THE RUIN GAZER NEVER DID EYE SEE THE SUN UNLESS IT HAD FIRST BECOME SUN-LIKE ENRICO PIRAS 2013
Introduction This text is a support and counterpoint to my formal artistic research and aims to present different topics that have been gathered and linked in an open-ended and fluid conceptual framework. The methodology I chose is not strictly theory oriented, it does not seek to verify through formal experiments the accuracy of a theory, it is instead a form of exploratory experimentation. This term, borrowed from science, defines a method which aims to open up the full variety and complexity of a field, and simultaneously to develop new concepts that allow an ordering of that variety. Exploratory experimentation usually comes to the fore in situations in which no well-formed conceptual framework for the phenomena being investigated is yet available; in this case formal experiments and conceptual assumptions co-develop, reinforcing or weakening each other in concert. The theories and narrative developments proposed in the text escape a rigid division or classification, while pointing to unravel dynamics of representation through formal and visual means in relation to a philosophical, historical, and architectural background.
The focus of my previous research developed around historical revisions and representations conveyed through architectural means and dynamics of architectural reenactment in contemporary urban landscape planning. The concept of architectural reenactment emerged recently in reference to those monuments or memorials where the shape of the event they commemorate is represented in the structural design of the building. This practice deals with a complex and controversial use of representation of events/traumas and their commemoration, where the role of representation becomes key to access the private and collective meaning of catastrophic events. The problematic aspects of this topic are mainly those of representing events which tend to escape rational explanations, corresponding to a momentaneous breakdown of our rationality and integrity. My aim is to understand how dynamics of visual representation and reenactment are related to linguistic disorders, a paralysis of representation and a petrification of the self where no words or signs are available to describe something that's outside our ordinary vocabulary. On the other hand I'm interested in analysing forms of representation and rationalization of such traumatic and problematic events, through the narrative of natural and historical catastrophes and the way they have been theoretically absorbed and manipulated. Problems in the field of representation of catastrophic events are often associated with the aesthetic category of the sublime, related to those natural or historical overwhelming events, so greatly impressive that they become hardly representable. With a straightforward semplification, the sublime can be defined as that aesthetic category that refers to the impressions we experience when faced with extraordinary, overwhelming events. This notion includes in itself a notion of distance, that makes the experience impressive but not totally devastating for our mind, generating a form of pleasure from the possibility of recognize our mind as capable of rationalize and perceive the greatness of nature. At the same time the sublime has always been a complex topic in terms of representation, referring to experiences that escape the ordinary. Every representation of the sublime is a sort of blurred copy of the original image that cannot be rendered properly; as Slavoj Zizek says:”The sublime object evokes pleasure in a purely negative way: the place of the thing is indicated through the very failure of its representation” 1. Such events can be terrifying, or just highly impressive, beyond any other experience we know, so to escape a proper classification in our disposable range of feelings. Representability and unrepresentability are directly related to a matter that emerged with the sublime: the difficulty to conceptualize an unrepresentable instance into a category that we can intelligibly manipulate. The aesthetic of the sublime can be defined as a form of destructive spectatorship, because it constitutes in many cases a form of paralysis of the eye and of the verbal or visual expression, and is “in part an effort to name the confusion that comes over us when faced with wholesale destruction: we experience storms, battles, earthquakes, and revolutions as equally impressive facts of both nature and history” 2. Architectural reenactment deals specifically with the sublime, it is hence a form of representation of traumatic or catastrophic events in form of memorials, monuments or acts of restoration. This research began in Utrecht, where I was faced with architectural reenactment in the developing plans for the city: modern buildings are being teared down to make room for replicas of historical buildings, while neglected ruins are being preserved and restored in order to be integrated within a modern pastoral landscape. Ruins, as leftovers of catastrophes (both natural or historical) are a sign that points to the sublime as a trace, an imprint, and are the ground on which contemplate its aesthetic and ideological value. I began to be interested in the way ruins were displayed, depicted and became thus representative of national and identitarian values. This led to a wider exploration of the field of representation of architectural ruins and historical events through the history of art and architecture. Analysing different approaches and cultural methodologies in relation to ruins and their display in the urban landscape, I came across the works and theories of Albert Speer, the architect of the Third Reich. His approach was a very clear way of dealing with ruins and architectural decay, based on the use of certain 1 Slavoj Zizek, The Sublime Object of Ideology, in The Sublime // Edited by Simon Morley, Documents of Contemporary Art, Whitechapel Gallery, pag.59
2 Brian Dillon, Fragments From a History of Ruin, Cabinet Magazine, Issue 20 winter 2005/2006
building materials and construction tecniques as fundamental to produce ruins that would be (after hundred of years) of equal greatness of classical ones. His practice involved a theoretical approach deeply focused on ruins and their influence in the development of national identity, enhancing entropy and decay as fundamental architectural values. Speer was the author of the Theory of Ruin Value, where he emphasized and illustrated the importance of ruins in the transmission (through architectural means) of ideological and cultural values. Distrusting the persistence of modern building materials, he proposed a recovery of traditional materials and techniques: ”By using special materials, or by obeying certain laws of statics, one might be able to build structures which, after hundreds, or as we fondly believed, thousands of years, would more or less resemble our Roman models"3. Speer was not the first to project buildings thinking to their potential as ruins; before him the romantic architect Sir John Soane imagined his newly built palaces as piles of rubble invaded by ivy, as for his project for the Bank of England, that he proposed in two paintings, one showing the expected final outcome and another showing its future ruins. Hubert Robert, a French painter well known for his depiction of ruins, imagined in two paintings in 1796 the Grand Gallery of the Louvre (at that time still in construction) both as a newly-finished construction, and in condition of ruins, in two paintings of which the latter was property of Hitler, who hung it in his private office. The necessity of an architecture of imagined ruins has been seen as the sign left by Oswald Spengler and his The Decline of the West, a book which exposed and predicted a sudden decline of the West and its countries, especially Germany, which should have been able to leave, in Hitler's words: ”His time and its spirit to posterity”4. While developing his theory, Speer also began to work on completely different architectural forms, employing light in his architectural practice. He had a special consideration for this medium, which he extensively used in the scenographic works realized for the nazi parades. It was during an official visit in Rome at the beginning of the 1930s that he could observe for the first time the old ruins in a tour of the city by night: “Here, the ruins were dramatically illuminated in occasion of the visit of Hitler and his entourage, while the modern part of the city was left in the dark” 5. This experience of a dramatic and sublime use of light was later declared fundamental for the development of Speer's theories and practice. The most important and spectacular use of lights, to reach a sublime effect on its audience, was developed by Speer in occasion of the nazi party rally in Nuremberg, where with 130 anti-aircraft searchlights he created a scenography called Cathedral of Light.
3 Albert Speer, Inside the Third Reich, Memoirs by Albert Speer, pag.92, Touchstone Press 4 Albert Speer, Inside The Third Reich, Memoirs by Albert Speer, pag. 55, Touchstone Press 5 Julia Hell, Imperial Ruin Gazers, Ruins of Modernity, pag.185, Julia Hell and Andreas Schonle Editors
This impressive piece was staged in the Nuremberg stadium, designed by Speer and based on the structure of the Althar of Pergamon. The final image of the Cathedral of Light resembles the shape of the Althar in a much larger scale (fig.A), reenacting through light the shape of the famous monument/ruin, which western front was moved from Turkey to Berlin in the 1890s. What seemed to become more and more fascinating was this relation between ruins and light, not only on a scenographic level, but in relation to the sublime and its representation. The XV section of Edmund Burke's A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origins of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1757), considered the first modern text to analyse and recover the aesthetic category of the sublime, is called Light in building. Here he focuses on the sublime effects produced by the high contrast in the passage between darkness and light: ”All edifices calculated to produce an idea of the sublime, ought rather to be dark and gloomy […] to make an object very striking, we should make it as different as possible from the objects with which we have been immediately conversant; when therefore you enter a building, […] to make the transition thoroughly striking, you ought to pass from the greatest light, to as much darkness as is consistent with the uses of architecture. At night the contrary rule will hold, but for the very same reason; and the more highly a room is then illuminated, the grander will the passion be.” 6 The Cathedral of Light was described by English ambassador Sir Nevile Henderson “Both solemn and beautiful...like being in a cathedral of ice” 7. Light became for Speer a way of dealing with architecture without employing any solid material, but staging immaterial constructions that resembled and amplified lost buildings from the past on a contemporary ideological ground. The sublime became hence a way to transmit, through greatness, cultural values by means of reenactment of historical buildings or social rituals as in the case of the parades. Both ruins and light are in Speer's practice mediums to convey aesthetic and ideological representations of the Reich, its historical roots and greatness. Speer's attempt is already that of a reenactment of a previous model (the classical ruins and the romantic attitude towards them), as it is the ideological map setted by Hitler for the representation of his Reich. Speer's approach is striking for the use of ruins and light as a mean to transmit and originate a sublime experience; it is even determining in figuring out the approach of the twentieth century to the sublime. While this aesthetic category has in fact its roots in the perception of the boundless greatness of nature, its value has shifted on an artificial plan in the last century. It is impossible to ignore that technology and its evolution has posed questions on the nature of this feeling through wars and destructions that were not anymore caused by God or nature, but generated by man. By following the stories of some exemplar catastrophes like the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, the Lisbon Earthquake of 1755 and the twentieth century catastrophes, the focus seems to have been moving from the divine punishment of the first to the natural cause of the second and the human origin of the latter. This adjusting focus has been greatly developed in the eighteenth century philosophy and sciences; especially Kant's conception of the sublime marked a significative turn in posing the attention on both the causes (through a scientific approach) and the effects (analysing the sublime philosophically) of the catastrophes. The concepts around catastrophes and their consequences in the perception and representation of the sublime has significantly shifted over time; while deepening this topics I came across Foundational Ruins, a text by Alexandre Regier about the effects of the Lisbon Earthquake in 1755 on the developing idea of the sublime in the XVIII century aesthetics. The Lisbon earthquake has signed a crucial and initiating moment in a history linking modernity and increasing secularization, both in science and humanities. This event is widely recognized as a keystone for the birth of modernity, and as Susan Neiman says this earthquake was “the birthplace of modernity” 8. A number of thinkers has conceptualized Lisbon in this way, Goethe, Kleist and Mann in their masterpieces, while Adorno, Benjamin and Russell, after Kant, continued the attempt of understanding the catastrophe philosophically. In his essay Regier addresses the 6 Edmund Burke, A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origins of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, Sect. XV, pag. 88 7 Albert Speer, Spandau: The Secret Diaries, Macmillan, pag.78 8 Susan Neiman, Evil in Modern Thought, An Alternative History of Philosophy, Princeton University Press, 2002
problems of representation of the sublime and the importance of distance for the rationalization of certain events. Regier focuses especially on Kant's theories, pointing on the importance of the Lisbon earthquake for the development of his theories on the sublime and their origin in his geological studies. A fundamental concept that Regier stresses in his text is that of distance as founding condition for the experience of the sublime: ”Kant emphasizes that is only in safety and enough distance that we begin to enjoy a scene which would otherwise be simply terrifying. For Kant this distance is not simply spatial; it is also mental, achieved through rationalization of the terror in front of us”9. Ruins, on the other hand, are the stable ground from which we behold and domesticate our experience of the catastrophe. In 1756, Kant wrote Most Remarkable cases of the Earthquake-History and Physiography of the Most remarkable cases of the earthquake which towards the end of the year 1755 shook a great part of the Earth, an essay recognized as the beginning of modern geology and seismology. This text marked a scientific turn in philosophy, as an attempt to understand natural events as consequences of physic laws and morphological attitudes instead of divine punishments, as believed in popular and religious traditions.
Kant's position is fundamental to understand ruins as the stable ground that serves to understand and rationalize, acting as an observatory on the catastrophes of the past. While in his scientific essay he discusses the origin of the earthquake, in the philosophical approach he analyses the effects of catastrophes, proposing an analysis disengaged with science, but fully aesthetic; in other words: “We behold the ruin as already aesthetic. Hence the subsequent classification of the event as sublime domesticates it, while enabling an orderly and framing discussion of it in aesthetic terms” 10. In Kant's words “The sublime may be described in this way: it is an object (of nature) the representation of which determines the mind to regard the elevation of nature beyond our reach as equivalent to a presentation of ideas”11. A problem which the sublime experience has always been dealing with, is its negative connotation in terms of representation. In few words: the sublime experience itself, as intended in Kant, is a phenomenon which makes the mind conscious of its limit, by making it perceive something beyond its reach: it is in this sense a pleasure originated by a form of displeasure. We thus perceive something through the impossibility of really access it. The representation of the sublime comes in on a second level, by enhancing this form of failure with the failed attempt to represent the sublime, but making it still perceivable in this second layer of mediation. For Kant, the 9 Alexander Regier, Foundational Ruins, Ruins of Modernity, pag. 364, Julia Hell and Andreas Schonle Editors 10 Alexander Regier, Foundational Ruins, Ruins of Modernity, pag. 365, Julia Hell and Andreas Schonle Editors 11 Immanuel Kant, Critique of Judgement [1964 trans.] pag.119
sublime was a way of talking about what happens when the subject is faced with something it doesn’t have the capacity to understand or control; this may be terrifying, or it may just be so complex that an inability to form a clear conception of it in mind leads to a profound sense of the difference between the experience and the thought. As a result, Kant argued, the self is made aware of indeterminacy, ambiguity, and the limits of reason, thereby coming to understand more clearly the true nature and limited extent of its powers. What emerges out of these problematic relations in the horizon of representation is a form of negative presentation, in which we perceive something through the failed attempt to express and understand it. In Foundational Ruins Regier insists on the aftermath of the earthquake in terms of linguistic disorders, by using letters or notes written immediately after the event by witnesses of the catastrophe; what he argues is that “While the event exceeds classification the reports attempt to find a language in which to present the destruction that surrounds them. The lack of available vocabulary is evident in a variety of failed attempts to classify the event geographically, historically, and psychologically [...] The catastrophe is catapulted out of normal history-it does not belong to the generally accepted narrative within which we live.” 12 An eyewitness writes: ”I believe so compleat a destruction has hardly befallen any place on Earth, since the overthrow of Sodom and Gomorrah.”13 The event is of proportions that go beyond modern records and the different reports insist on how the material collapse goes together with a mental breakdown. This form of collapse of the gaze and the mind can be defined as a form of destructive spectatorship. It was through this notion that I discovered another clue that stretches across the different topics I'm interested in: the story of Lot's wife. This story from the Genesis (19:15–26) is set in the tale of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, which is in many texts presented as a counterpoint to the destruction of Lisbon in 1755 and as the only event that resembles the same overwhelming spectacle. In many descriptions of the Lisbon earthquake, Sodom and its destruction were recalled as the only comparable event ever happened. In this story we encounter Lot's wife, a figure that will be extensively bound to an aesthetic of the sublime. The story tells of Lot, the only honest man living in Sodom, and therefore saved by God together with his family from the destruction of the city. They were ordered to not turn back to look at the city destruction while walking away from it. Lot's wife, which name is never mentioned in the Bible, turned back to look at the destruction of Sodom, and was then turned into a pillar of salt. This tale, that has been interpreted exhaustively in literature, poetry and painting, becomes the template for modern engagements with the idea that looking back at the disaster can petrify the spectator. This two phases, the looking back and the paralysis will come back later on an analysis of the concept of reenactment. It's also interesting to notice that this paralysis of perception is rendered through the use of salt, a crystal. It would be unfair to say that thinking in terms of shapes, similitudes and visual associations, my mind did not immediately see in this metamorphosis of a gazer into a crystal a narrow relation with my fondness for light and ruins. If light is what enables us to see and at the same time a medium that links the eye with the outer world, it was even too easy to be fascinated by the gazer transformed in a crystal, in a potential of light. In terms of analogies and similitudes I was amazed by the sentence of Plotinus that says:”Never did eye see the Sun unless it had first become Sun-like. And never can soul have the vision of the First Beauty unless itself be beautiful”. These words beautifully express a form of relation among things that unveils the range of possible conditions of relation among shapes and images, between what is glanced and the eye that glances, a form of inextricable unity between subject and object. Lot's wife expresses the final metamorphosis of this visual relation, she is petrified, crystallized by the vision she saw, that she chose to see. And as she gazed at the destruction of Sodom, the destruction took place in her, as making of her an eternal symulacrum of its own inaccessibility. I've found this image representative of the relations between the gazer and the sublime; the same impossibility of representing a scene we encountered in the reports from Lisbon 12 Alexander Regier, Foundational Ruins, Ruins of Modernity, pag. 359, Julia Hell and Andreas Schonle Editors 13 Quoted in Nozes, The Lisbon Earthquake of 1755 pag.36
in form of linguistic disorders, paralysis of the expressive capabilities, is here presented through a metaphor, an image and a solid matter as salt. A huge pillar of Halite, a mineral which is highly present in the area where Sodom was supposed to be, is still known as Lot's wife, and all over the world lone pillars of mineral matter are commonly called this way (Fig.C). These accumulations of matter are the leftovers of impressive climatic phenomena and the visible signs of the action of entropy in the evolution of the landscape: they are natural ruins. My concerns about the story of Lot's wife are perfectly expressed by Martin Harries in his book Forgetting Lot's Wife: â€œLot's wife provides a way to look at one of the dominant, but rarely directly articulated, fantasies of modern spectatorship, a fantasy that has at once narrowly aesthetic and widely political applications. The basis of this fantasy is the treat of, or desire for, an experience of spectatorship so overwhelming that it destroys the spectatorâ€?. 14
This form of destructive spectatorship leads to the relations between the overwhelmed gaze and the subsequent reaction of the mind in terms of rationalization and public or private forms of representation. This is exactly what memorials and monuments, in whatever shape, aim to do. How does architectural reenactment acts as a strategy that unveils the mechanisms of remembering and representation of trauma and catastrophes? Architectural reenactment is a practice strictly linked to the twentieth century; this increasing tendency towards memory and the past is in fact a symptom that signed Europe and the United States very recently; this neo-conservative phenomenon was named by Andreas Huyssen Memory Fever. This concept refers to the tendency for increasing memories of everything: phenomena like musealization and conservative trends which re-launched Nostalgia and retro-fashion in urban planning in recent times. This tendency has been critically explored by theoreticians such as Marita Sturken, who developed the notion of architectural reenactment in relation to those large scale memorialization projects that are increasingly diffusing and invite collective repression and historical revision through the reconstruction of aspects of trauma within structural design. Sturken focuses on the shattering political and social impact that this practice generates: memorials are becoming a popular trend that makes out of memory a sort of touristic attraction. Since these places are being visited by thousands of tourists, their urge to 14 Martin Harries, Forgetting The Lot's Wife:On Destructive Spectatorship, Fordham University Press, 2007, pag. 15
remember has shifted on a level that represents in an allegorical way and prettifies the trauma in order to make it more acceptable; by cleaning the event we're still attending to a form of removal that simplifies history instead of creating an understanding. On the other hand reenactment creates a constant repetition of the trauma that makes rationality idle in front of its eternal effigy. My interest for reenactment is focused in those circular dynamics of representation and crystallization that take place when the spectator is repetitively putted in front of the trauma, a position which escapes rationalization in favor of an emotional amnesiac experience. As our psycho-political and ethical companions, memorials should help us consider trauma and rethink and reactualize the past; they should encourage critical consciousness, committed memory-work and the possibility of engaging with the world through transformative practices.
Reenactment is instead a form of reconstruction disengaged with metabolization and rationalization of trauma. These forms of reconstruction attempt to paralyse time, by recreating what once was and is not anymore, in a continuous gaze backwards at the horizon of the past, not that different from that of Lot's wife. A monument’s ethical function arises from its capacity for establishing dialogues with, and presenting questions about, the past and the future. By constructing memorials that embody the shape of the trauma, we're faced with a form of repetition, not a rationalization neither an interpretation of trauma. A clear example is the memorial built for the unrecognized victims of the hurricane Katrina, in New Orleans (Fig.D). The site has been constructed in a curving, concentric form that draws visitors toward its center. The memorial’s spiral pathways draw visitors inward, toward the metaphorical “eye” of the storm, symbolized by a marble plaque adjacent to the mausoleums. The visitors have then to walk through the shape of the hurricane in order to visit the burials. Reenactment creates an experience of the trauma, it does not create a narrative that tells its story and aftermath, and in this sense reenactment functions as a mean to destructure distance, and consequently a rational approach to the matter, by mirroring the event and making us go through it again and again, avoiding rationalization and the possibility of coming to terms with the event. In this form of repetition Sturken identified a way to erase memory instead of creating it, and is this the actual meaning of these forms of representation. In terms of images, shapes, sounds we are guided through a circular path where the trauma, or the sublime, and its own representation are exactly the same; there's not anymore space in between that separates them. And this is exactly the criticality of this topic: distance is avoided, both spatially and mentally, the gaze is paralysed in a crystal of crysis, embedded in a system of rupture which escapes rationality and objectivity. Architectural reenactment takes to the excess the unexplorable complexity of representing the sublime, instead of showing us the event through representation, it reverses the horizon of our gaze, by making out of reality a vortex of reenactments, an infinite replay. While Albert Speer's practice was dealing with the transmission of a message, and the use
of ruins in his architecture was merely a vehicle for an ideological message handling ruins through spectacular presentations, we should move the focus of our attention on the intense disappointment generated by forms of actual reenactment. If on one side images have lost their unique potential, being infinitely replicable through television and a number of other media, the experience has not. In fact, while the screen or whatever monitor has the power of filtering images, of being itself a barrier between us and the real, bodily experience puts us in the middle of the Thing, faces us with unfiltered events, shapes, images. Space, either physical or mental becomes the action field of a rupture, where ruins and eyes are the same thing.
An essay on the developments of my recent researches on ruins, the gaze and representation in and through architectural and visual means
Published on May 22, 2013
An essay on the developments of my recent researches on ruins, the gaze and representation in and through architectural and visual means