Losing your place in the world
As a summer of travelling draws to a close, I find myself thinking about place. ‘Every day people follow signs pointing to some place which is not their home but a chosen destination,’ wrote John Berger in June 2005, in the essay ‘Ten Dispatches about Place’. ‘Road signs, airport embarkment signs, terminal signs. Some are making their journeys for pleasure, others on business, many out of loss or despair. On arrival, they come to realize they are not in the place indicated by the signs they followed.’
Place also took centre stage in this summer’s documenta 14, as the exhibition was cut in two, with one half sent to Athens. Established by Arnold Bode in 1955 as an act of healing after the devastations of World War II, this version seemed to want to show the wounds anew. Many writing in the German press were upset at the dismemberment and geographic relocation of part of this national treasure. In Athens, there were accusations of colonialism, gentrification and ignoring the plight of artists and refugees in the city.
documenta 14’s chosen structure was a displacement. While the show maintains its monumental stature in Kassel, in Athens it was so absorbed by the city’s fast-flowing current as to be rendered almost invisible. Both halves of the exhibition contained displacement narratives. These featured obliquely in Rosalind Nashashibi’s film about Austrian artists Vivian Suter and her mother Elisabeth Wild, living and working in Guatemala. Hiwa K’s Pre-Image (Blind as the Mother Tongue) (2017) retraces his 1996 journey from Iraq to Germany via Turkey and Greece. Artur Žmijewski’s Glimpse (2016–17) shows refugee camps in Berlin, Calais and Paris. In Kassel, Jonas Mekas’s film diary, Reminiszenzen aus Deutschland (Reminiscences from Germany, 1971/1993), screened daily in the BALI Kino, includes the artist’s description of how he arrived as a ‘displaced person’ in Kassel in July 1945: ‘There was not city; it was a field of devastation,’ he says. He does not want to return to Germany when he undertakes this journey in 1971, but his memory forces him to: he cannot forget. Once there, he realizes that many of the people living in the city have, in fact, forgotten: ‘Only the flowers remembered,’ he says.
A few weeks after my back-to-back trip from Kassel to Athens, I travelled to Manchester on a family visit. ‘The greatest city on earth’ is how the Manchester International Festival, which was on at the time, described it. This was, indeed, how we saw the city as teenagers in the 1980s, proud to be part of its music and club scenes, hoping to rub shoulders with musicians Mark E. Smith or Johnny Marr in one place or other. Manchester Art Gallery, where I used to spend hours skulking amongst works by L.S. Lowry and pre-Raphaelite artists, was showing ‘True Faith’, an exhibition about Manchester bands Joy Division and New Order. My children, almost teenagers themselves, and I watched Mark Leckey’s filmic reminiscence Dream English Kid 1964–1999 AD (2015). This, too, is about the hold of place on the artist, particularly a motorway bridge in Birkenhead he remembers from his childhood. But, unlike Mekas, Leckey doesn’t return there physically. Instead, he simulates a return through digital means, countering the loss of place that the internet proscribes with the making plastic of memories, images, places and time. ‘Technology has put us in this strange place where we are never fully present in a strange sense, or our presence is distributed,’ says Leckey. In his recent exhibition, ‘Affect Bridge Age Regression’, at Cubitt in London, where he now lives, he rebuilt the bridge that has haunted him for so many years, ‘nostalgically attached to him like an out-of-sight body part’. At the opening, he led a group chant to exorcise the bridge from his memory, calling: ‘Out, Demons, out!’
In Manchester, at the ‘True Faith’ exhibition, I experienced my own ‘affect age regression’, triggered by this music that seems to be fossilized into the bedrock of my identity. ‘I have doubts about art, about the over investment in what it can do, but I have no doubts about music,’ says Leckey. ‘I don’t know if music makes you think, but it opens your mind.’ It was this music that somehow, mysteriously, led me to art, I realize. Seeing New Order videos directed by Kathryn Bigelow and Jonathan Demme, and posters designed by John Baldessari and Lawrence Weiner, it was like suddenly discovering a missing link in my personal history: one bound not only to a certain time but, also, to the place I grew up.
I returned to Berlin, where I now live: my children’s home town. When I first arrived here in 2001, I felt like I was coming too late, having missed the exciting years immediately following the fall of the Wall. But, it turned out, I was early in the waves of newcomers arriving here from Western destinations or, more recently, from Middle Eastern countries displaced by war. Yet, while the population here diversifies, the cityscape also loses its character, abandoned to the homogenizing forces of property development, allowed free rein to convert sites of historical significance into generic shopping malls. Berger links the problem of this encroaching, consumer-driven ‘nowhere’ to the emergence of ‘digital time’: ‘as indifferent as money’. Within this single present, shorn of past and future, ‘no whereabouts can be found or established’, he notes. Since 2005, when Berger was writing, we have experienced a further flattening, a digital displacement whereby place seems literally to lose its gravity and, as Leckey puts it, it feels like ‘our presence is distributed’. If we are never fully present, can our memories still attach to place? Or will only the flowers remember?
First published in Issue 189