Nine days in Vilnius

Reflections on a residency with B_Tour, the Lithuanian National Drama Theatre and Architecture Fund

A response to our residency in September 2016, with thanks to the Lithuania National Drama Theatre, the Architecture Fund in Vilnius and B_Tour.

On our first day in the city we look for traces, clues, atmospheres. Historic borders and public maps. The old ghetto; the missing synagogue. Wilno, Wilna, Вильнюс,Vilna, ווילנע, Vilno, Viļņa, Вiльня, Vilnius: name = identity = (ripped up and rewritten).

Maps and fragments of maps • on paper • on phones • in space • in memory • in the body.

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Benches everywhere – a commitment to public space? So many different kinds of benches. So many empty benches. The meeting point of private and public acts. Continue reading “Nine days in Vilnius”

Destroying monuments part two: smashing Lenins

There are more ways to reshape a city than demolishing, constructing and transforming buildings and infrastructure. Sometimes changes to smaller fragments of the city can have a powerful effect.

Recent events in Ukraine have highlighted monuments’ political potency, suggesting that they can be so deeply embedded in the identity of a place they become a natural focus and flashpoint when that identity is threatened with radical change. There has been coverage internationally of the destruction of statues of Lenin in Ukraine following the smashing of the monument in Independence Square in Kiev by pro-European and nationalist protesters. There are online maps showing the places where about 100 similar relics of the Soviet era have been attacked and pulled down.

Srecko Horvat, writing in the Guardian, points out that the destructions were foreshadowed by a virtual demolition in 2011, when a promotional video for Ukraine digitally erased the statue of Lenin in Liberty Square in the north-eastern city of Kharkiv, leaving only an empty plinth.

Such erasures of history happen whenever there is far-reaching political change – and the collapse of communism in eastern Europe at the end of the 20th century brought the smashing or removal of monuments on a large scale. Horvat remembers the widespread destruction of remnants of the Tito era as Yugoslavia disintegrated. “In the period from 1990 to 2000 at least 3,000 monuments were torn down in Croatia alone,” he says.

Elsewhere, Soviet-era monuments were displaced from their sites and corralled into holding pens or theme parks – which in turn have become tourist sites. Budapest has Memento Park, designed as an educational resource-cum-propaganda tool (as Hungary’s president said: “The Statue Park utilizes politically neutral means of art to emphasize the dignity of democracy and the responsibility of historical thinking.” Lithuania has Stalin’s World (officially called Grutas Park); Russia itself has Fallen Monument Park in Moscow.

In Ukraine, too, many statues from Soviet times were taken down after it became an independent state in 1991; others were replaced with ones of the country’s national hero, the poet Taras Shevchenko. But plenty remained until the latest round of regime change.

In fact Kiev’s Lenin had been a focus of conflict at least as far back as 2009, when the then president Viktor Yushchenko had called for the country to “cleanse itself” of Communist symbols. The statue was vandalised and mutilated, leading to street brawls that spotlighted the divisions in society. But it wasn’t just pro-Russian Ukrainians who rushed to its defence –  Denis Vertov made an eloquent argument for preserving the monument for the sake of art history.

With the fall of Yanukovych, Lenins in Kiev and the west of the country fell like dominoes – at one point the Lenin in Kiev’s Independence Square was replaced by a golden toilet as a satirical comment, then by an artwork made up of golden mannequins. Meanwhile in the Russian-speaking part of Ukraine, they continued to preside – the old revolutionary now standing for the status quo, nostalgia, the past or the Russian motherland. In Kharkiv, for example – once the capital of Soviet Ukraine, where Russian speakers are in the majority – crowds defended the statue of Lenin against supporters of the new government who sprayed it with graffiti, in a standoff that lasted for more than a week.

But alongside the ideological reasons, perhaps there is also truth in the reason given by Andrei Borodavka, a Kharkiv journalist and anti-Euromaidan activist: “Lenin is the place where you meet girls for a date. Or where you go after your school graduation. Newly-weds visit Lenin too. He’s in our memories.”

Does a monument come into its own only when it is taken for granted, used as a landmark or meeting point and photographed by tourists as a picturesque historic sight? The suggestion is that Kharkiv’s Lenin (and others like it) is so much a part of Kharkiv that its removal would threaten the memories and identity of its residents – it has become detached from the story of Vladimir Ilyich Lenin himself as a historical figure and melded with the fabric of the city. It’s hard to take this at face value – the political aspects of the statue’s installation and preservation are surely embedded in its meaning just as firmly as those teenage dates and school graduation photos. But equally, the everyday functions of monuments should not be forgotten; when they are destroyed, part of a citizen’s personal past is ripped away alongside the reshaping of the city’s political and social history.

Part one of this piece looked at a monument recreated with its own destruction built into the design.

 

 

Destroying monuments part one: the dissolving city

Monuments are always more than decorative fragments of the urban scene. Here’s a public artwork that stirs up questions about their meaning, the transience of fame and “the bubble reputation” of those commemorated.

I found out the other day that Butcher Cumberland was still hanging round Cavendish Square. That’s not his official title – properly speaking, he’s called Written in Soap: a Plinth Project – but Butcher was the nickname of Prince William Augustus, Duke of Cumberland, who sits astride a horse in the middle of the square, just behind John Lewis. He’s an effective piece of public art by Korean artist Meekyoung Shin that raises all sorts of questions about the nature and purpose of monuments.

At first glance, Written in Soap is a standard equestrian statue. It looks like stone, it sits comfortably on a stone plinth and there is a little plaque telling you that it was erected in 1770. The thing is, although it was put up as a statue to the hero of the the 1746 battle of Culloden, it was taken down under a century later for political reasons, after the Duke of Cumberland had gained a shocking reputation for brutal killings and plunder (hence the nickname) and his hero status had become too tarnished to justify public memorialising. The plinth was bare until 2012, when a remarkably convincing imitation of the original was erected, in soap crafted to look exactly like weathered stone.

Written in Soap is designed to weather rather faster than stone, of course. The project was supposed to last a year, but it has worn better than expected – although the supporting metal armature is now sticking through the washed-away surface in several places – and in contrast to the original, public demand is apparently responsible for the decision to leave it in place.

I never consciously noticed the absence of a statue when I used to walk through Cavendish Square, but I remember being shocked when I first registered its presence – a man on a horse had appeared from nowhere yet it looked as if it had been there for centuries. I would have been less disturbed to see a new building – sometimes central London can seem like one giant construction site – but a modest, unassuming monument slipping into place seemed like a much bigger deal, as if I had stepped into a parallel, subtly different world, like someone in a Philip K Dick story.

Written in Soap is a work with many layers. You can simply appreciate the skill in its making or enjoy the joke it makes around the nature of the material, which convincingly imitates stone in appearance while having the opposite qualities in terms of resilience, while perhaps “washing away” the Butcher’s war crimes along with his presence. Or you can see it as a commentary on the transience of fame and “the bubble reputation” (the Duke of Cumberland went from hero to villain within a century and, before his fatty resurrection, was largely forgotten, at least in England, although in Scotland the project stirred up some anger among nationalists), or as a work that engages with the meaning of monuments and their presence in the cityscape. At the very least, it made me look twice, which is more than many works of art achieve.

But, while Written in Soap certainly looks like a monument does it qualify as one, or is it a piece of public art. And is there a difference?

In his book Written in Stone, which was one of Meekyoung Shin’s inspirations, Sanford Levinson writes that “a public monument represents a kind of collective recognition – in short, legitimacy – for the memory deposited there”. A monument is always more than just a decorative fragment of the urban scene, it’s an argument in an ongoing debate over history – what monuments depict, who decides when and where to erect them, what values are embedded in them, are all important questions.

Yet London is overrun with public statues and few people really notice them. Apparently, there are so many monuments and memorials in a part of central London between Whitehall and St James’s that Westminster council has declared in a “monument saturation zone”. But how many of us really see them or know what they represent? Even in Trafalgar Square, the central spot in the capital for people to congregate in celebration or protest, there are three plinths that tend to be overlooked, although most know that Admiral Nelson is on top of the column in the middle and that the “fourth plinth” in the north-west corner is the site of a succession of new commissions. But whose statues are on the other three? (King George IV, Sir Henry Havelock and Sir Charles Napier if you’re interested – and I had to resort to Google to discover that the latter two were 19th-century army bigwigs who played important roles in Britain’s rule over India.) How long would it take for anyone to spot the difference if they were replaced overnight?

Perhaps this is a reflection of how relaxed Londoners – and maybe the English as a whole – feel about their identity – the Scots’ reaction to the resurrection of Butcher Cavendish shows this complacency isn’t universal in Britain. Or perhaps it’s to do with the fall from fashion of the “Great Man” view of history, or of figurative art in the west – certainly more recent monuments and memorials in London have tended to be non-figurative. Elsewhere, the survival and significance of statues has been a very different story.

Part two of this piece looks at the smashing up of monuments that refuse to gently dissolve in the rain, in countries where national identity is far hotter issue.

• Thanks to Jonathan Polkest for reminding me about Written in Soap: A Plinth Project. For more on the artwork and Meekyoung Shin, see the website and Facebook page

 

Transformations at Tesco: a walk round Stoke-on-Trent

Exploring refrains for uncertainly sacred spaces, or a report on walking as imaginative adventure

The other day I went for a walk in Hanley, Stoke-on-Trent. It’s quite a long way to go just for a walk (about two and a half hours on the train) but there were at least two things that made it worthwhile: it was part of the events around AirSpace Gallery’s Walking Encyclopaedia exhibition which I wanted to see, and it was led by Phil Smith, artist/writer/performer and progenitor of Mythogeography, which is like psychogeography but also quite different (have a rummage in the capacious and inspiring website to find out more).

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The walk, titled Refrains for Uncertainly Sacred Spaces, started at AirSpace, a warm and welcoming artist-run gallery whose Glen Stoker came with us on the walk armed with a video camera. The Walking Encyclopaedia exhibition, which includes Tim Knowles’ solo show, Paths of Variable Resistance, ends on 15th March but I hope it will be archived for future reference at the end rather than dispersed – it’s a dense and wide-ranging collection of documentation of “walking as a cultural practice” by contemporary artists, including artist books, leaflets, instructions, videos, photos etc. There’s also a blog to accompany it.

Before we set out, Phil introduced the walk by talking a little about his current interest in privacy and exposure, and also describing the afternoon as an experiment – so if things didn’t quite work that would also useful. There were about 20 of us – a strange and interesting mix of people, some of us shod for a cross-country hike (me) and others who knew or guessed it wouldn’t be quite so arduous. In fact, we never strayed very far from the gallery – the walk proved to be a detailed exploration of the “uncertainly sacred spaces” all around us, and a strenuous workout for the imagination rather than the leg muscles.

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Those spaces included a patch of wasteland that was once a cinema, the arches leading to Tesco’s car park, some peculiar flower beds seemingly modelled on an altar for human sacrifice, unmonumented plinths in a former graveyard, cryptic marks on a wall, a Methodist chapel suspended in aspic-dust halfway between ruin and restoration, and the empty stage of the Regent cinema. We also walked very slowly around the Richard Long exhibition in the Potteries Museum, trying to get in touch with the spirits of the architects behind the 1960s building, and we clustered into a pedestrian horse outside the horseshoe-shaped doorway of a legal chambers. Along the way we cast health and safety to the wind, climbing over hillocks and holes and broken floors and risking arrest (or drawing attention) by quietly looking for things to steal, committing tiny acts of arson or disguising ourselves in black masks (our own personal patches of darkness)…

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This was walking as an imaginative adventure, full of suggestions to look harder at the urban furniture we take for granted and invitations to create fictions for ourselves, whether projecting a memory of darkness onto an imagined blank screen or stealing words from a derelict space. Some parts worked better for me than others – I was quite shocked that I felt a deep resistance to the idea of desecrating a chapel with sneak-thiefery, even if it was a symbolic rather than a real crime. On the other hand, walking round with a secret piece of darkness in my pocket was deeply appealing and the idea of later using that darkness (a small patch of cloth) as a veil of privacy had resonances I’m still pondering. Geographically, we covered a very small patch of ground but that meant we had time to explore it in detail within the various fictional frames that Phil suggested and supported with small invented (or excavated) rituals. What was on offer was a different way of seeing and relating to the everyday, a way to access something hidden beneath the skin of the banal.

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Thoughts on walking art

I have vague feelings of discomfort around the idea of walking as art, or as a “cultural practice”. For one thing, it seems extraordinarily pretentious to anyone not involved with the art world to label as art an activity as basic and commonplace as eating or urinating. But this is also something I find exciting – it has the capacity to tread that invisible line at the border of art and the everyday, to explore that line and perhaps to blur it.

It can be participatory, pleasurable and potentially open to everyone; or private, esoteric and difficult, available to only the initiated. Or anything between these two. It can be an ongoing project that anyone can pick up and practise for themselves, or a one-off, unrepeatable event only thoroughly experienced by the artist, with the audience allowed crumbs from the table – fragments of documentation or recollection held captive in a stark white gallery far from the action. Either way, it doesn’t easily produce something that can be collected by oligarchs or sold at Sotheby’s for headline-making sums.

Perhaps the obstacle is the label – is it possible to just think of this activity as walking? What is the distinction between undertaking an “art walk” and simply using one’s feet to get around or go for a hike or take an old-school guided tour? All of these walks can have varying degrees of structure and direction. I think the artist’s walk might tend to have the intention of affecting the participant or the audience in some way, whether by involving them in an unusual activity or shifting the way they perceive and process the world. This was certainly true of Phil Smith’s walk, at least for me.

But it can be quite a subtle distinction. Ben Waddington, talking about his current festival of guided tours in Birmingham, says “The Still Walking outlook is that everything around us is worth looking at, thinking about and talking about” – which seems to make that vital connection between walking as a popular pastime and the aims of types of participatory art – does there really have to be a big gap between walking art participant and someone who takes a country walk to look at the landscape or who goes on a tour to learn about the history of a place? But of course, framing a walk as art allows you to apply for a grant or use it as research material for a PhD, which is quite another matter; it can also alienate people who would otherwise engage with and enjoy the experience.

I don’t have a clear answer at the moment. Any comments would be appreciated.

Some links

• AirSpace Gallery

• Phil Smith’s Mythogeography site

• Still Walking festival

• Walk On “From Richard Long to Janet Cardiff – 40 years of art walking”, an exhibition at Mac arts centre in Birmingham until 30 March 2014

• The Richard Long exhibition has ended at Stoke but it will come to Burton Art Gallery and Museum in Devon from October

Books and bombs: Al-Mutanabbi Street Starts Here

A street becomes a symbol of the power of words on paper; when it is destroyed, a project seeks to rebuild it in words and paper.

The pictures of maps here are from a book made by my friend Mona Kriegler for Al-Mutanabbi Street Starts Here, a really interesting project that makes explicit the relationship between place and the imaginative, between symbolic and physical realities.

The project began in March 2007 when an American poet, Beau Beausoleil, read about an incident in Iraq the previous day – a car bomb exploding on Al-Mutanabbi Street in Baghdad, killing 26 people and wreaking devastation. The street, named after a revered 10th-century Iraqi poet, had been home to bookshops, stationers and cafes where writers and artists gathered, and the bombing was widely seen as an attack on the country’s literary and intellectual life.

Mona Kriegler, The Autonomy of Pain

In truth, the area had started to transform in the 1990s after western sanctions started to wreak havoc on Iraqi cultural life without any need for explosive; rather than a flourishing bookshop quarter, it had become a place where impoverished intellectuals came to sell the contents of their personal libraries, spreading out their books on the street, and a rash of photocopying shops had sprouted to cater to those starved of reading matter by the dearth of imported publications. Al-Mutanabbi Street was not so much an address as a symbol of traditional art and culture. The image of a street of bookshops being blown to smithereens is a powerful one, though, and Beausoleil’s response is an equally powerful symbolic action, seeking to rebuild an area of the city in words, images and paper.

Beausoleil first asked poets and writers to contribute poems in memory of the victims of the bombing, and this became a call to letterpress artists to make broadsides – large posters, of the sort traditionally used for publishing news, ballads and proclamations – as a visual response, focused on text and typography. The next phase was a callout for book art, and between 2010 and 2012 260 artists contributed to an alternative library, which has become a touring exhibition. The third phase is a call for submissions from printmakers to contribute on the themes of absence and presence. The project as a whole already has almost 500 contributors from around the world, so it has clearly harnessed something powerful around the symbolic connections between site and art.

Attacks on culture through the actual destruction of objects, buildings and places is a common feature of conflict throughout history, of course. In a recent talk at the Mosaic Centre in London, London-based Iraqi artist Rashad Salim pointed to the burning of a library in Tripoli, Lebanon in January as just the most recent example. In the real world, Al-Mutanabbi Street was rebuilt in bricks and mortar in 2008 (before-and-after pictures here), generating conflict over whether the government was prioritising its symbolic value over the needs of other parts of Baghdad and elsewhere in the country that were destroyed in the war and/or fell into disrepair. The street’s continuing symbolic reconstruction in words and paper (an inversion of the Demolition Project) can perhaps be extended to a wish to restore all the culture that is lost in war or to iconoclastic rampage – all the vanished streets where artists once met, all the burned books, demolished libraries, smashed statues, ruined archives, ripped paintings…

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The book art contributed to Al-Mutanabbi Street Starts Here includes ingenious and beautiful work, some of it drawing on the image of the map. My friend Mona’s contribution, Pain and Memory, is one of these, using gold thread to stitch together the “scar” of Al-Mutanabbi Street on hand-drawn and aerial maps of Baghdad, an idea that draws on the Japanese wabi sabi tradition of repairing broken objects with a thin gold line along the cracks. The book is largely made up of photographic portraits of people who have been injured or broken in some way, with their scars (some of them invisible) traced in gold paint, thus drawing out relationships between the city and the body. A very different take on the aesthetics of destruction and repair, making beauty out of the tracks of repair.

Mona’s gold-stitched lines made me think about the debate between those who want to build anew and those who want to restore – similar arguments have taken place in Baghdad over Al-Mutanabbi Street and in New York over the World Trade Center site. Do we want to wipe out any sign that destruction has happened – whether by building something completely different or by constructing an exact copy of the original – or do we want to reveal and memorialise it? There is a small round plaque high up on a wall on a street near my house, commemorating the first bombing in the first Zeppelin raids in London in 1915; I walked past it a thousand times before I noticed. London is full of such small, discreet nods to damage caused in long ago wars. Beau Beausoleil’s project could prove a more enduring and constructive way to acknowledge damage through the fragile medium of paper.

Mona Kriegler, The Autonomy of Pain

More on Al-Mutanabbi Street Starts Here book art here, here and here.

A long piece on the project here.

Book photographs: Dafne Louzioti, Mona Kriegler

real underground

In the urban exploration culture there is a very straightforward but, arguably, most genuine solution for organizing exhibitions. Where to make an exhibition of photos from the roof-tops if not on a roof-top? Where to make an exhibition of pictures and photos from underground if not in an unfinished construction of the heat header?

In the urban exploration culture there is a very straightforward but, arguably, most genuine concept for organising exhibitions. Where to make an exhibition of photos from the roof-tops if not on a roof-top? Where to make an exhibition of drawings and photos from underground if not in an unfinished construction of the heat header?

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In July 2011 a group of ‘diggers’ (those who explore the underground world of the city) led by moscowhite, have organised an exhibition featuring drawings by hatever and kreazot_13. It took place in a heat header right in the central district of Moscow. During one day (due to the illegal and spontaneous nature of such events they essentially have a very short life span) dozens of people would be climbing down not only to see the works but also to get the real feel of urbex life. While most of the guests were from the community itself, there were quite a few for whom the process of getting to the location was a real adventure. The location was specifically chosen so it was not very dangerous and illegal (the header is abandoned) and everyone who wanted could get to the location without getting lost in the tunnels. The exact address was not revealed – only the nickname of the place. Thus, everyone from the community knew it and could get there straightforwardly while all other guests could write a message to organisers and get directions. During that one day several hundreds of people have come down and walked along the tunnels to see the exhibition.

The organisers have installed lights (apart from candles and torches brought by spectators) and played ambient music which could already be heard in advance, as you were approaching the location along the tunnel.

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Have a look at the very atmospheric video from the event: ‘Real Underground’ by Anastasia Zotova.

Photos: w-molybden, huan_carlos, jst-ru