UR Feeling

This response to Simon Martin’s exhibition UR Feeling appeared in the Camden Arts Centre’s File Note series:

‘What I’m after is an emotional, affective landscape. Something as subtle and strong as the weather.’ (Simon Martin on UR Feeling)

Site 01: Rising

A site is ‘an area of ground on which a town, building, or monument is constructed,’ according to one definition. The town is a city within a city. Unreal City, eerily empty at weekends, teeming with white-collar workers on weekdays. The buildings, housing the London Stock Exchange, Goldman Sachs and investment banks, are something you might conjure up in a lucid dreaming exercise: faceless, hollow, spooky in their sheer geometric thrust. Linked by a colonnade, bisected by narrow passageways that were there long before they rose, the buildings give onto a central piazza overlooked, on one side, by a monument: a Corinthian column. Classic UR Feeling. You are in Paternoster Square, flanking St. Paul’s Cathedral at the top of Ludgate Hill – the highest point of The City.

You are a bombsite and a building site in perpetuity. A place that has been continually occupied for centuries. Burned, raided, built over, razed to the ground and redeveloped. Roman- medieval- Victorian. 1940; 1961-7; 2003. Imagine yourself as scaffolding in one of those lanes, protruding from one of those buildings slowly being erected – at the speed of a time-lapse photograph. A building site looks not unlike an archaeological dig. Can we speak of psychic archaeology the way we talk about psycho-geography?

Site 02: Falling

What goes up must come down. What must rise, must fall. From the debris of fallen buildings new streets will sprout, new parks will be landscaped. Falling towers. If we’re to believe architect and critic Charles Jenks, ‘Modern Architecture died in St. Louis, Missouri on July 15, 1972 at 3.32 pm (or thereabouts) when the infamous Pruitt Igoe scheme, or rather several of its slab blocks, were given the final coup de grâce by dynamite.’ The thirty-three tower blocks in Minoru Yamasaki’s modernist housing scheme, which once stood for urban renewal, were blown up with explosives, then and there, as American families around the country watched the demolition deed on their TV screens. The World Trade Center towers – in what is Yamasaki’s best-known project – would follow suit.

Consider a building collapsing. Does it go out like a candle? Does it totter, wobble, crumble, sink to the ground, or melt away and suddenly drop? How can it be anything other than a violent image? Can demolition be thought of as ‘assisted dying’ for a building? Perhaps that’s what Jenks had in mind when he spoke of a ‘final coup de grâce’. A joyous dissolution and disintegration. Let’s fall together. Fall again. Fall better.

Site 03: River

Think of the river as yet another site. For TS Eliot, the river is always the Thames, the ‘brown god’ of The Dry Salvages. River Thames, still referred to as the Isis in some parts. The monument erected on its banks is Cleopatra’s Needle, flanked on each side by two imitation Egyptian sphinxes cast in bronze. Inspect closely the right sphinx’s paw and you will notice a gaping black hole just above one of its smooth protruding claws. Lose yourself in it. The monument proudly bears the ‘scars’ that disfigure its surface. As the plaque on the base of the sphinx explains, these shrapnel wounds were caused by fragments of a bomb dropped close to this spot during World War I. They have never been mended. Cleopatra’s Needle and the sphinxes that guard it are there to preserve the memory of trauma.

Starting from Victoria Embankment, mentally retrace the river’s course, past the landmarks, past the bridges, as it snakes its way down to the estuary. Stop over at Wapping Stairs and listen. Sweet Thames, run softly, for I speak not loud or long. Can you make out a faint humming sound over and above that of the lapping waves? An abstract wavy sound. It’s an impression of what the oldest instrument to have come down to us, the reconstructed Queen’s Lyre from the Royal Cemetery of Ur, might have sounded like. An abstraction of an abstraction, at several removes from reality. That’s UR Feeling for you.

Site 04: Corner

Architects have grappled with the so-called ‘corner problem’ since classical antiquity. The trouble with corners began with Greco-Roman temple architecture, and the doric order specifically. In a culture that set great store by harmony, the slight misalignment of the last triglyph – a ribbed stone block imparting a visual rhythm to the architrave – and the corresponding column posed a problem. The doric corner conflict was never fully resolved, setting a dangerous precedent. Ludwig Mies van der Rohe came up with various ingenious solutions to the perennial architectural problem of how to make two surfaces meet. ‘Turning’ the building’s corners is a Miesian signature. Hollowed out, slightly set back, hidden from view, his are corners within corners.

But corners need not be this retiring, leaned out, leaning, hushing the room enclosed. Think of a street corner, open to all. That’s where people hang out, talking, not really doing much; where you go to pick up drugs; where situations arise. It seems designed to facilitate encounters and bring people into contact.

Site 05: Portrait

Face to face in the dark. Set in an abandoned TV studio, Jean-Luc Godard’s 1969 Le Gai Ssavoir [Joy of Learning] features a male and a female character, Patricia and Emile, who meet at night in the middle of nowhere and have long discussions about things with the student protests of May 68 in the background. The blackout studio space is an echo chamber for their thoughts and typically middle-class preoccupations – something Godard appears to be critical of while celebrating it at the same time. The title is a reference to Friedrich Nietzsche’s 1882 The Gay Science. In this, one of his more personal books, Nietzsche pays homage to the ancient Greeks and their salutary life-affirming philosophy, which he regards as being in every way opposed to the guilt-ridden Christian culture. The second preface to the work begins with a paradoxical claim: ‘The Greeks were superficial out of profundity.’

This joyous philosophy is at odds with the fascination for death and disease evinced by Butoh. The squat earthbound physique associated with the dance of darkness, its palsied, tremulous movements, if anything, partake of the morbid sensibility that Nietzsche attributes to Christianity. But there are many moods to Butoh, by turns erotic, sensual, violent, vulnerable, powerful and exhausted. Butoh can be this and Butoh can be that. Subtle and strong like the weather.

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