Absence as Landmark Vacancy as Monument
Genuine stillness is… the stillness of a weight on the end of a pendulum that has barely stopped swinging and is still vibrating imperceptibly. It is the stillness of time in the instant… It is this stillness things dream of, it is this stillness we dream of …the highest point of drama.(1)
The presence of a subtle tension, of an emptiness so recent that it still vibrates with the echoes and energy of movement, resonates deeply in the seemingly unpopulated spaces of Victoria Lucas’ U8 series. The series consists of over thirty photographs that document the stairways of every station on Berlin’s U8 underground line, from Wittenau to Hermansstrasse. Each staircase and escalator is presented in moments of apparent stillness, unpopulated in that brief instance, yet acutely defined by traces of human activity.
This essay will explore the U8 series within the context of key cultural, philosophical and art historical discourses, from the writings of Roland Barthes, Jean Baudrillard and Frederic Jameson to the work of artists such as Leszek Brogowski. It will examine some of the themes that underpin Lucas’ work and suggest a theoretical and critical framework for Interruptions at Grizzly Grizzly, where images from the U8 series are juxtaposed with new works by Lucas documenting the underground stations of Philadelphia.
In the 21st century, in the digital age, we understand that the photograph inhabits a far more ambiguous position than it ever has. Photographic images have always been subject to contextual interpretation, but with digital manipulation an accepted, everyday facet of contemporary culture, the perception of the photograph as document, as something that ‘captures’ life, has become an increasingly outmoded and mistrusted notion.
While Lucas’ U8 images do exist as evidence of a very specific moment, they nevertheless defy designation as ‘document.’ They are elusive and corporeal, blurring and transcending the conventions of representation, and interrogating the relationship between the photographic image and notions of presence, absence and temporality. As Roland Barthes asserts, ‘Photography conveys the state of the world in our absence. The lens explores that absence.’(2)
The concept of Absence as Landmark/Vacancy as Monument provides a useful motif for beginning to engage with Victoria Lucas’ series. However, if the absence they encapsulate can in some way be regarded as landmark or monument, then what is being commemorated, marked or remembered?
Even in the language of the memorial, absence represents a profound testament to the missing, the lost and the events of the past. Long since resigned to history are figurative gestures and allegorical motifs, statements embroiled in the glorification of war or reinforcement of pious or political doctrine. The monuments of the late 20th and early 21st Centuries are often living memorials designed to engender engagement and reflection; spaces defined by the people that populate them and the contemplation and discourse that they provoke.(3)
The seemingly void spaces of Lucas’ U8 series possess the same profundity, their immediate vacancy matched by the signs of activity, both recent and long past. They speak of history, of human life, of transition and motion. They are spaces defined by transient encounters: by people passing, moving and commuting, yet at the same time often displaced, dislocated and in isolation. The physicality that defines such urban spaces of transition sits in contrast with the ephemerality of human physical presence itself.
[Lucas’] practice explores the ephemeral nature of existence over the passing of time. The transient nature of media selected is used to fleetingly re-construct and re-image past events, often from the starting point of an everyday object, sound or situation.(4)
Each image resonates with a multitude of histories, realities, memories and experiences, from the ghost stations of the Cold War to the daily journeys of contemporary commuters. They communicate the movement and lives of thousands of individuals, and offer a profound examination of the stations themselves. They are places that we populate but do not belong to. We do not define ourselves by these places. They are central to our lives but they are spaces to be passed through. They are functional. Unlike Marc Augé’s concept of Non-places however (5), these underground walls and corridors are thick with history, reverberating with past events and past lives, evoking the complex and turbulent history of Berlin throughout the twentieth century.
Few U-Bahn or S-Bahn lines have reflected and played such a significant part in this history as the U8. Defined by sequential periods in which it existed as a symbol of progress, a metaphor for loss and separation, and an emblem of unity and reunification, it is deeply entwined in the events that shaped Berlin and its population over the course of a century. The advent of the First World War, for example, forstalled AEG’s original plans to construct the line at all, and by the Second World War its unfinished stations were put to use as air raid shelters. Most significantly, after the construction of the Berlin Wall in 1961, the U8 continued to take its daily course beneath the boundaries of the divided city. Its route started and ended in West Berlin, but midway through encountered (and passed through) six stations that were located in East Berlin. Until the reunification of Berlin in 1991, these ‘ghost stations’ remained closed and guarded by the GDR.
Absence and silence play an important part not only in this history, but in the works presented by Victoria Lucas. In his essay ‘The Music of the Environment,’ R. Murray Schafer cites Indian spiritual master Kirpal Singh:
The essence of sound is felt in both motion and silence, it passes from existent to nonexistent …when there is no sound, hearing is [at its] most alert. (6)
The Vacancy and absence inherent in Lucas’ U8 works resound with this silence, a Silence akin to that defined by John Cage. Here, the compositional definition of silence (moments where the act of playing or performing do not occur) is questioned, and through the removal of constructed sound, narrative and the language of music, a far more compelling, enigmatic and ontological experience is revealed. Discussing La Monte Young’s early minimalist works, Cage observed that, ‘I discover that what I thought I have all along been thinking was the same thing was not the same thing after all, but full of variety …remarkable in the same sense that the change in experience is when you look through a microscope.’ (7)
The U8 series prompts a similar dialogue and mode of engagement. In the absence of the activity we expect, we are instead invited to engage with the complexities of the space. Just as Cage’s seminal four minutes and thirty-three seconds of Silence revealed intricate layers of existing sound and aural activity, so too does the absence and apparent inactivity presented in these works provoke insights into the complex nature of space, environment and temporality.
Discussing the silence of the photographic image, Leszek Brogowski observes that:
The German verb Schweigen has no equivalent in English; it can be translated as ‘to keep silence.’ But how is it possible ‘to keep silence’ if silence consists as what is absent? The difficulty of the semantics of the word Schweigen apparently resides in the contradiction between the active aspect of ‘to keep’ and the absolute passivity of silence. But is silence really passive? (8)
Lucas’ images resound with an active silence. They create a tension that is as contemplative as it is dramatic; as critical and compelling as it is introspective. Furthermore, their propagation of The Uncanny – the familiar made unfamiliar – introduces a discourse that questions and interrogates the contemporary position of the photograph itself. As Brogowski suggests:
[P]hotography constitutes a part of our culture, and we are used to thinking of the world through photographic images. It is not even necessary to press a camera button to awaken in oneself a kind of photographic perception, for photography has become a way of thinking today. (9)
According to Jean Baudrillard, the relationship between reality and representation has become increasingly abstract, even absurdly reversed. The presence of a particular place, event, person or scenario becomes more believable, noteworthy and ‘real’ through its re-presentation in media forms such as film and photography. Here, simulation and reality are no longer connected; a simulated image is not necessarily one that recreates, documents, or even distorts reality, because reality itself is something that is neither a fixed or concrete notion. For Baudrillard, the logical line of demarcation dividing reality and representation no longer exists. ‘[W]hen the real is no longer what it used to be, nostalgia assumes its full meaning. There is a proliferation of myths of origin and signs of reality; of second-hand truth, objectivity and authenticity.’(10)
Lucas’ work critically and knowingly interrogates this notion: it avoids nostalgia yet facilitates discourse with the past; expounds the real yet makes no claim to authenticity. Each photograph presents a scenario which is real but unrepresentative of common experience – a concept magnified and expanded by the duplication of such scenarios across multiple images and locations, representing each station on the U8 line as both void of people yet (as traces of recent activity denote) not void of population. Frederic Jameson suggests that:
…our temporal imprisonment in the present discredits ideas of destiny or fate and renders the ancient view of biography alien to us …this shift in conceptions of destiny and existence seems sufficient to qualify modern existentialism – the sense of a unique subjectivity and a unique existence in the present…(11)
Time and temporality are central concerns in Lucas’ work, and the photographs in the U8 series critically examine such concepts with an astute sense of poetry and an enigmatic lucidity. The process itself presents an interesting paradox, where sometimes long durations of activity might be endured in order to capture and contemplate a moment of apparent emptiness. According to Anselm Haverkamp, ‘What photography is taking pictures of, in short, is Time itself.’(12) U8 presents the ambiguity of a frozen present time: a functional space defined by and designed for movement, which is absent of any yet implies so much. Time resonates, evokes, resides and eludes in each of the U8 images.
These works derive meaning from the simultaneity of presence and absence. Within these scenes are captured the seconds, moments or hours where human activity isn’t present, yet the fixidity of the photograph – of these provisional moments immortalised as photographic image – transforms, distorts and imbues them with permanence; it embalms them, makes the momentary void unending. André Bazin’s The Ontology of the Photographic Image (13) discusses photography as snatching reality from temporal existence, using metaphors such as ‘embalming the dead’ to describe the way in which the photograph captures, preserves, yet immediately resigns to the past a living moment. Roland Barthes expands upon this in Camera Lucida:
[T]he photograph’s immobility is somehow the result of a perverse confusion between two concepts: the Real and the Live: by attesting that the object has been real, the photograph surreptitiously induces belief that it is alive, because of that delusion which makes us attribute to Reality an absolute superior, somehow eternal value; but by shifting this reality to the past (‘this-has-been’), the photograph suggests that it is already dead. (14)
Roland Barthes regards the photograph as something that seemingly presents the ‘real,’ yet creates an ambiguity with perceptions of the ‘live.’ To Barthes, the past tense context of photographs, their presentation of things that ‘have been,’ things that once were, inevitably and unavoidably makes it impossible to separate photography from the spectre of mortality and death: ‘…it’s unreality is that of the “here-now”…its reality is that of the “having been there” …the always stupefying evidence of “this is how it was”, giving us, by a precious miracle, a reality from which we are sheltered.’ (15)
In the U8 series however, Lucas documents and appropriates the real in order to construct alternative narratives: counter-narratives that uncover and deconstruct the historical, perceptual, concrete and transcendental factors that dictate our sense of place, experience and being. ‘Void of any human presence, the photographs resonate a history of transit through the accompanying litter, filth, worn paint and graffiti (16).’ They are symbols, metaphors and allegories that vividly and compellingly evoke questions of an historical and existential nature. They are works which, while ‘real’, do not propose to present reality and speak of more than merely a specific time and place. They are philosophically and psychologically located in both the past and the future; in questions of representation and existence, temporality and space; in Baudrillard’s silence of the photograph, and Barthes’ rhetoric of unreality.
The silence of the photograph. One of its most precious qualities… Whatever the noise and the violence around them, photographs return objects to a state of stillness and silence. In the midst of urban hustle and bustle, they recreate the equivalent of the desert, a phenomenal isolation. They are the only way of passing through cities in silence, of moving through the world in silence. Photography conveys the state of the world in our absence. The lens explores that absence. (17)
Catalogue Essay by Dr. Mathew Gregory
Interruptions, Grizzly Grizzly, Philadelphia
1. Jean Baudrillard, Photographies. Available at http://www.egs.edu/faculty/jean-baudrillard/articles/photographies/ (last accessed 12 February 2013)
2. Jean Baudrillard, see note ii
3. For example, Jochem and Esther Shalev-Gertz’ Harburg Monument Against Fascism by; Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial; the voids of Daniel Libeskind’s Jewish Museum.
4. Victoria Lucas (2012) U8: Edition, limited edition artist’s book © Victoria Lucas
5. Marc Augé (1995) Non-places: Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity, Verso, London
6. Kirpal Singh cited in R. Murray Schafer (1973) ‘The Music of the Environment’ in Christoph Cox and Daniel Warner (eds.) (2004) Audio Culture: Readings in Modern Music, Continuum, London. p.38
7. John Cage (1962) John Cage, CF Peters, Frankfurt. p.59
8. Leszek Brogowski (1989) ‘“Idioms”: A Silent face of Photography’, in Leonardo, Vol. 22, No. 2 (1989), pp.162-3
9. Leszek Brogowski, op. cit., p.161
10. Jean Baudrillard (1981) ‘Simulation and Simulcra, in Mark Poster (ed.) (2001) Jean Baudrillard: Selected Writings, Stanford University Press, Stanford California, p.174
11. Frederic Jameson (2003) ‘The End of Temporality’, in Critical Enquiry, Vol. 29, No. 4 (Summer 2003), p.709
12. Anselm Haverkamp (1993) ‘The Memory of Pictures: Roland Barthes and Augustine on Photography’, in Comparative Literature, Vol. 45, No. 3 (Summer, 1993), pp.264
13. André Bazin (1960) The Ontology of the Photographic Image, Film Quarterly, Vol. 13, No. 4. (Summer, 1960), pp.4-6
14. Roland Barthes (1981) Camera Lucida, Hill and Wang, New York. P.79
15. Roland Barthes (1964) ‘The Rhetoric of the Image’ in Stephen Heath (ed.) (1977) Image Music Text, Fontana Press, London. p.44
16. Victoria Lucas, op. cit.
17. Jean Baudrillard, see note i
Originally Published for the Interruptions solo Exhibition at Grizzly Grizzly, Philadelphia in 2013.