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Posts from the ‘Altermodern (exhibition)’ Category

Sebald, Uncomfortable Modernist

Over at the Green Integer Blog there is a thought-provoking post in which the author tries to come to terms with his irritation upon reading W.G. Sebald’s Vertigo.  (Curiously, the essay was posted July 10, 2009, but it concludes with a writing date of December 23, 2001, about 18 months after Vertigo was released in the US.)  At first, the author of the post senses an internal contradiction within Sebald’s work, perhaps even a fatal failure:

In short, there is a sense of angst to Sebald’s world, and the writers he features, Stendhal and Kafka, share his feelings of displacement. It is as if Sebald were a high modernist who has discovered himself in a postmodern world, and he is not at all happy about that fact. He often seems to be working at odds to his own tales, as if all the disconnections, accidental photographs, and odd peregrinations he recounts were an expression of his failure to create a more coherent whole.

He points to one example in Vertigo (the rape scene involving the hunter Schlag and the barmaid Romona) where, he feels, Sebald “was purposely withholding information, refusing to reveal any logic in a world where he has painfully determined to be utterly mystifying.”  This leads the author to his final conclusion:

It is this desperate search for coherence under conditions where memory and significance are so vague, I believe, that draw so many readers to Sebald’s books. Like Sebald, they feel utterly ill-at-ease, even sickly, when they face the inexplicably dangerous terrain standing before them. I simply do not share the great dis-ease, and am somewhat irritated for having to endure it.

I think it is absolutely correct to say that Sebald was an uncomfortable modernist, especially in the sense that one of his basic concerns was epistemological: how do we know the past?  At the same time Sebald was deeply skeptical of modernism, having traced its true history from Napoleon through Hitler’s Germany.  As Sebald showed, modernism’s inherent belief in human progress was overtly false.  Only technology progressed, the very technology that made it easier and easier to enslave and murder millions, all the while hiding the truth behind a shimmering veil of lies.  In his conversion from pure academic to prose fiction writer, Sebald was venting his frustration with the limits of traditional scholarship to get at larger truths and, it seems to me, he dedicated himself to the task of trying to find a better way.  What Sebald did then was rather curious.  He borrowed some of the techniques of post-modernism – embedding photographs and the like –  and, in effect, smuggled them back across the border, brought them back through time, and he employed them in what was a very modernist enterprise.  I don’t imagine that Sebald ever had a desire to completely leave modernism behind, for modernism is, if anything, based on the firm belief that, at its very core, it is an undertaking of a very high moral order – as opposed to the seeming amoralism of the post-modernism.

Several times Sebald shows us his despair at his possibly Sisyphean task, and he does this most clearly in the final pages of Vertigo, where the narrator sits in a London train among a “defeated army” of commuters, reading Samuel Pepy’s diary, only to suddenly have a dream of walking through the Alps to come to the edge of a bottomless chasm.  Sebald briefly describes a post-human vision where “not a tree was there to be seen, not a bush, not even a stunted shrub or a russock of grass; there was nothing but ice-grey shale.”  The scene then shifts back to Pepys and another apocalyptic vision: Pepys’ description of the Great Fire of London.  The ending to Vertigo make me think of nothing so much as the conclusion of Melville’s Moby-Dick, which is just about as post-modern as any true modernist novel ever written.  In the end, mankind is nothing in the larger scheme of this universe.  Nothing.  (Perhaps Sebald was the last true artist of Romanticism.)

Caspar David Friedrich wandererCaspar David Friedrich, Wanderer above the Sea of Fog, 1818

The writer at Green Integer states a preference for a post-modern author like Javier Marias, who “is far more like a kind of amateur sleuth, who will gladly take on his adventures, but is more often just has happy to find no apparent answer.”  That’s the very premise of post-modernism – that there is no single answer, no single viewpoint.  In a funny, round-about way, this leads me back to my previous post on the exhibition at the Tate Britain called Altermodern.  Maybe it is time we defined something to supplant both modernism and post-modernism, something that can be committed to truth and history all the while knowing there is no single perspective.  It strike me that this is, in a sense, what a hologram achieves.  Every point of view is absolutely true and absolutely different from any other, yet it all adds up to one coherent image.  But I can’t bear the idea of calling this new ism “holomodernism.”

[Green Integer, in case any reader of Vertigo doesn’t know, is an essential modern publisher dedicated to “Essays, Manifestos, Statements, Speeches, Maxims, Epistles, Diaristic Jottings, Narratives, Natural histories, Poems, Plays, Performances, Ramblings, Revelations, and all such ephemera as may appear necessary to bring society into a slight tremolo of confusion and fright at least.” So says their website.  Go visit and buy books.]

W.G. Sebald and the Altermodern


The work of W.G. Sebald continues to provide inspiration and intellectual underpinning for exhibitions of contemporary art.  In 2007 there was Waterlog, in 2008 there was After Nature, and now in 2009 we have Altermodern, the recent Tate Triennial curator by Nicolas Bourriaud:

Usually an exhibition begins with a mental image with which we need to reconnect, and whose meanings constitute a basis for discussion with the artists.  The research that has preceded the Triennial 2009, however, had its origins in two elements: the idea of the archipelago, and the writings of a German émigré to the UK, Winfred Georg Sebald.  the archipelago (and its kindred forms, the constellation and the cluster) functions here as a model representing the multiplicity of global cultures…

As for Sebald’s writings – wanderings between ‘signs’, punctuated by black and white photographs – they appear to me as emblematic of a mutation in our perception of space and time, in which history and geography operate a cross-fertilisation, tracing out paths and weaving networks: a cultural evolution at the very heart of this exhibition.  The two concepts – the archipelago and Sebald’s excursions – do not intertwine arbitrarily: they represent the paths I followed led by my initial intuition: that of the death of postmodernism as the starting point for reading the present.

Bourriaud’s thesis is dense and impossible to condense.  It’s also supplanted with essays (or lectures) by Okwui Enwezor, T.J. Demos, and Carsten Höller, as well as an “Official Document” delivered by the International Necronautical Society (one of whose founders is the novelist Tom McCarthy).   Suffice it to say that one of the central topics that Bourriaud and others are trying to define is what comes after post-modernism:

Altermodernism can be defined as that moment when it became possible for us to produce something that made sense starting from an assumed heterochrony, that is, from a vision of human history as constituted of multiple temporalities, disdaining the nostalgia of the avant-garde and indeed for any era – a positive vision of chaos and complexity.  It is neither a petrified kind of time advancing in loops (postmodernism) nor a linear vision of history (modernism), but a positive experience of disorientation through an art-form exploring all dimensions of the present, tracing lines in all directions of time and space.

Sebald comes into the picture as an obvious – and perhaps accessible – example of heterochrony and altermodernism.  The other main themes of Bourriaud’s exhibition will also be familiar to any reader of Sebald: Exile, Travels, and Borders.

Altermodern – the book – has been designed by the cult design firm of M/M (Paris).  Although I’m not consistently a fan of their work, which often appears more retro-hippie than post-Helvetica, they provide the perfect packaging for a project in which the curatorial concept dominates the art and the artists.   On page after page the artwork disappears into or spreads across the gutter; in the end, Altermodern fails the test Bourriaud sets out in his opening sentence: “to establish a balance between the artworks and the narrative that acts as a form of sub-titling.”  In the book, at least, the “sub-titling” dominates.   Bourriaud likens the curator’s role to something on the order of an ethical Noah, determining which species will survive and which won’t.  “The very act of picking out certain images and distinguishing them from the rest of the production by exposing them is an ethical responsibility.  Keeping the ball in the air and the game alive: that is the function of the critic or the curator.”

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