstructure but not the social and political relations’ in which he saw ‘the end of the New Left, which decided to trade politics for protest.’
As the movie diverts from the seen (looked at) to the unseen (not looked at), the socio-political events conclude with the questions of history and beauty. For the road to the ‘better’ future and the history of progress is filled with failures, with us on one side believing it important to preserve so as not to repeat mistakes of the past (which we nevertheless end up repeating) and on the other, the nature which mercilessly destines all, without exception, to oblivion. The violence of the nature’s program, subjects all to death, in other words to being forgotten, because uninterrupted continuity like the ever-blowing wind into Angelus Novus’s wings would leave nothing but rubble behind (the concept of the ‘ruin’ is later explored in the film which followed The shrine).
The recurring question posed in this work, as in many others of mine, puts the choice of remembering and forgetting as the paramount framework of history, i.e. human’s self-determined designs. Is it possible to create a better world without forgetting some of the past traumas? After all, in this individual ‘memory’ of the collective experience the final words echo: ‘Of the terrifying world of the past and the terrifying world of the future, nothing remains but beauty’.
‘The past that the angel of history is no longer able to comprehend reconstitutes its form in front of the angel of art; but this form is the alienated image in which the past finds its truth again only on condition of negating it, and knowledge of the new is possible only in the nontruth of the old.’
It could be said, although it was not clear to me at the moment of its creation, The shrine became the first part of a much larger inquiry which would continue into two following films: The fire and the rose are one (2015-2020) and In the camp of Achilles (currently in development). These three films together constitute a larger historical narrative developed within my practice. Each of them additionally connects to one of my self-curated cycles, respectively: What remains the poets provide, The tears of Iblis and Journey to the West. With the use of these curatorial cycles, I attempt to re-enact historical paradigms into which I successively install various works activating different and changing successive ‘readings’.
What remains the poets provide marks introduction to my self-curatorial practice. This very first cycle of exhibitions recreates a specific narrative following cultural pre-modernist history. The Hölderlin’s poem from which the cycle appropriates its title is meant to function both as an introduction to and part of the curatorial statement.
Hölderlin’s poem Andenken is important here, because it brings up several matters which disappeared from the later discourse and which the last person to investigate in terms of modern significance was Heidegger: ‘[Hölderlin] has pre-established the misery – that has a renewed beginning – of our historical There-being, so that we could wait for it.’.
In his poem, Hölderlin establishes what is the essence of art and artistic creation. He writes ‘what remains, however, the poets provide’ – this throws the light at the essence of poetry. Poetry is founded by the word and in the word, and what is established in this way is – what remains. The poet names the gods and all things with respect to what they are and thus they come into being. In this cycle objects and places become reactivated with help of historical reenactments. The ‘truth’ of the shrine’s garden could have been accessed and preserved in a form of a new work of art because of the provision of what the ‘poets’ already had ‘named’, because the music and words of Pasolini were already embedded into the cultural memory. Because the ephemeral beauty of nature is different to the beauty which remains out ‘of the terrifying world of the past and future’. Destruction and creation are, but means of leaving one’s trace behind, proving one’s existence. But man cannot create out of nothing, and likewise man cannot destroy what is not already there or what simply would have destroyed itself.
The framework established thus in this cycle provides the perspective from which the works in the Tears of Iblis can be considered.
With considerations of this Romantic context, we arrive at the threshold of modernity when
the new vision of the abstract art, but also figurative art which was no longer grounded in history and classical considerations, but in the newly changing world (paradoxically, this ‘newly’ changed world begun a century earlier with the industrial revolution), and so utilising every day, common, mass-produced object, like in the case of the readymade, was deeply rooted in the newly born materialist philosophy. It was well illustrated in Critique of violence (1913-1926) by Walter Benjamin, who distinguished two forms of violence: mythical and divine. Mythical violence leaves traces and gives birth to the new. Divine violence produces destruction which leaves nothing behind. If god created the world from nothingness he can turn it back to nothingness. However, in the framework of the then new materialist philosophy, since god was dead, the divine destruction could no longer be possible and became material destruction which on the contrary leaves traces, like ruins, etc. It is in this sense, that Malevich created the Black Square, his ‘destruction of the icon’ (and so destruction of god, the holy, history, etc.). To Malevich ‘the image that survives the work of destruction is the image of destruction’.
However, the clear historical struggle to be followed is that once the paradigm is replaced with the image of its demise, what is left to us?
Tears of Iblis is constructed with works, that in several instances represent the image of emptiness of the modernist tradition. Malevich’s gesture of destruction had a value because at the time it created a transition into a new (materialist) ‘metaphysics’. But breaking from tradition, as history teaches, simply creates a new tradition, in the same way that abandoning aesthetic (like in the case of minimalism) simply creates new aesthetics. And so in the contemporary context the meaning of the Black Square on the ground on which it was meant to function, has been lost, because at this point, it can only be understood in the context of history (from which Malevich tried to break off or which he rather tried to destroy). And so later, modern and post-modern art followed this new narrative and consequently, became repetition of a repertoire of the very same ideas, which being deprived of the actual social context eventually became, no wonder, empty.
‘After all, there is nothing in creation that is not ultimately destined to be lost: not only the part of each and every moment that must be lost and forgotten – the daily squandering of tiny gestures, of minute sensations, of that which passes through the mind in a flash, of trite and wasted words, all of which exceed by great measure the mercy of memory and the archive of redemption – but also the works of art and ingenuity, the fruits of a long and patient labour that, sooner or later, are condemned to disappear. It is over this immemorial mass, over the unformed and immense chaos of what must be lost that, according to the Islamic tradition, Iblis, the angel that has eyes only for the work of creation, cries incessantly. He cries because he does not know that what one loses actually belongs to God, that when all the work of creation has been forgotten, when all signs and words have become illegible, only the work of salvation will remain indelible.’
Iblis ‘cries because he does not know that what one loses actually belongs to God’, however as much as divine destruction is no longer possible within the materialist framework, whatever is lost, in the same sense, has nowhere to return to and so still remains under the cover of this ‘emptiness’. All the works connected to Tears of Iblis formally utilise achievements of modernity through which they express contemporary cultural emptiness born with the establishment of the modernist tradition. However, under the image of such emptiness, what remains are hidden symbols, history and myths. These works do not (once again) destroy the ‘icon’ as Malevich did, but rather look for a new icon (the holy) in the image of what has been lost and destroyed.
The same year I shot the footage for The shrine another thought came to my mind. I asked myself: what is the landscape which has not changed throughout history? In The Storyteller Benjamin talks of the landscape in which ‘nothing remained unchanged but the clouds’. Following the idea of historical succession Hubert Damisch laid out in A Theory of /Cloud/: Toward a History of Painting (‘In Greek the word theory means succession […] so it is (or should be) the “theory” of all the /clouds/ in history, at least in the history of painting.’) I thought: of course, the history of the depiction of the landscape is the history of painting, but what would be the historically relevant answer in the context I have been gradually introducing? The cloudless blue sky!
After all, an empty blue sky is one landscape which has not changed throughout ages and a view we share with all of our forebearers. But here lays a certain ambiguity, as each time one experiences it, its colour is unique and cannot be repeated.
On one hand this project ventures into an discourse with history of painting. Yet, it is also important to note Blue poses an ongoing question on the nature of the readymade and its formal implications. As the painting tradition has taught us, blue is the most immaterial of all the colours. The large format photographs depict nothing, after all, but the empty space. Yet, this image deprived of any figurative representations is remotely abstract as it is a record of reality in the strictest sense. Thus, it is the colour of the sky which becomes the readymade with its conceptual dimension and all the implications that can be added onto a work of art: philosophical, political, historical, etc.
And here lays the important aspect of this project, as explained in the context of The Tears of Iblis the intention is not to present another ‘image of destruction’ through removal of the cloud (destruction of Damischian history of painting), even though it might appear so at first, but rather through embedding relevant content into this historically relevant image. In The Storyteller Benjamin brings our gaze down, from the clouds to the sphere directly concerning ‘the tiny, fragile human body’. This landscape unchanged in history is perhaps the ultimate landscape of oblivion and it is thus that in its emptiness it awakens man’s urge to remember whatever might have been lost, or whatever man might want to ‘construct upon’. This results in reconstruction of theory. And ‘once again theory implies history’.
Since 2013, every year I have been taking one photograph of the cloudless sky in a selected place in the world. I chose to specify the landscape’s ‘provenance’ with the historical name of every region as each photograph becomes an entry point to contemplations on history and its reverberations on the present.
‘The cloudless sky remains the only landscape unchanged throughout history. But it is otherwise with the land underneath it. Then, the question to ask is who can lay claim to either?’
As these photographs connect the viewer to history through a form of a personal experience, what remains at their centre are the histories of power structures with an ongoing struggle between the individual and various power units as one realizes most associations like those of nations or cultural identities are simply diversionary ideas.
Shortly after completion of The shrine and after establishing the base for Blue 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.
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’. 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. 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.
Journey to the west is the final of my self-curated exhibition cycles and the third film currently in development is a part of it. In this cycle I establish a symbolic system within my artistic practice. Its representatives become creatures and objects constructing commentary on our socio-political and cultural contemporary circumstances.
And thus, in In the camp of Achilles rabbit Josephine (who is, as a living animal, a work of art) follows metaphorical footsteps of Achilles, undertaking the perilous journey for the promise of being remembered forever. While challenging the apparatuses: the museum or established frameworks of historiography Josephine is determined to rediscover her place within. What determines her status as work of art? Or, perhaps, as a living creature, her status and right to live? She visits the Pergamon Altar which after being transported and reconstructed in Germany became the heart of the museum which was bult around to house it (the Pergamon Museum in Berlin), she follows to the altar’s original location in the now Turkish city of Bergama and then panda reserve in the Sichuan province, while forcing us to ponder on histories of power, violence, colonization, art and what remains.
‘Precarious, flawed little lives beneath the sky, a glittering sky tonight: theirs, hers, mine too. All looking, with what help we could find, for an honourable way out. So it goes.’
Michal Martychowiec, 2022
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