The aesthetic of ruins, althought it seems to respresent a particular era, that of PIRANESI or of CAL LOT, remains present today in many of our ways of perceiving objects. The Destroyed often takes spectacular forms. When nature invades the collapsed vaults of an abbey or forces up sculpted, moss-covered tombstones, the aesthetic feelings evoked are perhaps not quite the same as those aroused by a gigantic pile of debris, or a dwelling whose walls threaten to cave in at any moment. Does the aesthetic delight in ruins hide the vulgar pleasure of the demolished?
There is also a more active form of destruction. A town gutted under the demonic impulsion of major earthworks, supposedly natural catastrophes, plane crashes, forest fires, or more simply the ball that swings on the end of a cable, relentlessly striking whole walls and reducing them to rubble... Except that this active destruction seems to arouse aesthetic emotions only insofar as the eye looks on it as a grand scene. Is the only perspective on the world that of the god's eye rejoicing as he beholds the catastrophe - even if it entails dying from it?
However, this fascination for destruction is much more obscure than it seems. It is truly satisified neither by spectacle nor by a fusion with the images of slow decomposition, that
suggest the gentle attraction of destruction. The refinement which can be applied to the conservation of ruins, thanks to operations which most often consist of suspending destruction's very movement, shows how much the will to preserve images of a building's memory triumphs over the pleasure of disintegration.
From this complex interplay between the preservation and the annulment of memory, there arise many strange effects pertaining to the temporality and spatiality of representation. The conservation of the Destroyed does not only fill a possible gap in memory (a blank in History), but also aims to exorcise, through its vain monumentality, the threats of the world's destruction. It is certainly not by keeping, by museographising all that has been destroyed, that humanity will avoid destroying itself; but these reference signs are there more seductive than monuments to the dead, and they speak both of the resistance to disappearance and of its power to absorb meaning in atemporality.
What remains throughout is the insistence on assigning meanings to destruction essentially by recourse to figures of destiny. The chance occurence of a disaster is cancelled out in a set of causes and, beyond these rational explanations, in the reproduction of a destiny. If the movements of destruction strike a blow at the very representations of the world by introducing figures of chaos and non-sense, their
aestheticising conservation seems to give them back a finality by relating them to historical acts and moments.
This eagerness to give meaning to destruction is not resolved only in the practices of conservation, it is also exercised in the immediate future and even by anticipation. Is
that not how culture is founded? Museums are not enough; accident and catastrophe, as they arise, must also offer the nascent traces of a meaning. Such an attempt to negate death and chaos plays down all that happens by inscribing it into a previous narrative. Nonsense designated and named captured in rationalising effects instantly becomes sense, just as anti -art turns out to be art, just as heaps of refuse can become sculptures...
The museographic delirium
It may be lively, dynamic, didactic, hyper-modern, superattractive... but a museum remains a museum. The will to renovate, transform and modernise spaces used for the display of objects of art, technique and science does not alter the essential approach of cultural conservation. The cellars and attics of museums reveal as much the arbitrariness of cultural choices as they do the obsession to conserve.
At Espalion, in the Aveyron region of France, a curator of the municipal museum, in the course of a long life, ended up accumulating an unbelievable quantity of objects. For the most part, they came from his own home: all the objects he had used previously had little by little become weightier signs of local cultural life. He did not really put himself out of his own property, since he managed to bring about, helped as much by the aging process as by fashion, a different type of relationship to his own objects. For this museum is the expression of his life, with increasingly personal photographs coming to join old postcards, and familiar objects - not necessarily determining cultural signs - slipping in among the others... And this man stays there for days on end, since the museum has inevitably ended up becoming his home, his sole reason to exist.
This approach is not the same as that of collectors. There is no missing piece, no rare objects which must be found at all costs and which fuels the collector's very desire. No, everything is already there, gathered together without any real order, or with a vague respect for some personal chronology. Nor is the staging of a hie story. This scenic construction asks to be taken at face value, and one is lucky to get so much as a word or a scrap of a story out of this curator. Obviously, it cannot be long before this museum is annexed by the major enterprises for the conservation of the cultural heritage.
One of the most common dreams pictures every person having his or her own museum. Is this really a response to the desire for conservation? The systematic rehabilitation of old objects,artisanal or otherwise, the reduction of their symbolic function to a cultural sign, would seem to partake of a vast project of preservation directed against the disappearance of customs, of certain modes of social life, and above all against the
collapse of history itself. However, the recent plea for an ethnoculture proper to each region, to specific places, seems to be as much a mummufication of sociality as a sickly restriction of what is dead. It is a matter of breathing in life where the
illusion reigns of raising up a sociality buried under the debris of the institutions which killed it. Heritage is merely the history of a destruction rehabilitated in a play constructive images which are immediately museographised.
Death conserved presents itself ideally as an image which is not that of the Destroyed. Whether it concerns an object that represents a civilisation, or a mummy preserved
as carefully as a living body, all reference to destruction is emptied
out of it by the image of the suspended, fixed movement of total disappearance. The museographic delirium can then simulate the living by constructing grandiose spectacles. The giant dioramas of the NEW YORK MUSEUM OF NATURAL HISTORY bring together life-size animals, elephants as well as giraffes, and place them in their environment, which is reconstructed as a decor. Behind their windows, wax Indians, decked out in their sumptuous garments, recall the presence of a civilisation which was exterminated by the very people who are reconstituting their usages and customs as museum objects.
The pure liquidation of civilisations thus guarantees a rigorous conservation, and a more expressive, more lifelike one... It is precisely when nothing more remains, when everything has been annihilated that a museographic restoration can be so majestically performed! These dioramas retrace, according to a scientific truth, the symbolic power of a suppressed culture or a race which will menace Humanity no longer.
Museography fixes the past in the cultural codes of amnesic reference and transforms memory into the dictionary of conservation. Ethnology itself, despite its struggles against all forms of ethnocentrism, sets up a metalanguage of cultures thanks to the museographic effects produced by the spectre of lost civilisations. In that sense, it necessarily ends up betraying its own objectivesby developing an analysis which, in the very unveiling of its object, consecrates a destructive science of the very languages it attempts to deny.
The unease that ethnography can inspire comes from this encounter between an argument for the memory of civilisations and the feeling of an endless destruction of cultures. Indeed, is that not how ethnography can continue to serve as a good conscience to societies which are involved in exterminating the heterogeneity of cultures? At the same time, its capacity to stop the total disappearance of languages and customes suffices to make legitimate its investigations and to further fuel its power of seduction. In appearance, ethnology actively resists the current uniformisation of cultures, affirming their plurality and heterogeneity - but it does so precisely as conservation. Instead of being alive, this plurality becomes a dead product. Willy-nilly, ethnology ends up catering to the demands of museographic pleasure . It becomes a discourse on lost ways of life, elaborating a collective imaginary of the past; it is the great enterprise for making the vanished holy.
We have come far from the age of METRAUX and LEIRIS. Their affective relationship with other cultures, their fascination with rites, have been repressed in favour of a scientific enterprise dominated, no doubt despite itself, by a conservation which is itself ethnocentric.
The world, in becoming a great museum and a theatre of destruction, makes possible a cultural syncretism which blurs the temporality of civilisations. It is thanks to this museographic effect that we can still talk today of rites, myths, of the sacred. Such terms sometimes seem incongruous, but they are used to refer to a social theatricality which is itself marked by the disappearance of a religious sense of the sacred. We might for example talk of rites in the behaviour of daily life. Ethnology would then serve to cast light on present day effects of meaning. The death of other cultures allows cultural syncretism both to absorb surviving cultural differences and to reduce them to equivalence and uniformity. This museographic enterprise would have us believe that sacrifice still exists, that our societies have their own rites, that the sacred has not disappeared...
Cultures only survive mixed together and superimposed over one another, in a play of endless analogies and metaphorical slippages, so that their respective authenticity loses its meaning. In the Cayambe region of Ecuador, on a steep, untarred road of the Andes cordillera, far from all habitation, is a wooden placard which reads Museo. It refers to an Indian house preserved with all the details of its construction intact - its earthen walls, its thatched roof, its bamboo framework, its oven, its agricultural, culinary and other instruments, each carrying a label indicating its functions. An Indian, the watchman, lives opposite, in a similar house, of which only the roof has been replaced with corrugated iron. He sits waiting for the day's client. This little marvel of construction, in a developing country where every day the Indians still live out their ancestral customs, announces the fantastic anticipation of museography. Long before they die off forever, the Indians of the region see rising up around them the international signs of their conservation. Even if they follow their traditional activities and rites, on the planetary scale they already belong to a gigantic decor.
**The Representation of Destruction and
the Destruction of Representation**
There have been numerous attempts to overthrow representation and its reference to the proscenium stage. The different perspectives used in painting show artists' desire always to impose other modes of perception by building up different orders of representation. CAVELIER perspective, the inverted perspective of PAUL CEZANNE (in which the painting's vanishing point is situated in the eye of the viewer), anamorphoses, //trompe-l'oeil.. all are different attempts to deconstruct the usual order of representation of things. But at the very heart of these experiments, which cannot be reduced to production of optical illusions or a simple playing with the gaze, a double interrogation takes place: that of the representation of destruction, and of the destruction of the act of representing.
The image of the destroyed object and the deconstruction of the image itself cannot be dissociated. Preserved, conserved, museographised, the image also has at stake the destruction of the very order of representations in which it arises. It endlessly
adopts a parodic movement of the reconstitution of the real. To reproduce the destroyed is only a limited goal, destruction is at play not only on the level of content, but also on that of form.
Turning away from an aesthetic of the ruin, the painter now seeks the very moment of collapse. And the moment when things collapse cannot be reduced to a fixed image, but rather calls for the violence of de-representation.
This magic power of the image accompanies the fascination for the spectacle of destruction. The gutting of towns, the crashing of the wrecker's ball against the walls which finally tumble down attract the eye of every passer-by. The often unconfessed pleasure of demolition is different from the attraction of ruins - rather, it is born out of the explosion of things, out of the movement which will produce disappearance, and in a few moments bring about the state of ruins. In pictorial creation, the capturing of the moment when objects fall or are crumbling is not limited to a fixed representation of devastation. Here we must refer to the paintings of MONSU DESIDERIO (an enigmatic painter of the early 17th century), in which the very movement of destruction remains present to the nevertheless determining unity of the paintings themselves. The image of collapse is not limited to the representation of the destroyed or of the object in ruins, but
remains active and draws the gaze into multiple ruptures of equilibrium. Beyond the symbolism of the history of cities, the play of destruction and construction ends up annihilating a certain chronological temporality and giving rise to a continuous,
fascinating movement of transmutation of places and monuments. Neither the ruin nor the building which is completely finished and unscathed by decay can remain symbolic reference points when the two are confused together by the atemporal rhythm and advent.
MONSU DESIDERIO'S painting plays on just this ambiguity of the forms and movements of destruction in towns, for it appears to determine those mysterious forces which can strike a city's architecture as if it were the person single-handedly organising the death sentence. Seismic tremors cyclones, tidal waves, explosions, volcanic eruptions - monuments and persons find themselves in a state of destruction without the act itself being completed, as if the very form of destruction knew neither time nor limits. Cities gutted, burnt or submerged, churches exploding, statues overturned and smashed, bodies lying in the streets, suspended in the void... Long before the ruinist painters, MONSU DESIDERIO seemed to be little attracted by the melancholy of classical temples invaded by nature, eaten away by time, abandoned on the banks of streams, and fountains covered over with moss. The monumental (bodies are statues, houses monuments, spaces sacred sites) merges with the state of destruction under way. The parts of the monuments, like the bodies become statues, are falling to pieces, though decay and decomposition are never evoked; every thing breaks and living people move around in spaces where they endlessly brush against partly destroyed objects which often have an uncompleted character.
In MONSU DESIDERIO'S paintings, generalised monumentally engenders the representation of the city as total theatralisation. The statues which abound, peopling the niches, columns and balustrades, describing a round or other movements, have a
white tint which, in contrast with the painting's sombre shade, gives these figures a ghostly appearance. Bulls lie dead among the wreckage or are led off to the sacrifice.
The symbols used could lead one to believe in certain dominant significations, among them the affirmation of Christian civilisation's triumph over ancient civilisations whose
sacrificial practices are unable to ward off the menace of destruction. But the theatralisation of destruction is taken to such an extent that it allows us to imagine no other alternative, no virtual existence of another world.
The affirmation of life is played out in the very movements of the death sentence, and similarly the wait for collapse (the figures piled up on the facades of monuments seem to be waiting for an explosion to overturn them and smash them to pieces) is only the passing moment which precedes the death sentence. Thus monumentality, negating itself in its own excessivity, surpasses all representation of the city preserved through time, and fulfils itself in and by its own loss. The monument is no longer a reference point: people and facades are confused in the same state of de-construction.
In order to violate this power of momumentality, of valorisation, certain artistic practices have attempted to play out an active destruction, by trying to do away with the effect of consecration engendered by art itself. Antisculpture, anti -art, non -art, - these nevertheless succeeded only in making the principle of cultural conservation even more powerful. Waste matter, decomposing objects, self-destroying machines, objects to be destroyed by the spectators, who are spectators no longer ... all these de-objectized objects have only served to demonstrate art's all powerful ability to make sacred the Destroyed, and its inability to bring about a movement of irreversible destruction. Anti-art has caricatured itself by becoming art, emptying itself of its meaning within its very manifestations.
To propose as a stake of creation the very destruction of representation appears nonsensical. However, the disfiguration of the real, the de-constructions of modes of representation as well as hyper-figuration, never cease to play with that non-sense. The play of image and illusion allows freedom from conservation. As a repeated trick playing on the advent and the disappearance of the world, it evades monumentality. To treat the image, in every sense of the term, or to let it emerge forth in all situations, this remains the only chance of escaping from the museographic dominion of representation.
Is this cunning desire to liquidate the representable nothing more than the desire for death? It manifests itself in those moments of weariness and anger against the powers of valorisation, against the shackles of the symbolic order. The DADA movement tried hard to break the link between representation and valorisation but any staging, however critical it may be, already contains an effect of conservation. The museum spirit haunts the image, and memory, fleeting or otherwise, cannot escape from the inscription of the past.
The German group EINSTURZENDE NEUBAUTEN (literally, COLLAPSING NEW BUILDINGS) shows just how the parodic scenographies unfold in the future anterior tense. The clash between anticipation and past makes collapse into a projective movement. Is this still a matter of a plea for the ephemeral? More than a staging of impossible duration, the instant of collapse forces the image to' circle back onto intself, consecrating the ephemeral in a quite literal sense. Collapse would in some sense be the accident which violently includes memory, rather than being merely the result of chance.
The idealisation of the ephemeral might appear to be a way of dismissing conservation and destruction in one go. What is the point of keeping the completed object of creation since only the creative gesture counts? And the effect of creation, if it lasts in taking the concrete form of a conservable object, becomes a sort of artistic production just like so many other objects. For all that, there is no violence of destruction in this pleasure of the ephemeral- the thing appears in order to disappear, conforming to a movement in the course of which annulment takes place of itself as it imposes its aesthetic singularity. However, ephemeral art purported to be critical, and its reduction to a naturalist aesthetic robs it of that ludic violence directed against the spirit of the monumental.
Beyond the plays of opposition between duration and the instant, the movement of epiphany, which finds resolution in its own disappearance, foretells the possible pleasure of death. Counter to a deadening conservation of the object, this movement mimes a rhythm which has been drained off by system-oriented thought.
The poetics of the ephemeral has resolved itself, with images of an economic crisis turned social and cultural, in the maintaining of an existential precariousness. In place of the pleasure arising from the movement of appearance and disappearance, the obsession with duration and conservation had infiltrated itself into accidental phenomena, or into the social recognition of precariousness. Accidents, catastrophes, fortuitous events, which might appear to sweep aside a cultural politics of conservation, would seem to engender a new cosmic aesthetic. The pleasure of the catastrophic, entertained by the media to the point of becoming the sole origin of all that is spectacular, cannot be satisified with the minimal representations of art. Henceforth it is the series of catastrophic events or accidents which will forge the image of duration. This systematic, forseeable replication provokes a sort of compulsive anticipation that responds to the museographic delirium.
At its inception, the new museum of La Villette was to introduce error, accident and catastrophe, no longer as demonstrations of the failure of science or as natural seismic occurrences, but as movements present to the life of the world. Hardly an easy perspective to adopt, it is true, for it supposes the recognition of a world-play which would sweep away the didacticism peculiar to museography itself.
To place under glass the precarious, the accidental, the failed without even referring to a logic of causality is also in a sense to parody the usual images of conservation. It is to play on the nonsense of museography within the museum itself. But if error placed on display takes on a meaning in relation to the evolution of a scientific research, then the spirit of the museum remains intact in its tradition.
There is a sort of excess level of memory. Although it appears to struggle against the end of history, against the forgetting of the narrative that recounts the life of societies, museography exceeds its function by imposing a totalitarianism of the collective memory. If nothing more seems to menace the conservable, then accident becomes the wrecker of memories, because only its remains are preservable. Always relegated to chance, it nevertheless has no effect on the compulsive rhythm of conservation. The desire for a collapsed memory is played out more in the failures and misfires which various configurations of order undergo.
The image of the collapsing house of cards does not only suggest the downfall of illusions, it also reveals the possible collapse of realities. When the crackshot (or the most famous of cowboys), in order to assure himself that there is not the slightest trembling in his hands, plays the game which consists of constructing a building of vertically-raised cards, he watches for the slightest risk of trembling. His aim is to place every card until he has completed the castle, or rather the facade which will show him the very image of his absolute mastery. Its sudden collapse is the sign of his own fall, but the final demolition is also the sign of his success. And even more than he himself, whoever watches him doing it is also split by this double eventuality. If the crack shot stumbles before the end, he becomes an object or memory, he is no more than memory. The memory or his name, of his best shots...
Unlike accident, collapse excludes chance, it inscribes the accidental in a logic which in the first instant defies conservation, and which subsequently allows it all the effects of consecration. For the thing once collapsed becomes a ruin, and sets off the process of museography. When MONSU DESIDERIO tries in his painting precisely to suspend the very moment of collapse, is he not seeking to signify the singular instant of collapsed memory? Unknown to the shackles of representation, images, uniting illusions and
realities, burst out of their own effects of destructuring of memory, as anticipation. It is no longer their content which crumbles away, rather their structure which
abruptly breaks apart. But the trap of symbolisation lies in wait for the slightest sign of
rupture. Anti-art and non-art have been caught in it. And even if no artistic practice is involved, the mere evocation of the delight brought about by collapse supposes an aesthetic. No attempt, however chimeric, to destroy representation can escape from it. What good is invoking the tyranny of representing? Collapse is not a diversion of the order of representation, it is the selfsubversion of conservation. The museographic delirium, if it maintains a deadening accumulation of objects and values, more than ever allows all possible paradies of memory. The monumental as well as the ephemeral, the obsolescent as well as the accidental can undergo all the figures of a consecration, and then these figures endlessly caricature the movement of cultural sacralisation of the collective memory. That parodic power which is at work in obsessional conservation is made possible by the fact that the museographic delirium relates only to the proliferation of images, and not to object or even values.
translation JONATHAN ROMNEY
This text is part of HENRI-PIERRE JEUDY'S Le musee de monde, a chapter
from his book Parodies de I'A uto-destruction Paris 1985 LIBRAIRIEDES