Sunday, 28 December 2008

The Straight Line and the Void: Hundertwasser, Hiroshima, and the Horror of Forgetting

Hundertwasser, the most important Viennese artist of the second half of the twentieth century, despised straight lines. Straight lines he thought immoral and atheistic. Painting is a religious experience. There are no straight lines in nature.

I have been photographing straight lines lately. They do seem mostly man-made, inasmuch as they can be called 'straight' - building cranes, jet streams, telephone cables, poles, railway tracks. But Hundertwasser is right - there are no straight lines in nature, even man-made. Everything is crooked, curved, bent, distorted, twisted - if you look close enough. Or inversely, if you stand back far enough. Straightness is a metaphor, or a mirage - and a dangerous one at that. A jet stream is nothing but a shapeless clutter of gusts, clouds, particles, hyperbolic streams.

"I venture to say that the line described by my feet as I go walking to the museum is more important than the lines one finds hanging on the walls inside. And I get enormous pleasure in seeing that the line is never straight, never confused, but it has its reasons for being the way it is in every smallest part. Beware of the straight line and the drunken line, but especially of the straight one! The straight line leads to the loss of humanity." (Hundertwasser, 27)

Hundertwasserhaus, a low-income apartment block in Vienna designed free of charge by the artist ("to prevent something ugly from going up in its place"), features undulating floors, an earth and grass-covered roof, and large trees growing inside rooms with limbs extending from windows. "An uneven floor is a melody to the feet," Hundertwasser was reported as saying.

Among the architectural features of the new Jewish Museum in Berlin designed by Daniel Libeskind is a Holocaust Void - "a void space that embodies absence, a straight line whose impenetrability becomes the central focus around which exhibitions are organized." (63) The straight line: the loss of humanity, the Holocaust.

In the novel We, a somewhat superior forerunner to Orwell's 1984, credited by Orwell himself as a major source of inspiration, Yevgeny Zamyatin writes: "Taming a wild zigzag along a tangent, toward the asymptote, into a straight line: yes. You see, the line of the One State - it is a straight line. A great, divine, precise, wise, straight line - the wisest of lines." (4) The straight line: totalitarian state.

"Everything straight lies," a dwarf tells Nietzsche's Zarathustra. "All truth is crooked, time itself is a circle." Even space is curved, as Relativity would have it.

According to the author of a book on the Sarajevo Hagaddah, the Nazis' aim in looting Jewish treasures from around the world was to house them in a "museum of an extinct people." All museums and galleries, to a greater or lesser extent, unwittingly or not, furnish this project: the past is another country. The gesture of putting on display a work objectifies and distances it; the work becomes the index of a complex absence, it opens up a space of alienation, a void. Every exhibition space is in a sense a 'museum of an extinct race'. It commemorates the absence of the artist, who no longer exists, who is extinct.

(*The inclusion of the Holocaust Void in the New Jewish Museum in Berlin, implying a negative content, could be a saving grace or counterweight to this tendency, by displacing the trauma of extermination not on a fixed positive content, but on a kind of vanishing mediator, fixing the gesture of petrification/alienation in a state of incompleteness, a straight line whose emptiness negates itself, and its 'straightness', opening up an empty space for thought and remembrance.)

Something to this effect happens to be the theme of an exhibition at Futura Gallery in Prague titled 'Key Figures in 20th Century Art'. It consists of a series of portraits of artists who, according to the authors of the project (Avdei Ter-Oganian and Vaclav Magid), have "contributed to the elimination of avant-garde tendencies" and given rise to the capitalist notion of the work of art as an object of consumption or 'commodity'. The logic of the commodity is inimical to the work of art, leading to what Ter-Oganian and Magid call an "ecological catastrophe in the cultural sphere". The artists whose portraits are hung on the 'wall of shame', ranging from Gustav Klimt to Tracey Emin, have "left the world of art and sold themselves to the production of worthless yet luxury commodities." The artists have vacated their own bodies.

A series of works by photographer Susan Hiller titled 'The J Street Project', accompanied by a lengthy printed volume, documents 303 German streets that contain the word 'Jude' - 'Jew'. Hiller's research resulted in over 300 photographs, a list of places and streets with a map of Germany, and a video installation. Given the perverse logic of the Nazis' collecting habits, however, the persistence of the street names that Hiller documents is not at odds with the 'traumatic absence' they indicate. Street names are like museums and galleries, for the most part - they are not there to help us remember, but to help us forget. They obliterate the past in its immediacy, sublimate the horror - the 'past present' - in a petrified image, an always-was.

Forgetting is the recurring theme in all this - in the film Hiroshima mon Amour, the phrase 'horror of forgetting' appears. No longer the horror of the event itself - of the bomb, of torture, of the loss of love - but horror at the loss of memory of the horror. Horror when confronted with the possibility that such intense love or suffering can fade in spite of all efforts to the contrary, that one can eventually go on living 'as if nothing ever happened'. That objects lose their signifying power. That the meaning of a sign can be reversed.

It is in this that the horror of intense love and intense suffering are one. "Just as in love this illusion exists, this illusion of being able never to forget, so I was under the illusion that I would never forget Hiroshima." (212) The woman from Nevers is constituted by the horror she suffers; she preserves her identity by preserving the memory of lost love, its intensity. Underneath, the true horror - the horror that there is no horror, that the animal survives, that no pain, torture, death, or love can kill it. This is the truly horrifying thing - the animal in us that overcomes the horror. The remainder, the muselmann of Auschwitz, the straight line that perseveres. Vertigo, as Kundera put it, is not the fear of falling, but the fear of our own longing to fall.

One of the pitfalls to any resistance struggle, as Michel Foucault warns, is attachment to an identity of subject instituted or coagulated in a situation of oppression, the constitution of an identity permanently marked and defined by subjugation. By taking one's own victimization permanently for granted one easily forgets its objective moral imperatives, ignoring one's own capacity to do evil, freeing one's conscience to subject others, to become the very thing one struggled against, in another struggle. (As Israel's treatment of Palestinians shows, most recently in the attacks on Gaza the past week...) True resistance must lie somewhere inbetween - between the horror of forgetting and total oblivion. It must entail a real, mobile multiculturalism - hybrid, rhizomatic, chameleonic - rather than the liberal pandering to the Other as other, which fixes the Other permanently in a state of subjugation and/or permanently assigns to it a positive content. A transcendental multiculturalism whose horizon of possibility includes not mere understanding of but being the Other through/as oneself, recognizing one's own experience in the experience of the Other.

The Nazis never managed to get their hands on the Sarajevo Haggadah on account of a clever ruse by a Muslim librarian and Islamic scholar named Dervis Korkut. When a German officer came to collect the book at the National Museum in Sarajevo, the museum curator informed him that another SS officer had just collected it and left. The straight-thinking German took the bait and left, frustrated. Korkut left by the back door, Haggadah in hand.

Korkut took the book to his home village, and hid it in the home of a Muslim family (or in a mosque, according to another version of the story), mixed in with Islamic texts. As the Germans assumed all Muslims were collaborators (on account of the simple dichotomy of Muslim/Jew), they were not in the habit of searching Muslim homes. Like Poe's purloined letter, the Sarajevo Haggadah becomes a Deleuzian virtual object, by definition displaced - it is what it is by virtue of never being where it is expected. It eludes the grasp of its pursuers because it is by definition a Jewish book rescued by a Muslim librarian.

The Haggadah survived the most recent Bosnian war and the burning of the National Library in Sarajevo by Serb artillery. It was again rescued by a Muslim, a museum curator this time. It lives, invisibly. The asymptote, the zigzag, the wandering path of an ancient book defeats the straight line of the howitzer barrel.


* * *
Restany, Hundertwasser (2008)
Saltzman & Rosenberg (ed), Trauma and Visuality in Modernity (2006)
Wolf, Daniel Libeskind and the Contemporary Jewish Museum (2008)
Zamyatin, We (2006)

New York Times article on Hitler's plans for a 'museum of an extinct race'.
New Yorker essay on Sarajevo Haggadah