Notes from the Underground

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I tolerate this century, but I don't enjoy it.

All of the ephemera that is far too trivial to be bothered with elsewhere on this site or, depending on your point of view, a meta-commentary on it. This ephemera includes, but is not limited to art, music and literature. Most of the content here will be discussed in terms that are as abstract as possible, reality being a singularly overrated concept.

Sunday, October 07, 2007

This article touches on so many of the themes I've commented on here, it's difficult not to want to quote more of it:

"In that case, one could look at the remnants of the avant-garde project that litter the former USSR as the detritus left by the Martians: the incomprehensible, incommensurable ruins of a strictly temporary visitation by creatures not like ourselves. The Strugatsky Brothers' tremendous 1972 novel Roadside Picnic depicts just such a visitation. A city that has been 'visited' is left with the Zone in the area where the visitation took place: a fenced-off, contaminated and ruined area, marked by scatterings of bizarre and technologically fantastic objects left by the alien visitors. The Zone is a dangerous, melancholy place, an industrial district where the chimneys no longer give off smoke, visited by strange climactic phenomena, with a stretched sense of time. Within it, however, is quite literally the answer to all human wishes, something which in the last instance holds the promise of eternal happiness for all humanity.

Filmed by Andrei Tarkovsky in 1979 as Stalker, the Zone is visualised as a Chernobyl-like scarred, postindustrial landscape of ruins, waste, rubbish, of the remnants of industrial civilisation corroded, dilapidated and rapidly being reclaimed by nature . Tarkovsky's version of the Zone has gradually, over the last thirty years, become the foundation of an entire aesthetic. If Modernity, or Modernism, is our Antiquity, then its ruins have become every bit as fascinating, poignant and morbid as those of the Greeks or Romans were to the 18th century. Tarkovsky’s Zone is in some ways specific to the former USSR and a few locations in Estonia, yet practically every industrial or post-industrial country, has something resembling the Zone within it. Such an area would be, for instance, the remnants of industrial districts of East London. Beckton, Woolwich, Stratford, outposts marked by the cyclopean remains of silos, gasometers, factories. These are the places that inspired the Modernists of the 1920s: every manifesto from Le Corbusier's Vers d'une Architecture to Moisei Ginzburg's Constructivist response Style and Epoch had their lovingly photographed silos and power stations. Appropriately, also in the Zone can be found the bastard children of the Modernists, the scatterings of overambitious social housing, with their crumbling highrises and streets in the sky. These are remnants of something as alien and incomprehensible to the seamless mallscape of 21st century Capital, or the heritage Disneyland of European Urbanism, as Shklovsky’s Futurist Martians were to their contemporaries: only here without any of the insurrectionary promise of a new world, merely the ruins of a defunct future...

So we have here, via these two models of alien visitations in the imagination of Russian Modernists, whether of the 20s or the 70s, two competing models of Modernity. On the one hand, the advancing, gleaming, ruthless aesthetics of Futurism, particularly, for our purposes here its mutation into the more humanist, politicised Constructivism. On the other, an aesthetic of disintegration, of the aforementioned Futurist world's gradual descent into an overgrown, poisoned wasteland....

In contemplating these images however, one is reminded of the interesting element to Albert Speer's otherwise utterly banal 'Theory of Ruin Value'. Not the bit about the impressiveness of ancient ruins, and the need to leave similarly imposing remains. Rather, the psychotic, suicidal notion of building with the ruins already in mind: a death-drive architecture, where posterity's opinion is internalised to such a ludicrous degree that, in a sense, the corpse has been designed before the living body...

Today, the aesthetics of everyday life are provided by ultra-conservative developers (the likes of Barratt Homes in the UK) and the aesthetics of Art or Commerce by the avant-garde of a few decades ago (from Foster to Koolhaas). The remarkable thing about Constructivism, something that can still be seen as a shadow in Pare's work, is that the everyday was so frequently the area for experiment. A much-used Russian term here was Byt, translated usually as Everyday Life, specifically in its most habituated, domestic sense. So most of the projects here were applications of the aesthetic that would be branded 'alien' by the Stalinists to the most basic architectural elements of society. That is, housing, public leisure facilities, schools. Equally frequently, there were administrative or industrial buildings. Although even these were often in the poorer quarters of cities and towns, the growing nomenklatura’s presence is unavoidable.

Superficially, these buildings might seem similar to corresponding Western models: social housing, working men's clubs and so forth. So it's the differences that are especially key here. This was frequently a teleological architecture, one could even say a Pavlovian one: particular social affects were intended to be produced. Although a socialist state power of some sort was claimed (rightly or wrongly) to be in place by 1922, its leaders were well aware that old habitus died hard: religion, patriarchy and 'petty bourgeois' attitudes still pervaded. In 1924, Leon Trotsky, a few years before his expulsion, published a book called Problems of Everyday Life. Here there was a cautious endorsement of 'Byt reform'--the experiments in living being carried out at the time by communes and co-operatives--and the particular material forms that might house them. 'Public laundries, public restaurants, public workshops' would take the place of all that used to take place in the kitchen, thus abolishing 'household slavery'. A poster from around this time shows a dingy, cramped kitchen being opened up to a glittering, glassy new world of futuristic structures and open space, and this was what was, tentatively, being constructed at the time. "

I've written before about ruin value, noting that the interest of modernist architecture here lies precisely with its status as a forgotten future (particularly given that many of the architectural projects referenced above where essentially futile attempts to demonstrate that the Soviet Union was not being left behind economically by the United States by seeking to rival the likes of the Empire State Building), but this is something I'm nonetheless much less able to relate to than the author of this piece. I don't especially feel any nostalgia for the failure of either communism or architectural modernism, both seeming to be essentially utopian projects that sought to reform humanity by deforming it. To my mind, Tatlin's tower can comfortably remain in the same category as Speer's New Berlin. By coincidence, I've also recently comes across this article, which serves as an interesting contrast (albeit one that is often rather too conservative for my taste):

"Much of the left was and remains "anti-anti-communist." This is what accounts for what Ferdinand Mount calls the "asymmetry of indulgence" afforded communistic and fascistic state-sponsored murders... On walking into the first room of the exhibition, the visitor was greeted by a sign asking "What is Modernism?" and answering as follows: "The Iconic Objects in this room...were created by practitioners who believed that their art could help bring about Utopia within their lifetimes." This belief was expressed in all kinds of ways, as the exhibition shows, from calisthenics to kitchen design, from the cantilevered chair of Mies van der Rohe to the colorful rectilinear paintings of Piet Mondrian...

Beginning with Filippo Tommaso Marinetti and the Futurists before the First World War and continuing with Die Stijl and Bauhaus after it, there was always a strong element of political radicalism associated with Modernism. Particularly in the 1920s and 1930s when it was in its heyday, Le Corbusier, Walter Gropius, and others envisaged a sweeping architectural revolution—more or less explicitly as a complement to the political ones that were projected or actual at the time—to provide for simple, efficient, undecorated "workers' housing" and do away with luxury, sentimentality, ornament and other "bourgeois" values. Tradition had to be cleared away along with traditional images and traditional architectures in order for ideological and architectural engineers to build a new civilization from the ground up.... As the title of Nathan Glazer's new book puts it, Modernism has gone From a Cause to a Style. The rags of a failed utopianism still hang from it long after it became routine for banks to commission for their headquarters Mies-style glass towers or for reproductions of Picasso and Matisse—the originals, are of course, only available to the very richest—to decorate the "living rooms" of the haute bourgeoisie. We may not be conscious utopians ourselves anymore, but we still believe that those who are (or were) are entitled to full credit and even a certain veneration merely for the goodness and the nobility of their intentions."

I find myself much more drawn to two quotations offered late on in the piece, of Stoppad's descriptions of Herzen; "He came to the conclusion that there was no abstract formula at work on our history. There was nothing going on that was inevitable. The big bond between me and him is that he found an appalling arrogance in the way that people might construct an abstract narrative of our society and subordinate the individual life to it. He found that morally repellent." Although it was Schoenberg who formed the central protagonist in Mann's depiction of the culpability of German romanticism in Nazism (incidentally, this piece has an interesting observation on how Schoenberg's descriptions of tonality decaying through "inbreeding and incest" mirror those of racist politicians of the time), I do wonder if an equivalent narrative might not assign similar roles to figures like Corbusier.

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posted by Richard 9:55 AM