Fantasy garden apocalypse metaphor*

Let your eyes close gently. Don’t force them.

Breathe in deeply to the count of 4.

Breathe out slowly to the count of 8, letting your breath move gently down through your body.

Continue to breathe in this way until you no longer have to count and you are in a deep state of relaxation. This may take a few tries.

Hieronymus_Bosch_-_The_Garden_of_Earthly_Delights_-_The_Earthly_Paradise_(Garden_of_Eden)Now. Imagine yourself inside a beautiful walled garden, a place where you don’t feel threatened and where you are perfectly peaceful and calm. All your needs are met and you relax in your favourite lounge chair with a bowl of fruit collected from the trees around you. It’s sunny, and the dappled light comes through the branches and warms your bare arms and legs. There’s a nice breeze and there are birds and woodland creatures, building nests and frolicking. They are friendly and allow you to pet them as they accept nuts and seeds from your hands. You breathe in the lightly perfumed air, scented by flowers in bloom. Nothing can bother you here, and everything seems in perfect balance with the universe, including you.

Suddenly, you hear a low rumbling in the distance, and a voice, far away, crying out in distress. You try to ignore it, sinking deeper into your chair and shutting your eyes tighter, but the sounds become louder and closer. Eventually, you’re forced to rise and break the deep calm that had settled into your body. The creatures scatter and birds fly off, panicked. You feel the same anxiety, prickling the nape your neck.

You climb a trellis on the wall of the garden to get a better look. Your arms and legs are scraped by thorny stems and nettles, but you press on, upwards, determined to find out what lies beyond. When you reach the top of the wall you cautiously peek over. As your eyes register what’s on the other side you feel your bowels loosen and your mouth becomes very dry. Shocked, you have to grip the wall to keep from falling backwards.

The scene is one of absolute chaos. Tower blocks are ablaze, the smell of burning synthetic materials is thick and suffocating. People run terrified in all directions, clutching their worldly goods. Rental vans careen toward crowds, their drivers’ eyes wild with malice and despair. Knife bearing terrorists and vigilantes attack at random in the name of particular ideologies, while disenfranchised opportunists smash and grab from shopfronts. Police and armed forces looked stunned, unable to decide who to help first. There don’t appear to be enough of them to be effective. Firefighters spray high powered hoses at flames which only spread faster up buildings carelessly designed as deathtraps. A thin bird like woman stands on a podium and shouts in a quavering voice that everything that could have been done has been done and we are still STRONG AND STABLE. A group of men in suits stand around her, alternately laughing and weeping, heads in hands.

320px-Hieronymus_Bosch_-_The_Garden_of_Earthly_Delights_-_HellAs you take in the detail your mind and heart struggles to understand what is happening. From your dreamlike hypnotic state you have been dropped into a horrifying dystopia in which violence, suffering and trauma are everywhere. Your first response is to flee, but where can you go? The chaos seems to be spreading in every direction, surrounding your little garden and trapping you inside. Perhaps you should go back to your chair and focus on your breathing? There isn’t anything you can do (the women said everything had been done, right?), and if you exit the garden you may never find your way back. Worse, others could discover it and destroy the peace you have created. You must protect your quiet personal space from the disfunction and rot that is causing society to collapse in on itself.

Then, someone shouts something in your direction. You quickly lower your head below the wall but it is too late, you have been spotted. They cry out to you again, a plea for help. You feel conflicted: on the one hand you fear interaction more than anything – you don’t want to be contaminated by the needs and complications of other people. On the other, you feel a strong desire to attend to them, to offer support and share what you have with them.

You take a deep breath and let it out slowly.

“Just a minute”, you say, and climb back down the trellis. You find the secret rock that’s in the shape of a toad and retrieve a key, rusted from neglect. It has been a long time since you used it. Pushing aside the overgrown bushes and hanging branches you uncover a door and with the key open it, slowly, apprehensively. A wild, bloodshot eye appears in the crack: “Please, help me!”. You open the door wider and let them in.

More follow, and soon your garden is filled with people recovering from the chaos that had enveloped them. They cough up smoke and blood and clean their wounds, some sleep in the dappled shade, others eat from the fruit trees and excitedly hatch plans for a brighter future. You are glad that you opened your garden to them, but worry that there’s not enough room and that they will take too much and leave you with nothing. You climb back up the trellis and survey the garden, and are amazed to realise that somehow the dimensions of the garden have expanded to accommodate the crowds of people. As more enter, the walls extend further and your little private utopia transforms into a sprawling arcadian landscape, with rivers and verdant valleys to shelter and replenish the injured and the destitute. To help them start again.

Things are far from perfect in the garden, now that it has become a public sanctuary. The conflicts and inequalities that arise in all cultures are manifest, and frustration and anger at differences threaten the community. One of the most frightened and cowardly of the group suggests BUILDING A WALL through the middle of the garden, to separate THE BAD from THE GOOD. He even proposes that THE BAD pay for it because clearly they’re the ones who are the problem. People laugh at him because even though they are characters in a metaphorical story they understand that things aren’t that simple. They stick flowers in his bum so he will stop stinking up the place with bad ideas.

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There are celebrations, skirmishes, resentments and reaffirmations, and the garden is home to all these things. But with some important changes: now when they build houses they think of everyone’s needs; they learn about each other’s differences before jumping to conclusions and stereotypes; and they stop isolating themselves and others. Instead, they work together to become STRONG AND STABLE without the miserable bird-lady and her gaggle of ineffective suited men.

You observe these changing dynamics with new found hope. Sometimes you catch yourself missing the perfect calm that came with unchallenged personal space, when all your needs were met and you didn’t have to deal with the messiness of others and otherness itself. But then you look around the wild fantastical place that has grown up around you, with all its collective quirks and foibles, and inconveniences and interruptions, and misunderstandings that sometimes lead to understanding, and discomfort and pleasure all mixed together… and you think: “This is better. This is interesting. This is how we are meant to be”.

Now I am going to count to 5, and when I reach 5 you are going to feel awake and ready to carry on being the world.

1 (starting to move your fingers and toes) ….

2 (remember that others’ needs are just as important as yours) …..

3 (interesting things happen when you open the door to others) …..  

4 (gardens are better when they’re co-cultivated) …..

5 (open your eyes)

 


* This post was inspired by my emersion into hypnobirthing scripts with my partner over the past few months, my joys and challenges as a resident of a co-housing community, and the especially distressing nature of recent tragedies and acts of violence that have been further distorted and amplified by news platforms and social media.

Images: Hieronymus Bosch, The Garden of Earthly Delights, c. 1495–1505, Museo del Prado, Madrid.

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Demon or dunce?

I’ve been hesitating to write my first post of 2017, hoping against the odds that conditions in the world will improve and recent decisions will somehow be reversed. Those of us deeply concerned and disturbed by the actions of our ‘free’ country’s leaders are being forced to accept the dark reality that is the post-Brexit post-Trump post-truth era. Despairing sigh. Stab at eyes with fork. Months ago I wrote about DT’s dangerous authenticity, still believing that the worst wouldn’t happen. And then it did. Every day since his election has been a mouth-clamping, eye-popping cringe fest that would be entertaining if it didn’tdark_crystal_logo_2 personally and politically implicate most of us on a daily basis.

By ‘most of us’ I am being optimistic, and perhaps a bit naive. It’s heartbreaking and infuriating to imagine the throngs of people who are smugly responding to travel bans and wall building with a sense of ‘finally, someone has the guts to do it’, or, ‘now we’ll be free of terrorism’, or similar nonsense. But those people exist, in large numbers. They appear to be ‘winning’, in a cocaine-addled Charlie Sheen sort of way. And DT is leading the charge, a rotten stinking beacon of hate, fear and greed. From a fairy tale perspective, this situation is both inevitable and retractable – good will eventually triumph over evil and the balance will be redressed, like when the lost shard was replaced in The Dark Crystal or the ring flung back into the fires of Mordor. The darkness will lift from the land and a time of peace and harmony will begin.

Thinking in terms of goodies and baddies only serves to further polarise the debate, but this really feels like Manichean moment. When basic human rights are threatened on a daily basis and we are accosted with leering boastful bigots at every turn, how can we not feel as if some fresh hell has descended upon our world? And while indignation may empower us to protest and stand up for ourselves and the rights of others, there is a palpable fear that we may not be strong enough to topple this tyrant and his league of minions and supporters, and that we are seriously at risk of slipping backwards into the abyss of patriarchal capitalist hegemony. It’s hard not to imagine our plight in dramatic literary terms: we cling to the edge of a cliff, a horrible creature borne of a cesspool of Western excess waiting to devour us below, licking its livery chops.

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As children we learn that behind every evil nemesis is a scared, insecure loser who compensates by bullying. Perhaps no real-life antagonist in history has embodied this behaviour as transparently as The Donald. We watch, horrified, as his ravenous ego bloats and his tiny eyes dart around, searching for his next victim. Enabled by the disempowered, who feel the only way to gain power is to hand their clubs over to the meanest kid, he’s on a rampage to undo the humanitarian progress of the past half-century. On the other (tiny) hand, he represents a generation and class of men who have been too busy sustaining their excesses to notice or care about equal rights movements or the plight of minority groups. These hard fought battles are literally not on their agenda, while leftwing resistance is suppressed by proud displays of ignorance and flagrant demagoguery. Fake news! Sad!

Sorry, back to my point (I’ll get there!). Even more compelling are stories that complicate the perceived boundary between good and evil, either by revealing the human frailty of the villain (the decrepit old man behind the curtain in Wizard of Oz), or showing her/him to once have been good but at some point turned bad (Anakin Skywalker/ Darth Vader). In these cases, we’re asked to consider the appeal of their less virtuous choices: power, personal gain, wealth, status, etc., and empathise with them by acknowledging the powerful draw these awards can have on us all. I mean, we all want to have our views heard, our needs acknowledged and to live a comfortable life with minimal suffering, don’t we? It’s only a slippery slope or a wrong turn that stands between our good selves and the megalomaniac sociopath that hides within us all.

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And, after all, we’re at least partly to blame for Trump’s rise to power. It’s the side of us that can’t resist a good story, that can’t stand the bland centre-ground of politics and the nebulous, wooly equivocating of parties, that has allowed him to take the throne. Trump is deliciously divisive, if nothing else. Complex, however, he is not. The glimmer of hope in all this is the fact that he’s proving to be a rather boring, one-dimensional baddie, unworthy of the great, complex dramas currently unfolding in our world. We’ll eventually tire of his tantrums and even his loyal supporters will see through the facade of double-truth-talking and impulsive decision making. The only ones standing in his defence will be those hoping to burn the place down, with him in it. Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that and we can send him away peacefully, to rot away on a gilded island, with minimal collateral damage.

In a recent tweet, Trump wrote “evil” in scare quotes, confusing emphasis with irony. The fact that irony is completely lost on this guy is amusing but also embarrassing. He’s not worthy of proper villain status – he’s an ass in wolf’s clothing, the occasional toothy bray betraying the disguise. He lacks the intelligence, sex appeal and sophistication of an enduring (or endearing) bad guy or girl. He’s not been tortured or maimed or otherwise turned to the dark side. He spells ‘honoured’ ‘honered’, for crissakes. Enough with the binaries: we need to laugh this guy out of the White House.

The formula for farse

A strange kind of shock is setting in around the globe, one steadily deepening with each stomach-turning appearance of Trump’s face on our screens and pages, his livery gob smugly working away as we stare on, helpless to stop it. How many billions of us are refreshing our poll trackers on an hourly basis, hoping desperately that the odds will shift and stay in favour of Clinton, all the while with a sickening, dark fear that the worst could happen: in less than 4 days Trump could be ‘leader of the free world’ (whatever the hell that means). For reals.

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LIT lightbox, ‘Make America Great Again’, Berlin Biennale XI, 2016.

The thing that niggles me the most is that supporters of Trump, with all their manifold agendas (diehard Republicans, Clinton-haters, disheartened Americans, poor people with nothing to lose, Vegas showgirls, women who ‘like to be talked dirty to’ – wtaf..??), seem to agree that they’re voting for him because ‘he is what he is’. Unlike corrupt Hillary, who hides her emails, Trump is a known entity, he wears his emotions on his tailored sleeves. By this logic, all of the deplorable things he says about women, his competitors, Mexicans or those who accuse him of any offence, historical or contemporary, must then be a true reflection of who The  Donald really is: a misogynistic, intolerant, lying, petty, boorish bully, one that charges around the playground bopping kids on the head and stealing their toys, and grabbing girls by their… skipping ropes. Then denying it and suing everyone’s parents.

What amazes me is that ‘authenticity’ is still being offered up as some kind of measure of public figures, as if they haven’t – each and every one of them – emerged from a great PR machine that expensively produces them as candidates or celebrities, or both. To be in the running for world leader, their personalities and personal histories must be carefully picked through for morsels of integrity and leadership; anecdotes or facts that evidence their diplomacy and determination (and stamina, apparently). The less respectable or scandalous bits are buried deep or rationalised as having been in the past, or taken out of context, or else purported by unattractive liars (losers). The resulting persona is a kind of Frankensteinesque hybrid that is no more authentic than an assemblage or collage. In debates, candidates act out these personas, they dance around and point at each other using hand gestures that appear neither too aggressive nor too passive (think Cameron and Boris’s weird thumb pointing, like they’ve just stolen your nose and won’t give it back).

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Robert Rauschenberg, ‘Retroactive I’, 1963

The other crazy thing about Trump’s rise to potential global power (please God, no), is the way he wears his wealth as a badge of honour (quote: ‘The beauty of me is that I’m very rich’), which leads some folks to conclude that he must be good with money, and therefore a viable president. Putting the inaccuracies of this portrait aside, Why are we so in awe of people who have a lot of money, be it earned or inherited? Why aren’t the Jeremy Corbyns and the José Mujicas of the world celebrated for their embracing of simple, resourceful lifestyles? It would appear that we, the masses, are easily seduced by dollar and pound signs, even as our economies collapse and banks and corporations continue to hoard and hide the earnings of a small minority of (mostly) men who have absolutely no responsibility to or empathy for the rest of us.

Awareness check: Trump is one of these men. He is no more self-made than he is genuine; his artifice borders on the parodic or operatic (is there a US election opera script in progress? If not, there should be…). The double-weave, the tanning bed addiction, the machismo posturing during debates, the tantrums over accusations that his hands are disproportionately small (they are), the ‘locker room tawk’. I mean, are we supposed to take this guy seriously, or have we all been secretly signed up as extras in some kind of grotesque pantomime? If there was ever an inauthentic candidate it is Donald J. Trump.

But wait! Perhaps I’ve got it backwards. Maybe these affectations are in fact evidence of the ‘true’ Donald that so many seem to empathise with, the bits he can’t successfully hide that slip out and shock us with their baseness, their utter weirdness. If anything it is his failure to hide these behaviours and suppress these reactions that make him somehow, unimaginably, appealing. He appears to be human, if a really terrible one. It is in the bright glare of Trump’s appalling truth that other politicians’ facades, more carefully honed, take on a glossier, more sinister character. Perhaps this explains why half the voters in America are siding with a man who seems to be powered almost entirely by his own idiocy. In an age when trust in politicians has been worn down to a stub (not Trump’s, of course), the election has become a celebration of ‘true self’ at its ugliest.

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Pippa Eason, Untitled, part of ‘Set in Stone’ installation at BasementArtsProject, 2016

In a similarly frightening way, Trump’s perceived ability to ‘tell it like it is’ about complex issues such as immigration, climate change and global trade (sound familiar, Farage?), is another kind of double bluff. Sure, we’d all love there to be simple, unequivocal answers to the problems of our deeply troubled world, but the enraging reality is that there are layers of overlapping, interconnected and contradictory truths that are forever cancelling each other out and producing new problems. We can barely get our heads round the structures of neoliberalism and the creeping inequality and suffering that it produces, let alone feel empowered to do something about it.

Trump blasts his way through such nebulous socioeconomic territory with clever solutions such as building walls (cause we know that’s worked really well in the past), denying climate change (when it’s huffing and puffing on our doorstep), and making America great again (so much wrong with that statement, not sure where to start). I’m starting to think that the reason his campaign has been so successful isn’t because a lot of Americans are stupid (though some of them undoubtably are), it’s because Trump is so grossly uninformed and psychotically self-assured (he once responded when asked who he is consulting on important global issues, ‘I’m speaking with myself, number one, because I have a very good brain, and I’ve said a lot of things’.), actually believes the simplicity of his arguments, and worse – that his demented, dangerous solutions will actually work.

The real, honest truth is that we are dangerously teetering on the brink of fouling what’s left of our time on this Earth with greed, fear, hatred and crippling individualism – and putting Trump at the helm would be just the thing to tip it over the edge.

False fronting in Berlin

Five weeks spent living in Berlin, a very down to earth and unobtrusive city, has given me cause to reflect once again on the elaborate nature of ‘facading’: the human or architectural tendency to project or perform an identity to others. This behaviour is often read as inauthentic, a form of ‘fronting’ that conceals our true selves. Unlike other international cities I’ve visited, Berlin appears to exhibit much less of this behaviour (in both people and architecture), and yet a closer look reveals that not everything is what it seems. While there’s an inordinate amount of things going on in Berlin at any given time (night or day), the city maintains an admirable amount of modesty and restraint. There are ways to tap into various scenes, from techno to contemporary art, without being overwhelmed by it. It’s not a showy or pretentious place, but there is plenty of stuff going on that you probably won’t catch wind of (and that’s okay too).

Perhaps it is this balance of variety and subtlety that allows visitors to segue between the former site of Hitler’s bunker (now a parking lot) to gleefully cycling down the runway of a disused airport without batting an eye. One of my favourite places in Berlin, Tempelhof Park, is the same airport that received supplies from the Allied armies for the people of West Berlin. Today its colossal airport building is home to over 4000 refugees and its runways are occupied by cyclists, rollerbladers and wind-skateboarders (yes, that’s a thing). With similar contradictory abandon, you can stroll down the imposing Soviet-inspired strip Karl Marx Allee (formerly Stalin Allee) and browse a second-hand clothing emporium, before retreating to the famous Sybil’s cafe for a cold beer and a schnitzel. In the back of the cafe is a little museum of Eastern Block paraphernalia (including a rescued bronze moustache from the toppled Stalin monument!), telling the story of how bombing reduced the area to rubble, from which rose the mighty rows of communist era apartment blocks that flank Karl Marx Allee.

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Tempelhof Park (former Airport)

Little pockets of culture and history are everywhere to be found in Berlin – my guidebook wagers you can’t swing a kebab without hitting a gallery (something I didn’t get around to trying) – but they’re not always easy to find. After one failed art crawl attempt, I cursed my self imposed rule that prevents me from owning a smart phone and therefore navigational technology (perhaps a rant for another time?). At the same time, I learned that the huge volume of sights, events and happenings by no means guarantees quality. A live drawing performance involving an ageing artist (his belly hanging over his trousers and a chunky oil pastel in hand), and a much younger and fitter muse rolling about on a floor-size piece of paper, left me feeling thoroughly disgusted.

In a way, though, all this variety gave me permission to engage or switch off when I wished, without feeling pressured to experience some kind of ‘essential Berlin’. I did not, for example, enter the world famous Berghain club because I couldn’t bring myself to stand in a 3-hour long queue only to be wordlessly turned away by a bouncer (punters have a 50/50 chance of getting in, and the jury’s out on the precise formula for success). We enjoyed hanging out around the entrance, admiring the outfits and graffiti, and generally soaking up the atmosphere. We learned that any sort of ostentatious displays in the queue might count against you; the advisable approach is to act very unbothered by the whole thing, and whatever you do, never look like you’re having a good time. This is a whole other kind of front, one that requires the repression of any outward sign of desire or enthusiasm to enter what is generally regarded as ‘the best club in the world’. Correspondingly, the ‘Berghain look’ is expressed through exclusively black, second hand threads, dirty plimsoles and an empty, disinterested gaze that acts like a shield against the judgement you are about to receive.

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Graffiti, Berlin

Equally double-edged was the Berlin Biennale (the city’s 9th, this year curated by the American cohort DIS: Lauren Boyle, Solomon Chase, Marco Roso and David Toro), which highjacked the antiseptic, alienating language of banks and corporations to such perfection that it most certainly went over many (most?) people’s heads. After spending the best part of an afternoon in the Kunst Academie, we stumbled into the outside world wracked with uncertainty about what to believe and who to trust. Having been rigorously exposed to the sinister nature of post-capitalist consumerism and its ability to sap our lives of meaning, we felt suddenly hypersensitive to the slick signage of our urban and online spaces. Adverts and many of the products they promote are designed to distract and warp our minds, manufacturing desires that are unattainable or antithetical to our needs as human beings. Many of the artworks brought together for this biennale, unified in their vision of a dystopian present, convinced me of the importance of fortifying ourselves against the seductive power of corporate and commercial interests if we hope to salvage something of our humanity.

We have found ourselves reflecting on the Biennale in the days and months that followed. Its theme, ‘The Present in Drag’, suggests that however authentic we might think ourselves to be, we are always already succumbing to established categories of identity that are presented to us as unique or distinctive. We are performing whether we like it or not. Rob Horning’s Fear of Contentfeatured on the Biennale’s website, sums up this problem nicely:

Genre is central to the self’s authenticity. The self can only be parsed as “authentic” in relation to a legible set of conventions. “It is the perception of repetitions that makes a work of art intelligible,” Sontag writes in “On Style.” When I am trying to be true to myself, I turn “myself” into a genre, with readily recognizable and repeatable tropes. I can never be authentic, only authentically generic. I can create and meet a set of established stereotypes of myself. Being oneself always means being a self-parody, and being a parody of oneself is the process of self-discovery. Self-parody precedes selfhood.

It’s horrifying to think that there is no such thing as a true self, and that we are doomed to spend the rest of our lives slipping in and out of pre-established ideas of ourselves. In this scenario, the more we try to be authentic the more generic we become. On the other hand, the notion that self-parody precedes selfhood is somewhat freeing, for we are then absolved of the heavy, narcissistic quest for some unique idea of self. As much as we all hate to conform to stereotypes, or reinforce them in our cultural interpretations, we are currently playing with a depressingly limited deck of identity templates. And yet, aren’t these constructions, parodies and performances expressed differently by and through each of us? If we view each of our identities as subtle variations on a theme, then aren’t those subtle variations what make us unique? After all, convention is potentially fertile ground for innovation.

Among the strongest works in the Biennale (imho) was Camille Henrot’s Office of Unreplied Emails. Scattered across the floor and hung on pegs, enlarged printouts of blanket emails and spam received by the artist are overlaid with her calligraphed responses; heartfelt, hilarious and bizarre in equal turns. Seemingly genuine, the impossible task of responding (fiscally or otherwise) to the endless pleas for donations, campaigns and petitions here takes on a sorrowful tone that mimics the hyperbole of the emails, i.e. ‘Camille, I need you before midnight’, or else poetically riffs off the odd use of language and awkward phrasing produced by translation software. The automated sincerity of emails that clutter our inboxes and niggle at our first-world guilt is elegantly parried by Henrot’s ornate prose.

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Camille Henrot, Office of Unreplied Emails, 2016, Berlin Biennale 9

Our encounters with other false fronts in Berlin included the reconstruction (currently underway) of the Prussian palace on Museum Island. A replica of the original, which was bulldozed in 1952 as a ‘means of driving an architectural stake through the heart of Prussian militarism and nazism’, is this time poured in concrete and diplomatically renamed the ‘Humboldt Forum’. The reconstruction (resurrection?) of the palace might be understood as an attempt to tackle Germany’s colonial history in a reflective manner, or to satiate a nostalgia for a golden era of power that has been denied along with the fascist regime that followed it. According to historian Gavriel Rosenfeld, the project is ‘an architectural magnification of the Mitscherlich theory of the inability to mourn – of wanting to try to undo history and rebuild the façades of something that would make them feel a greater sense of self-esteem of being German’. Estimated at €600m, it’s a seriously expensive statement that has polarised debate over what it means to return to a particular moment in Germany’s history (with interesting if not terrifying parallels with the Brexit crisis).

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The Humboldt Forum rises out of museum island (on the former site of the Prussian Palace), Berlin

A trip to Pfaueninsel (Peacock Island) in Berlin-Wannsee, near Potsdam, revealed a more playful site of Prussian power. The rather unremarkable pleasure palace on the western side of the island (designed by Gottlieb Brendel for the Prussian king Frederick William II and his mistress) has been lovingly restored, down to the last faux brick and ironwork bridge. Other highlights include a dairy in the guise of a gothic revival church, and the occasional wandering peacock, descendent from the king’s own flock. Apparently the island was once home to over 100 exotic species (modelled after the Ménagerie du Jardin des Plantes in Paris), before they were relocated to the Berlin Zoo. The remaining peacocks are a throwback to more extravagant times, strutting around with little regard for the tourists that have replaced the royal entourages of their ancestors. A symbol of wealth and privilege, the Asiatic birds still seem spectacularly out of place in Europe. To quote Flannery O’Connor in The Displaced Person: ‘The peacock stood still as if he had just come down from some sun-drenched height to be a vision for them all’. The many suns (or eyes?) displayed across their iridescent tails seem somehow excessive, a courting measure that awkwardly outweighs competitive advantage. An interesting case of nature’s own facades, the peacock’s tale has flummoxed evolutionary scientists and admirers alike – how could something so beautiful and ornate be wasted on attracting the lowly peafowl?

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‘Lustschloss’ or pleasure palace of Frederick William II, Pfaueninsel, 1794-1797.

Peacocks and palace follies are a privileged world away from the many more nuanced facades that Berlin has to offer. A place that is wonderfully relaxed despite an incessant hum of cultural energy, its manifestations are rarely ostentatious. It is the past that wears a much more elaborate mask, particularly through the buildings of the Prussian kingdom that asserted its power throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth century. Even with all its devilish flourishes, the high baroque style that predominates in Potsdam (exemplified at Sanssouci) still manages to feel bland and generic, strangely unremarkable compared with the understated idiosyncrasies of contemporary Berlin.

So while we might choose to see facades as false fronts that serve only to hide less remarkable truths, they are also extensions of those same structures, without which they would not exist at all. We can extend this metaphor to our individual identities as they present themselves, which are inextricably connected to our inner consciousnesses. However fake or generic they might appear, these are the manifest expressions of our desires, hopes, anxieties and fears. All facades hold meaning; they conceal the difficult truths that we are not able to reveal about ourselves, and our histories, at the same time that they allow us to imagine more beautiful, complex or unique versions of ourselves. From that perspective, what could be more authentic?

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Baroque ‘herms’, facade of Sanssouci palace, Potsdam

Photo credit: Stefan Skrimshire

Better together?

In the dark aftermath of Brexit, my troubled mind keeps turning to the problem of togetherness. Putting aside the shambolic campaigning for a moment (and the cold, seemingly irreversible fact that we must now leave the EU), the biggest shock comes with the realisation of just how divided the United Kingdom truly is. And not just shock at England’s disproportionate power to make decisions of great cultural, political and economic magnitude, but shock at how little we know our neighbours, friends and family members. In most parts of the country people are left with a horrible feeling that we don’t understand each other as well as we thought we did, or indeed, at all.

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The Tower of Babel by Pieter Bruegel the Elder (1563)

The idea of togetherness often ends up on the warm fuzzy side of serious debate about how diversely populated neighbourhoods, regions or nations should be managed. As a resident of a cooperative community, I’m confronted with the challenge of togetherness a lot. On the one hand, working with other people to make things happen is a deeply satisfying and mutually supportive experience. On the other, making decisions collectively can be difficult, frustrating and time consuming. Consensus decision making helps with this tremendously, as it ensures that everyone has been heard and that everyone is happy with, or can at least live with, the final decision. In the best cases, I find that my position been has changed through the process, having taken in the collective views of my neighbours and gained a deeper awareness of an issue or problem that effects us all.

In a recent meeting, a wise member of my community suggested that in order to truly listen and understand someone else’s views, you must be willing to change sides, to walk around in another’s shoes as if they were your own. Another member half-jokingly asked, ‘but can we keep our own socks on?’. It’s a fair question, because getting on side with someone who thinks, acts and lives differently from you can be a big ask. Impossible, in some cases. I thought about the people who voted Leave for reasons that I will never be able to relate to, and how hard it would be to sit down and really listen to them without being filled with anger and resentment. I feel in my heart that not only were they wrong in voting out, but that they were acting from a place of selfishness, ignorance and fear, and now we are all paying the price. I am angry because I simply cannot empathise with the intolerance and insularity that seems to have moved so many to vote Leave. Even if I agreed to try on their shoes, I doubt they would fit.

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Guardsman collapsed during Trooping the Colour for Queen’s 90th birthday, 11 June 2016 (London Evening Standard)

What’s happening in Britain right now is partly about individuals and groups not relating to one another, but it’s also a measure of how much residents identify with the loaded categories of Englishness, Britishness and Europeanness, if at all. The referendum results show that a very large proportion of English and Welsh citizens do not see themselves as part of a larger European community unless they have the political and economic upper hand, and a firm control of British borders. But the UK cannot have its cake and eat it too (as Angela Merkel has made clear); being part of an international community means compromise. It doesn’t mean being greater or richer or more powerful. The global political landscape is rapidly changing, and we must be joined up to be able to operate within it, as countries and as individuals. We need to humble ourselves and see the potential in pooling resources to help poorer nations, even (or especially) at our own expense. In the words of another very wise friend, it is ‘time to become citizens of where we are heading’.

In the 3rd century BC the Cynics coined the term ‘cosmopolitan’, imagining for the first time a citizen of the cosmos. Since then, at key places and points in time, the word has been revived to evoke an idea of ‘world citizenship’. Cosmopolitanism underwrote the 1789 ‘Declaration of the Rights of Man’ and Emmanuel Kant’s proposition of a ‘league of nations’. Back then, it reflected the Enlightenment idea of a ‘universal reason’ that philosophers believed united all cultures and nations. In a postcolonial context, cosmopolitanism is applied in a more critical way, as a way of attending the plural and displaced cultural identities in the wake of empire, ongoing war and oppression.

For most of us, when we speak of a cosmopolitan city, we are describing a place rich with languages, colours, styles and tastes, co-mingling and cross pollinating. Growing up in rural Canada, one of my first memories of such a place was Toronto’s Chinatown, full of unfamiliar smells, foreign tongues and pagoda archways. I was entranced, and inspired that this, too, was my home country. I’ve always been attracted to the differences that make our behaviour and appearance so distinctive, and am proud to hail from a country that, at least at its urban best, has achieved a strong mosaic multiculturalism. I thought the UK, at its best, was working toward the same goal; to live together as a diverse population that changes and evolves over time, as all societies do. As cultural theorists know, there is no such thing as a pure, singular cultural origin. As humans we are always borrowing, appropriating and syncretising – taking bits from other cultures and making something new. It’s what makes us interesting.

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According to Kwame Appiah, cosmopolitanism acknowledges obligations to others beyond kith and kin and shared citizenship, and takes value in human life and particular human lives, which means taking an interest in the practices and beliefs that give them meaning [1]. This sense of belonging to something greater and more encompassing than nationhood, religion or creed, comes in and out of focus and is fraught with historical contradictions. Victorian Britain saw its fair share of intrepid travellers and diplomats, who moved freely within and across the colonies. However, rather than being seen as intrepid and open minded, many of these nineteenth-century interlopers were accused of being disloyal to the state, wealthy elites who resided ‘everywhere and nowhere’ [2]. As it expanded its borders, British imperialism required an ‘inevitable loss of cultural certainty’ [3], a contradiction that has clung on throughout the twentieth century and lingers on today, like the foul stench of something dark and misshapen that’s been left in the back of the fridge.

Transnationalism, especially in post-Empire, Postwar Europe, has never been more complicated, and we all struggle to define ourselves in relation to the ever-shifting identity formations that characterise us, and the cities and towns we inhabit or travel to. While many of us hope this diversity will inspire unity and peace, for others it is a warning bell to return to cultural ‘origins’ (imagined or otherwise), to build walls and raise flags, to stick fingers in ears and sing the national anthem loudly and obnoxiously. At its worst, the fervent support of Brexit can be interpreted as nostalgia for empire, a return to the certainty of Britishness as it was imposed the world over. As T.J. Clark has recently observed, ‘Britain’s endless replaying of its finest hour stands in the way (as it is meant to) of any real reckoning with the past of empire’.

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Yinka Shonibare, Nelson’s Ship in a Bottle, Fourth Plinth, Trafalgar Square, London, 2010.

The tragicomedy of all this is that Britain can no more return itself to an imagined pure state, than it can deny its intrinsic, self induced internationalism. One of the results of the British Empire and its dissolution is that the UK (and not just London) became a polyglot of multiracial, multiethnic, multifaith and multinational citizens, many of whom are now fully integrated and undeniably British and European (what constitutes being English at this stage is another thing entirely). What’s more, Stewart Lee reminds us with his antagonistic humour that, despite what UKIP might have us believe, things were not better before ‘foreigners’ arrived (watch the whole thing, it’s worth it).

It seems that we’ve reached a similar deadlock in the history of British identity formation, where curiosity and open mindedness is overshadowed by terror of losing one’s own identity. As the world’s economic superpowers descend into tribalism, with squabbling leaders lost in a game of career building (with all its shameful scapegoating) and neoliberal strategising (with all its subtle, sinister exploitation), we have lost sight of what it might mean to belong to something more universal, more human. It’s as if an acceptance of diversity undermines a sense of self, rather than giving it extra dimensions and added richness. We are afraid our identities will be lost if we subscribe to a bigger picture, that we might be swallowed whole, losing our distinctiveness. Somehow we’ve forgotten that these differences and variations are precisely what make us human.

At a time when we can see and communicate with each other across the world with unprecedented ease, our cultural divisions appear to be deepening, our impulse to draw lines in the sand growing stronger by the day. For those who wish to Remain, the answer isn’t simply to scramble to the nearest moral high ground, but to build from the wreckage, to remind people of the power generated by a shared project, of the excitement we feel when we connect with someone across, through or around difference. It’s equally important though, to remember that this is not an easy or straightforward path. Rather, it is one of difficulty, discomfort and compromise. What we need now is diplomacy and a willingness to listen to each other, to dampen the flames and depolarise the debate. This means hard work and sacrifice, and leaving our shoes (and socks) at the door. Only then do we stand a chance of being better, together.

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[1] Kwame Anthony Appiah, Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers. London: Allen Lane, 2006.

[2] Kobena Mercer in Cosmopolitan Modernisms. Cambridge, MA; London: MIT Press, 2005.

[3] Ian Baucom, Out of Place: Englishness, Empire and the Locations of Identity. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1999.

 

Plotting the Cosmos

There is a basic pleasure in the act of ordering, in mapping the chaos of our minds, and the metaphysical worlds that lie beyond thinking and knowing. In departing from representational (and especially figurative) languages, abstraction permits the artist to explore the unconscious and express the inexpressible. Not simply an invention of Modernity, abstract patterns take on a universal legibility in their linearity, sequences and fields of colour. They appeal to the eye as well as an intrinsic need for order.

The abstract works of Hilma af Klint (1862-1954), currently on show at the Serpentine Gallery, are a revelation in early 20th-century ‘cosmological abstraction’. She produced nearly two hundred abstract paintings between 1906 and 1915, many of them on a monumental scale, but insisted that they not be exhibited until 20 years after her death (and wouldn’t be shown until 1986). Her substantial oeuvre has been absent from male-dominated narratives of modern art, but as her solo retrospective would suggest, the tides have turned. It seems the world is ready for Klint’s unusual style and approach to painting, which predates and in many ways anticipates the spiritual abstraction of Malevich, Kandinsky and Mondrian, not to mention the automatic drawings of the Surrealists.

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Hilma af Klint, The Ten Largest, No. 3, Youth, Group IV, 1907

I was immediately struck by the confidence of af Klint’s large scale canvases, and the way she playfully manipulates pure line and colour within her arrangements. Her abstract works show extreme restraint on the one hand and exuberance on the other. Some are simply, well, weird. Stylistically, she is difficult to pin down, her works range from expressionistic to sparsely minimal, and some incorporate figurative elements. There is an unnerving honesty and directness to them, perhaps because they are not striving to achieve or perfect a particular style.

In the series ‘The Ten Largest’ af Klint develops a controlled organicism based on plants stems and snail shells (she was a skilled botanical illustrator), while the later ‘Swan’ series exhibits a geometric economy and precision that might belong to an entirely different sensibility, or indeed, art historical period. But this is because her abstract works are tied to a spiritual project, one that af Klint pursued privately alongside her commercial painting career. Birgit Pelzer tells us that ‘the goal of these sequences seems to be to experiment with different levels of intimacy with matter, with the spirit that animates the living, with that which penetrates and acts inside bodies and in their molecules, their cells, their organisms’.

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Hilma af Klint, Svanen (The Swan) No. 17, Group IX, Series SUW, October 1914 – March 1915

According to Elizabeth Finch, who challenges a comparison of af Klint with her abstract contemporaries, her work ‘incorporated and organised each artistic action and reaction into a cumulative visual system’, rather than paring things down a la Mondrian. Af Klint’s works idealise an infinite and complex inwardness, drawing on a repertoire of forms and colours found within and outside the visible, natural world. The intersection of the micro and the macro in nature is a recurring visual theme, with the underlying geometry of plant grown patterns and cell structures, reflecting her belief that nature is an earthly echo of the divine order (based on the theosophical work of Helena P. Blavatsky).

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Hilma af Klint, The Ten Largest, No. 3, Youth, Group IV, 1907

When I encountered af Klint’s work at the Serpentine, I was reminded of the illuminations of 12th-century German abbess Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1179). Whilst separated by eight centuries, both women artists were earmarked ‘ahead of their time’ and employed abstraction to represent the interaction between physical and divine realms. Moreover, they both found inspiration for their work through visions. Von Bingen received hers directly from God, in what she called ‘The Shade of the Living Light’ (and what many have since interpreted as her experience of migraines), visions that she found painful but which she eventually described in a series of volumes of visionary theology. Near the end of her life she commissioned and oversaw a richly illuminated manuscript of the first volume, Scivias or Know the Ways, in which her visions are depicted in all their abstract glory. The original, also called the Rupertsberg Codex, was lost during WWII, but its images are preserved in a hand-painted facsimile dating from the 1920s.

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Hildegard of Bingen, Six Days of Creation, Scivias (Know the Ways) 1142-1151

Similarly compelled to engage with a higher power through abstract forms, sometimes through the micro and macro languages of nature, Af Klint developed a style of painting which was entirely her own. She initiated a group of women called ‘the Five’, who held regular séances to communicate with the spiritual realm through images. The group was influenced by contemporary spiritual movements of the early 20th century, including spiritism (the nature, origin, and destiny of spirits and their relation with the corporeal world), theosophy (divine wisdom), and anthroposophy (human wisdom). In particular, The Five drew upon and interpreted anthroposophy, through the teaching of Rudolf Steiner, a mystic strain of Christianity that placed an emphasis on personal or individual agency (via Goethe).

In 1905, af Klint received a ‘commission’ from a deity they called ‘Amaliel’ and began a series of 193 predominantly abstract works called ‘The Paintings for the Temple’. Whilst she saw her images as impressions from an immaterial realm, she anticipated that her audiences were not yet ready for this kind of art. Not long after, Malevich, Kandinsky and others would associate abstract shapes with spiritual purity, paving the way for Abstract Expressionism and Minimalism later in the century. Yet af Klint and her visionary forebears remain outside this historiography; like von Bingen, her ambition was not fuelled by individualism or notoriety, but through the pursuit of divine inspiration, to access realms beyond consciousness and the material world. The mapping of these routes was the sole purpose of their abstraction, plotting the cosmos through the language of line, shape and colour.

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Hilma af Klint, Altarpiece, No. 1, Group X, Altarpiece Series, 1915

Hilma af Klint: Painting the Unseen is at the Serpentine Gallery, London, from 3 March to 15 May 2016.

Citations from 3 x Abstraction: New Methods of Drawing by Hilma af Klint, Emma Kunz, and Agnes Martin, eds. Catherine de Zegher and Hendel Teicher (New York; New Haven: The Drawing Center; Yale University Press, 2005).

 

Giant Geometry

Long before machine production, humans marvelled at nature’s ability to produce streamlined, seemingly manufactured forms. Traditionally (at least in the Western world), organic, curvilinear and irregular features are seen as characteristic of nature’s work, whilst geometry remains its unseen, underlying logic. As late as the 19th century, John Ruskin felt compelled to explain ‘the straight lined’ (as exhibited by rocks, minerals and crystals) as an unfinished, crude phase of natural expression, best left concealed beneath the earth’s surface. Geometry on a smaller scale is somehow less spectacular (perhaps because the detail of snowflakes or cell structures remain invisible to the naked eye), but something about seeing it writ large on the landscape evokes fascination, unease, and even scepticism. What is it about big geometry that seems so unnatural?

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Polygonal basalt columns, Giant’s Causeway, Antrim Coast, Northern Ireland

The Giant’s Causeway on Northern Ireland’s Antrim coast is famous for its geometric rock formations. Over 40,000 polygonal basalt columns (between 4 and 7 sides, though most are hexagonal), appear to be slotted together seamlessly, as if by some great, careful hand. Geologists have since discovered that the columns did not grow cumulatively (like crystals), but were formed collectively as lava flows cooled and gradually shrank, with starlike cracks forming across a large surface and extending vertically down into the earth. Recent studies have demonstrated that the slower the lava cools, the bigger the basalt formations [1]. Over a longer period of cooling the vertical columns broke into shorter sections, each break neatly fitted with a ball and socket join.

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Konrad Gesner, ‘De omni rerum fossilium genere’, Zurich: excudebat Iacobus Gesnerus, 1565.

Before their geological origins were confirmed, many believed the columns were either enormous crystals or the fossilised remains of giant sea creatures. The latter must have evoked sublime and terrible visions of beasts with tentacles, teeth or vertebrae caught in animated suspension. In 1816, Edward Jenner wrote that fossils are ‘monuments to departed worlds’. At one time the Giant’s Causeway might have held such dualities in tension: architecture and biology; earthly and extraterrestrial; naturally occurring and engineered. The natural philosophy of a pre-Enlightenment era allowed such contemplative spaces; even for mythology to merge with theories of the earth and its origins. For some, the feature continues to complicate an understanding of time and the way the earth was conceived and constructed. In 2012, controversy around the inclusion of a Creationist exhibition at the Giant’s Causeway visitor centre forced the National Trust to amend a learning display, a U-turn that highlighted the longstanding geological importance of the site and what it means for Earth’s history (scientific evidence places it some 60m years ago; Young Earth Creationists believe the earth is no more than 40,000 years old).

81a22b3b1eb9c602eae16c302836282fAs if to account for its fabricated quality, legend has it that the Causeway was built by an Irish Giant, Fionn MacCool, after picking a fight with the Scottish giant Benadonner. Upon catching a glimpse of Benadonner’s enormous figure crossing the sea, Fionn panicked and asked his wife disguise him as a baby so as to fool his adversary into thinking that proportionally, the infant’s father must be a giant among giants. The ruse was successful, and as Benadonner fled back to Scotland he destroyed the Causeway behind him, leaving only the remnants of a matching basalt formation on the Isle of Staffa, known as Fingal’s Cave. Unlike the Pillars of Hercules, the remains of this mythological feat of engineering are in evidence.

For hundreds of years the site has attracted scientists and tourists eager to see the spectacle of earth’s geometry on a macro scale. The shapes and variations are pleasingly refined, with edges almost machine-finished, and further smoothed by the elements. Standing upon them and looking down at their patterns, it’s easy to imagine that each was individually designed to fit together, like a giant jigsaw (or a bundle of pencil crayons, as sometimes observed). Visitors as early as the 18th century remarked upon the manmade character of the Causeway. Sir Robert Redding, first reporting his ‘discovery’ to the Royal Society in 1688, observed that ‘these Columns are so regularly ranged and fitted one to the other that it seems rather the work of art than nature’ [2]. There is something impossible or otherworldly about its precise formations, which continues to draw a healthy flow of tourists eager to traverse its polygons (and which was taken to its psychedelic conclusion in a 1973 Led Zeppelin album cover).

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Album cover by Hipgnosis for Led Zeppelin’s Houses of the Holy, 1973

Having recently visited the Causeway for the first time, I was swept away by its giant geometry. Couched within the varied beauty of the Antrim coastline, its ordered striations are indeed transfixing, though I struggle to explain exactly why. What is it about straight lines, regularity and pattern on a macro scale that leads us to think (even if we know better) that something, or someone, must have designed or created them? Why do we associate nature with irregularity, and manmade or artificial features with more balanced calculations? Susanna Drury’s illustration from 1768 shows Victorian figures surrounded by column fragments, so neatly described that they resemble bolts shaken loose from a great machine, or else the detritus of some future empire. Like the figures, we are made small by association, complex micro organisms that can relate to the formations through the delicate components of our biological systems, or the mechanical works of our own making.

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Engraving of Susanna Drury’s ‘A View of the Giant’s Causeway: East Prospect’, 1768

Perhaps it is the combination of monumentality and seemingly measured features that makes the Causeway so remarkable. It is as if an otherwise concealed blueprint has been exposed, the inner workings of the earth turned inside out. Ruskin’s observation has relevance here, for it is the subterranean world to which these columns belong. Their presence on the surface is interpreted as alien, misplaced. The Earth’s interior exists on a magnitude that is difficult for us to imagine or visualise without diagrams or the cruel cross sections of quarries and industrial scale mining. On the Antrim coast we see this underworld reveal itself naturally, short circuiting our spatial and proportional perspective. It is evidence of a natural design that, until fairly recently, was beyond our comprehension. Yet even with an understanding of the geological processes which produced it, the Causeway persists as a grand and peculiar site of natural artifice.

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[1] University of Toronto. (2008, December 25). ‘Mystery Of Hexagonal Column Formations Such As Giant’s Causeway Solved With Kitchen Materials’, ScienceDaily. Accessed 8 January, 2016: http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2008/12/081216104325.htm

[2] In Alasdair Kennedy, “In Search of the ‘True Prospect’: Making and Knowing the Giant’s Causeway as a Field Site in the Seventeenth Century.” British Society for the History of Science 10.10 (2007): 21-22.