Wednesday, 12 March 2014

I Wish You Were Here: The art of displaying a loss

OK, let it be said at once: This post is not a happy piece. It could be blamed on the season, including the beginning of Lent when mortality and vanity is the ever present narrative at least for church attendants, and when my fellow Scandinavians ask themselves and each other (between the sneezing, coughing and winter puking) why on earth they persist in living in this cold, dark and hostile part of the world. However, I will not choose that easy way out. I'd rather surrender to the fact that sometimes even my mind is grim and dull - a fact which probably explains the passion for my research topic, since it turns out to be permeated by death, loss, hopeless longing and nostalgic memories. Or, as crime novelist P D James put it in The Murder Room: 'Museums are about death'.

Skeleton on marble sign kindly reminding the bypassers in Via Giulia that they are mortal. Church of Santa Maria dell'Orazione e Morte, Rome.

Researcher Mark O'Neill argues that theories on death and dying are, in fact, crucial to understand the development of the museum institutions; museums, he says, respond to a need within all humans to plan for our own forthcoming death. Professor Owe Ronström elaborates on Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett when he writes (in my translation from Swedish) that

'All kinds of preservation efforts, all history recycling, all sorts of revival, presuppose and build upon disappearance and death. Remembering is a foreplay to forgetting; for the heritage industry it is not the memory but the oblivion that is central, since it is by forgotten and dead things that heritage is being produced.'

With this perspective, to which I relate in my dissertation, P D James has a point: Museums are, at least among other things, about death. So: what happens when death and oblivion become museum objects and subject to what Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett calls 'the agency of display'?

Putting things on display is an active act of will: By pointing at something as being particularly interesting, the pointer performs a strong act of power - consciously or not. Avant-garde artist Piero Manzoni made this clear in his work 'Socle du Monde'/'Base of the World' (1961), where the seemingly upside-down base is actually putting the whole world on display as a piece of art. Pretentious - or a way to make the artist in the traditional sense obsolete.

In March 2001, the two gigantic standing Buddha statues in Bamiyan Valley in Afghanistan were deliberately destroyed by Taliban, an act that was condemned internationally. After this, the valley was enrolled on UNESCO's World Heritage List. Though it should be made clear that the valley in question houses many other sites of interest as heritage and memory, it is somewhat interesting that the major piece on display - the Buddhas - for obvious reasons are not there. What is on display, and heritagised, is the memory and the void left after the destruction. This display can only be possible if a strong narrative is connected to the emptiness - a narrative constructed by someone, for a reason, and probably with certain spectators or visitors in mind.
One of the Bamiyan Buddhas before destruction...

...and after.

As previously stated, museums can be a way to deal with our own mortality and the temporary nature of this present life as we know it. This interest in death and in things, places and persons long since disappeared and gone - which varies quite dramatically in a global perspective, with different notions of materiality, time and space - seems to be linked to another strong driving force: The wish to replace, re-build, to heal the wounds and fix the broken. To undo what is done, paraphrasing that annoying yet blessed little key (and very philosophically tempting: what if, in real life..? But, alas: No.) on some computer keyboards. Earlier this year, it was revealed that the voids in Bamiyan valley were no longer completely empty, since an unofficial 'restoration' of the monument had been going on for some time. UNESCO intervened and stopped the unauthorized re-building of the sculptures, and debate was high within the heritage world on restoring, replacing, creating access and understanding for visitors, and preserving what was left of the materiality for coming generations. All highly interesting questions, and with - in my opinion - many possible answers.

Another example of death and preservation could be a genre in itself: Trees, Bushes, and Other plants. One of these is standing (though almost not) very near to where I presently stay in Rome and near the Bambin' Gesù hospital, namely the so-called Tasso's Oak. This tree was, according to legend, planted by Italian 16th century poet Torquato Tasso nearby the convent where he came to die. It has since then been subject to romantic paintings and poems, and is now a shell of what must be a very dead tree, but supported by iron beams and brick walls. The image of the remains of this poor tree saddens me a little, and brings forward the aspect of musealisation as a vain attempt to challenge and conquer death. I wonder how Tasso himself, crowned poet laureate and all, would perceive this living-yet-very-dead memory in his honor..?

 Tasso's Oak in Gianocolo Hill, Rome. Or rather: What's left of it.

Continuing the trail of trees and their painful departure and death, I have just started reading a book recommended to me by a friend who understands very well my fascination for displaying voids and nurturing memories of losses. The book by Italian writer Matteo Melchiorre bears the title Requiem per un albero, 'Requiem for a tree', and tells a story - or many stories - about how the removal of a very old tree, an alberón, and the remaining void and memories affect the local North East Italian community. It is a short and beautiful book, and I look forward to immersing myself in it for a while.

The losses and voids are not always physical and visible. However, to produce memory and lasting heritage, some kind of visuality is probably needed. A great example of this, in a terrible context, is the planned national monuments over the victims of extreme-right terrorist shootings in Utøya, Norway, in 2011. 77 persons were killed in the massacre, the most part teenagers attending a political summer camp on Utøya island. The question of how to commemorate this terrible event on behalf of the nation, in a way that can serve as a remembrance for coming generations but also as a place to remember and to mourn the persons who were killed, created a vivid national debate. Finally, an international contest was organised, and Swedish artist Jonas Dahlberg won the competition to design the national memorial. His concept builds upon the perpetrator's having 'left a scar on humanity', which will be illustrated and remembered by cutting a 3,5 meters wide scar in the landscape near the island where the massacre took place.

(Pictures credit to Jonas Dahlberg studio)

The memory production of this deed of horror is highly material: apart from the already mentioned slit in the landscape, the names of the victims will be engraved in the stone wall created in the process. These names will be possible to read from a spectator place, but distant enough not to be reached - near and tactile, yet far away and unreachable. I find this concept most interesting from a memory production and heritagisation point of view.

Returning to the handling of death again, yet another aspect is the urge many of us seem to have, namely to build and correct the memory of ourselves - even while we are still in business and (should be) busy living that precious life. We are encouraged, professionally as well as personally, to mind our personal brand - how are we perceived by others, what is the narrative connected to our persona? A most boring notion of a person, in my opinion, and in desperate lack of respect for human complexity. This desire to design the memory of ourselves has deep roots in our society, though. A beautiful example might be Henry Purcell's interpretation in Dido and Aeneas. When Queen Dido enters the stake in despair after her beloved Aeneas's departure for new adventures (such as founding Rome), Purcell lets her perform an act of memory production in the last grim moments when facing death:

When I am laid, am laid in earth, may my wrongs create
No trouble, no trouble in, in thy breast.
When I am laid, am laid in earth, may my wrongs create
No trouble, no trouble in, in thy breast.
Remember me, remember me, but ah!
Forget my fate.

Even in her last moments, the heroine Queen wishes to control not only her own end, but also the memory of her. Remember me!, she orders, but also: Forget my fate! In its shortness, a brilliant example of memory production, and of the subtle balance between memory and oblivion.

Angel of Grief, Protestant cemetery, Rome

Trying to wrap this up, I find myself thinking that another important - perhaps even crucial - ingredient in heritage production and museums is one connected to death, loss, memory and oblivion, namely: Longing. That force so desperately trying to bridge the gaps of time, space and even of death - how could memory production be possible without it? 
I cannot think of a better way to conclude all this, than with the aid of David Gilmour and Pink Floyd: I wish you were here.