May 14, 2011
The newest issue of the French art magazine Ligeia: Dossiers sur L’Art has a major section devoted to the theme of Ruins, Photography & History, edited by art historian Zaha Redman. I was invited to submit something on Sebald, which allowed me to write a piece that was longer than my usual blog post. My essay The Silent Catastrophe: Sebald’s Manchester (that’s the English title) explores Sebald’s relationship with Manchester as reflected in After Nature and The Emigrants. None of the essays are online and I’m afraid I don’t know how easy it is to obtain an issue outside of France.
Here are the contents of the special section:
DOSSIER : RUINES, PHOTO & HISTOIRE
Zaha Redman, Une histoire de pauvreté
Zaha Redman, Hadamar
Zaha Redman, Quel temps il fait, Stéphane Duroy
Pauline Vermare, L’Irlande du Nord de Paul Graham
Jean-Christian Fleury et Jacqueline Salmon, Le Hangar
Denis Baudier, Lewis Baltz, la désagrégation en acte
Zaha Redman, « Les Tombes » de Gilles Peress
Philippe Arbaïzar, Christina’s History, Mikael Levin
Jean-François Chevrier, Plus d’autres sujets, Mikael Levin
Tim Maul, The Devil’s Half-Acre
Zaha Redman, L’espace naturel de la puissance, Shaï Kremer
Auset Nassir, 012011/Égypte
Gilles Mora, New Orleans : mythes, ruines et chaos
Zaha Redman, Les visions tumultueuses de Wang Qinsong
Eduardo Cadava, Lapsus Imagini
Cécile Yapaudjian-Labat, ‘Histoire’ de Claude Simon, La mélancolie des restes
Terry Pitts, La catastrophe muette, Sebald à Manchester
Zaha Redman, La pauvreté de la photographie chez W. G. Sebald
November 7, 2010
The second triptych of essays in The Undiscover’d Country: W.G. Sebald and the Poetics of Travel uses the heading Textual Excursions, Expeditions, and Adventures to focus on some narrower aspects of Sebald’s writings.
The best essay of this section, in spite of its title, is Alan Itkin’s “Eine Art Eingang zur Unterwelt”: Katabasis in Austerliz, which examines Austerlitz within the tradition of epic literature, notably Homer’s Odyssey, Virgil, Dante, and Milton, showing how Sebald structured Austerlitz as a venture in the underworld. Itkin makes the case that Austerlitz is Sebald’s most novel-like work of prose fiction and that with this book Sebald broke the pattern in which he had formerly used the trope of travel. In his first three books of prose fiction, Sebald’s model of travel writing was to “demonstrate that it is the uncanny position of the modern subject never to be sufficiently lost.” But with Austerlitz, he returned to something more closely approaching the classic model of travel writing in which the narrator loses his way, then finds it again.
Itkin sees Sebald making the case that National Socialism was inextricably linked to “the senseless expansion of the bourgeois age” that preceded it. The dark side of progress is “an equally strong compulsion to destruction,” a theme that weaves in and out of all of Sebald’s books.
The remaining two essays are exercises in diminishing returns. Each left me feeling that the needles I finally found in these haystacks were blunt and only marginally useful. Martin Klebes’ essay If You Come to a Spa: Displacing the Cure in Schwindel. Gefühle and Austerlitz, looks at two of Sebald’s travelers and their visits to spas. He looks at the Dr. K. Takes the Waters at Riva section of Vertigo and at Jacques Austerlitz’s trip to the spa at Marienbad. Each man undergoes a transformation at the spa that has nothing to do with the expected “medical regimen” function of a spa. Instead, “Sebald’s narrative strategy is to ‘renew’ his protagonists at the spas …through intertextual references that reveal the split within each of them not as a feature of their psychological constitution but rather as a division visible on the textual surface itself.” What does this mean? Well, in both of the situations that Klebes cites, Sebald creates uncertainty and tension surrounding the identity of the protagonist, both of whom echo characters in other works of art. In the Vertigo example, “Dr. K. both is and is not ‘Franz Kafka’.” While in the Austerlitz example, Sebald overlays references to characters from Alain Resnais’ film L’année dernière à Marienbad (Last Year at Marienbad).
James Martin’s essay Campi deserti: Polar Landscapes and the Limits of Knowledge in Sebald and Ransmayr examines the middle section of Sebald’s long poem Nach der Nature (After Nature) and Ransmayr’s 1984 novel Die Schrecken des Eises und der Finsternis (The Terrors of Ice and Darkness), which I wrote about earlier. In this section of After Nature, Wilhelm Georg Stiller joins the Great Northern Expedition of 1741, led by Vitus Bering (of the Bering Sea and Strait). Martin sees Sebald making the point that these polar expeditions represent “the limits of the Enlightenment’s quest for knowledge” and “the extreme limits of the knowable world.” Like some of the essayists in the earlier section of Undiscover’d Country, Martin sees Sebald rejecting a totalizing view of history: “Science in the Enlightenment takes a totalizing character as a system for understanding the world under the banner of an unwavering belief in progress and rationality.” In After Nature and elsewhere, Sebald seems to completely reject this belief.
Other posts relating to this volume are here.
July 19, 2008
Last week I was in New York City and had the opportunity to see two-thirds of the exhibition After Nature at the new New Museum. (The exhibition is opening in stages and the installation of the second floor – the floor which “sets the tone for the exhibition”, according to curator Massimiliano Gioni – was not ready when I was there.) After enjoying the panoramic views of New York from the rooftop I took the stairs down and began the exhibition on the fourth floor. Stepping into a gallery, I immediately encountered a slim woman in jeans and shirt writhing in slow motion on the floor, long hair covering her face most of the time. Perhaps I was seeing the exhibition in reverse, I realized; but it was too late.
The exhibition’s title, of course, is borrowed from W.G. Sebald’s book-length poem After Nature. Gioni explains that his exhibition “aspires to a similar hallucinatory confusion [as Sebald's writings], a conflation of temporalities, a blurring of facts and fictions – an exhibition as a visual novel or wunderkammer.” In addition to Sebald, the acknowledged guiding spirits are filmmaker Werner Herzog and novelist Cormac McCarthy. Rather than trying to define anything, After Nature seems to spiral outward in multiple directions: “offended sceneries and scorched earth”, “private cosmologies and universes untouched by man”, “ancient traditions and arcane faiths”, and the “bliss” or “madness” we might experience at the end of the world. There are already a number of exhibition reviews online already, some of which point out the exhibition’s lack of focus. But whether that’s a problem or not (a characteristic like “focus” usually isn’t a goal for exhibitions at the New Museum), there are wonderful pieces to be seen, including Maurizio Cattelan’s untitled (2007) comic/apocalyptic horse implanted some twenty feet off the ground into a gallery wall and Robert Kusmirowski’s Unacabine (2008), a replica of “Unibomber” Theodore Kaczynski’s cabin. And then there was the writhing woman, who, it turns out, is one of several performers in Tino Sehgal’s piece Instead of allowing something to rise up to your face dancing bruce and dan and other things (2000).
On the way out, I stopped and bought the eponymous shrink-wrapped exhibition catalog for After Nature ($24.95). Imagine my surprise when I discovered that it consisted of a dust wrapper that unfolded to six panels neatly tucked around a Modern Library paperback copy of W.G. Sebald’s After Nature ($11.95). That’s a nifty mark-up for what is essentially a dust jacket. I don’t think I’ve ever seen an entire book appropriated like this before. The wrapper includes an essay by Gioni and a checklist noted as accurate “as of June 25, 2008″.
July 9, 2008
Two new exhibitions in New York claim W.G. Sebald for inspiration. The first is the New Museum’s After Nature. According to their website part of the exhibition will be viewable as of July 9 (the 3rd and 4th floors), while the dates for the full exhibition (including the 2nd floor) are July 17 – September 21, 2008. Here’s a blurb from their website:
Departing from the fictional documentaries of Werner Herzog and drawing its title from W.G. Sebald’s visionary book of the same name, “After Nature” unfolds as a visual novel, depicting a future landscape of wilderness and ruins. Bringing together an international and multigenerational group of contemporary artists, filmmakers, writers, and outsiders, many of whom are showing in an American museum for the first time, the exhibition is a feverish examination of humankind’s relationship to nature. Organized by Massimiliano Gioni, Director of Special Exhibitions, the show spans three floors and includes over ninety works.
Part dystopian fantasy, part ethnographic museum of a lost civilization that eerily resembles our own, “After Nature” brings together artists and artworks that possess a strange, prophetic intensity. When seen in this context, Zoe Leonard’s giant sculpture of a crippled tree, Maurizio Cattelan’s fallen horse, Reverend Howard Finster’s delirious sermon cards, and Eugene Von Bruenchenhein’s apocalyptic finger paintings resonate like a requiem for a vanishing planet.
Artists such as Fikret Atay, Roger Ballen, Robert Kusmirowski, Diego Perrone, and Artur Zmijewski seem fascinated by mystic apparitions, arcane rites, and spiritual illuminations, while Allora and Calzadilla, Nancy Graves, and William Christenberry depict a universe in which the traces of humans have been erased and new ecological systems struggle to find a precarious balance.
The works of Huma Bhabha, Berlinde De Bruyckere, and Thomas Schütte share an archaic quality. Their magic realism transforms sculpture into myth-making and gives birth to a cast of fantastical creatures, including sylvan beings, totemic figures, and neo-primitive idols. These elements also find life in Tino Sehgal’s intricate choreographies: for the duration of the exhibition dancers carry out gestures that could be seen as mysterious rituals and states of ecstasy. Recuperating ancient techniques, Pawel Althamer uses grass and animal intestines to produce vulnerable sculptures and puppets to arrive at a new form of storytelling. Other works, like the animations of Nathalie Djurberg, the imaginary maps of Roberto Cuoghi, or the video travelogue of Erik van Lieshout, guide viewers to the edge of the earth, taking us for a walk in the fictional woods of our near future, while expressing a sincere preoccupation for the world as it is now.
The exhibition will include work by Allora and Calzadilla, Pawel Althamer, Micol Assaël, Fikret Atay, Roger Ballen, Huma Bhabha, Maurizio Cattelan, William Christenberry, Roberto Cuoghi, Bill Daniel, Berlinde De Bruyckere, Nathalie Djurberg, Reverend Howard Finster, Nancy Graves, Werner Herzog, Robert Kusmirowski, Zoe Leonard, Klara Liden, Erik van Lieshout, Diego Perrone, Thomas Schütte, Dana Schutz, Tino Sehgal, August Strindberg, Eugene Von Bruenchenhein, and Artur Zmijewski.
“After Nature” is made possible by the Leadership Council of the New Museum. Major support provided by David Teiger. Additional support provided by Kati Lovaas, Randy Slifka, and the Toby Devan Lewis Emerging Artists Exhibitions Fund.
The second exhibition occurs across the East River in Brooklyn at a place called Jack the Pelican Presents. It’s a collaborative exhibition between artists Tyler Coburn and Sebastian Craig called Ghostwriters and it runs only from July 10 – August 10, 2008:
May 26, 2008
As I read Aldalbert Stifter’s 1845 Christmas story Rock Crystal, which was published in 1999 as a petite volume by London’s Pushkin Press, it was easy to see why W.G. Sebald admired this nineteenth-century writer so much. Rock Crystal contains the bits and pieces required to construct a morality piece, but in the end Nature shoves everything aside with all of the rudeness of an avalanche.
South of the village you see a snowy mountain with dazzling horn-shaped peaks.
A shoemaker from one village successfully woos the daughter of a wealthy dyer from a village on the other side of the mountain. But more than a mountain separates the two villages. The dyer’s daughter has broken tradition by crossing over to the other village, and her father responds by withholding most of the dowry. Within a few years, the shoemaker and his wife have two young children who regularly trek across the mountain to spend a few hours with their grandparents before returning home.
Mothers may love their children and tenderly long for them when they are absent, but a grandmother’s love for her grandchildren amounts almost to a morbid craving.
One year on the day before Christmas, after a dry and warm autumn, the two children cross over the mountain for a holiday meal with the grandparents. They are dutifully warned about the dangers of winter storms by their father before the depart and they receive the same ominous warning from the grandparents as they set out on the return trip. Naturally, halfway home, a furious snowstorm suddenly begins.
But on every side there was nothing but a blinding whiteness, white everywhere that none the less drew its ever narrow circle about them, paling beyond into fog that came down in waves, devouring and shrouding everything till there was nothing but the voracious snow.
The two children are soon hopelessly lost in an environment that becomes less and less real and more and more dangerous.
As far as the eye could reach there was only ice. Pointed masses and irregular clumps thrusting up from the fearsome snow-encrusted ice. Instead of a barricade that could be surmounted, with snow beyond, as they had expected, yet other walls of ice rose from the buttress, cracked and fissured, with innumerable meandering blue veins, and beyond these walls, others like them; and beyond, others, until the falling snow blurred the distance in its veil of gray.
At night they take shelter beneath to massive boulders and struggle to stay awake and alive. The blinding storm abates and reveals its opposite – the infinite universe of the sky.
The arch of heaven was an even blue, so dark it was almost black, spangled with stars blazing in countless array, and through their midst a broad luminous band was woven, pale as milk…
The following day the two children are found, rescue parties from both villages having set out in a symbolic breaking with the past. Stifter makes token mention of the improved relations between the villages, but the last word, as it were, goes to the mountain.
The children, however, can never forget the mountain, and earnestly fix their gaze upon it when in the garden, when as in times past the sun is out bright and warm, the lime tree diffuses its fragrance, the bees are humming, and the mountain looks down upon them as serene and blue as the sky above.
The sublime beauty and terror of snow, ice, alpine heights, and northern extremes is a thread that runs through Sebald’s book-length poem After Nature. In the first section, devoted to the sixteenth-century German painter Matthias Grünewald, we see “the ice age, the glaringly white / towering of the summits…” in the background of Grünewald’s Temptation of Saint Anthony. At the end of this section, Sebald imagines Grünewald staring at the landscape, mourning the death of his teen-aged son.
The forest recedes, truly,
so far that one cannot tell
where it once lay, and the ice-house
opens, and rime, on to the field, traces
a colourless image of the Earth.
So, when the optic nerve
tears, in the still space of the air
all turns as white as
the snow on the Alps.
In the second section of After Nature, Sebald writes of the voyage of exploration of Vitus Bering, who pursued the “vast tracts of whiteness” of the Arctic Ocean between Siberia and Alaska.
All was a grayness, without direction,
with no above or below, nature
in a process of dissolution, in a state
of pure dementia.
And in the final, autobiographical section, Sebald recounts how, at the hour he was born, a freak mountain storm killed four canopy bearers who were helping with the blessing of the fields on Ascension Day.
of doubt have I passed
since that time, but now peace
returns to the dust and I read
of the eighteenth century how a
verdant land is submerged
in the blue shadows of the Jurassus
and in the end only the age-old
ice on the Alps retains a faint
For more reading along these lines, try Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818), possibly the ultimate novel of the Alps and the Arctic, and Peter Davidson’s wide-ranging study The Idea of North (London: Reaktion Books, 2005). The cover illustration for Rock Crystal, by the way, is from a painting by the British artist Jason Martin.