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ISSUE 52

THE DROUTH

Francis McKee

THE STRANGE VITALITY OF WRECKAGE

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SUMMER 2015


ISSUE 52

THE DROUTH

SUMMER 2015

Going round the ruins in the burned-out area was anyway a sad performance. The appearance of the streets, at first amazing, melancholy, and splendid, soon ceased to seem at all unusual. Draper’s shops and companies’ buildings, put up in that style of modern Romanesque so popular sixty years ago, had come into their own. There they were, long colosseums, with row over row of empty arched windows and tottering preposterously lofty walls. These towering Latin ruins were smoking thickly. At times the quality of the smoke was thin and hardly visible, like jets of steam; at others it swirled in the wind, and was wafted down the streets. Because many of the city ways are so narrow, the leaning walls seemed to sway and to meet each other at the top. In some streets the buildings had already collapsed into rubble or been dynamited, and what was once a row or an alley had become a barrow of dust and stones… In some of the burned districts the colour of the city has been changed. Modern concrete, formidable Victorian granite, the tweed-textured walls of earlier buildings (hewn stone speckled by centuries of soot), have been scorched umber. The ruins of Allhallows Barking are chrome yellow. Jutting up from this biscuit desolation the towers and spires of the ten Wren churches are exquisitely white. On the morning after the fire, beams and bell-wheels in the steeples were still smouldering brightly. These remarkable lines are taken from History Under Fire by James Pope-Hennessey, published in 1941 during the bombing of London. The book records the rapid decay of the city under the onslaught of the blitz and the author considers the attack on urban architecture as a simultaneous attack on the history of its citizens. It is both an 53


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account of the gaps opening in cultural memory and an effort to stave off the inevitable losses. Paradoxically, Pope-Hennessey rises to his best writing as he describes the destruction and the wasted, decaying landscape around him. There is an excitement that he cannot conceal and perhaps cannot quite admit to either. It’s an excitement that can be found in so many accounts of that period – the thrilling collapse of hierarchies, the emergence of new, uncharted social dimensions, the birth of a new world from the old imperial order. The blitz, with its speed and savage intensity, overturned all stability and hastened a process that might otherwise have taken centuries. The rhythm of decay is often imperceptible – so gradual, so glacial in its movements that we notice nothing until it nears its’ end. And yet, we have devised subtle and delicate ceremonies designed to acknowledge decay. In seventeenth century Japan, the inhabitants of Edo prized the opportunity to observe the falling of the cherry blossom. And in nineteenth century Europe, the Romantic movement inspired the meditation on ruins. A suitably derelict castle or monastery could invoke the passing of time on a vast scale while the recent explorations of the Pyramids underlined the fragility and transience of entire civilisations. While many wealthy landowners went as far as to build their own ruins for convenient meditation on such enormities, the French chef, Careme, went so far as to construct them in sugar. These edible architectural fantasies were cunning pieces. The novelty of their construction inspired considerable awe. Their sweet dereliction evoked melancholy. And finally, their consumption led each diner to recognise the process of decay that occurred within the confines of the human body. This most intimate experience of decay is perhaps the most powerful. The gradual decline in almost every physical function reminds us that the body is in a constant state of flux, tracing a terminal arc through everyday life.

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SUMMER 2015

Leon Trotsky noted that ‘Old age is the most unexpected of all things that happen to a man’. In today’s culture, this may not be the case. Old age, physical debility, loss of memory and loss of looks may be the most anticipated events in our lives. Society is now geared to youth and commerce is primed to supply everything that is needed to maintain us in the arena of youth well past middle age. Death has been exiled from our world but decay still haunts us all. Ironically, as life expectancy continues to grow in the western world, the fear of physical decay grows too. It would be a cliché to say that art offers a balm for humanity in this situation. Art forms wage their own battles with decay and, more often than not, they embody the ephemeral rather than any buttress against time. A painting, for instance, may suffer from cleavage or crackle. Alternatively it may undergo blanching, buckling, chalking, crazing, cupping, dishing, flaking, tenting. Failing that, it may blister, bloom, check, split, warp, or wrinkle. There is also the possibility of flood, fire and theft or random vandalism. A more contemporary medium may appear safer. Film, for example, is reproducible and its’ emergence parallels technological developments in the 20th century. In The Death of Cinema (2001), however, Paolo Cherchi Usai points out that When moving images were first experienced, human beings feasted on visions of extremely short duration, more or less equal to the attention span that could be assigned to an event whose very existence was in itself a surprise. For a brief period, such a duration … had to be considered as constant. However, these moving images, apparently thought of as durable even while experienced in the course of being progressively dissolved, were repeatedly shown in different locations and at different times until they were completely destroyed at last – that is, when the physical condition of the carrier was in a state so disastrous as to make its further exhibition virtually impossible. These moving images, therefore, had a fate similar to that of other ephemeral forms of expression such as operetta and the various Universal Expositions… The main aim of each project of preservation of the moving image is therefore, strictu sensu, an impossible attempt 55


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to stabilise a thing that is inherently subject to endless mutation and irreversible destruction. The electronic image, of course, has fared no better with tape corruption and digital rot. Even the information on our computer dances between microscope electronic gates that inevitably leak, and our hard won achievements leach away into the atmosphere. We could mourn such things. Everything from wrinkle creams to museum conservation suggests we do. And yet, this lacks a certain honesty. In the preface to his wartime account, Pope-Hennessey talks in wonder of ‘the strange vitality of wreckage’, arguing that our excitement at the destruction is perhaps more real than our sadness (‘We have a tendency to mourn the disappearance of places that we have never seen, or which we know nothing’). Owning up to that excitement, however, is a harder task. It is rooted in a complex knot of emotions – our taking a dark pleasure in misfortune and decline, finding freedom in the release from the authority of the past, sensing an opportunity to remake the world in a different way, enjoying the lack of completion enforced by continual decay. The dream of a total archive (so embedded in contemporary digital culture) is one that is more dangerous than useful. Cultural leaders tends to emphasise the need to preserve knowledge – the shared memories of families, communities, even whole nations, are at stake. This is such an urgent struggle that it becomes taboo to state anything that would oppose this drive for preservation. It is often overlooked that the gaps in memory are the most fertile ground. In the spaces where knowledge is missing, we have an opportunity to create and dispute what may be the ‘true’ interpretation of any event or any idea. This unstable knowledge is even at the core of many key landmarks in western culture. The patchwork epics of Northern cultures such as the Edda and Beowulf or the palimpsest that is the Iliad are matched by the gaps and silences between the books of the Bible, the apocrypha and the four gospels that compete in telling their versions of the life of Christ. In art the decay of knowledge has led to some of the finest riddles – the Mona Lisa, for example, as a work that seems definitively unknowable because we 56

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will never have all the information needed to site it authoritatively in the canon of Leonardo. Even more remarkably, the same painter’s Last Supper created a storm of speculation in The Da Vinci code where Dan Brown found deep wells of desire in the public for an alternative reading of Christianity. This desire found its path through the smallest gaps and uncertainties of Da Vinci scholarship. The real strength of that longing for alternative histories, though, has remained unacknowledged as the book is snobbishly deemed too pulpish for serious consideration. Decay is a necessary component of creative growth. The steady rhythm of decay opens random and irregular voids and interstitial spaces that lead us into new dimensions. This is not to say the process is painless. We feel each loss as a community, we are stranded as landmarks vanish around us and increasingly haunted by personal amnesias brought on by diseases such as Alzheimer’s. In science this rhythm is defined by the second law of thermodynamics. This states that within any closed system the quantity of energy remains the same but the quality of that energy deteriorates over time until it reaches maximum entropy. In art it becomes a rhythm of remaking, a series of beginnings and new opportunities.


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Francis McKee : The Strange Vitality of Wreckage  
Francis McKee : The Strange Vitality of Wreckage  

An essay by curator and CCA head Frances McKee on art, decay and the art of decay. From issue 52, Summer/Autumn 2015.

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