Migrations of the Merzbau
It's too hot. The inner city is a
sweat-box. All the books are packed. On
the move again. The artist cannot afford the landlord's
rent, so must inevitably migrate. Where to this
time? The council houses, squats, bed
sits, and all the bad housing are full with artists and refugees,
conjoined as the poorest sector of the urban populace. Nowhere to go,
yet everywhere to run to, making do with things at hand and
'forging' our art on the run. We are all
refugees and artists here. Leyton is popular and cheap. Everything is
moveable in the evacuated zone, on the edges of London, rich in
nationalities passing through, settling for a time, moving
on. Alfred Hitchcock was born and raised here before migrating to Hollywood with Sigmund Freud under
his belt. What starts as one thing becomes many others, so as to forget
the memory of the original 'cause'. How did we get
here? Its real, this place, but not
an easy transition to make from the other side. Like the Book of the Dead,
it's an underworld passage that tests human endurance. And all this
'stuff' to go too. All the
home-made shelving, bits and pieces,
the dusty books set in varnish, the stained, dust ingrained sheets
used for canvas, toe clippings kept for sentimental reasons, the
newspapers kept in crates, broken TVs, throwaway
cameras, paint tins, bottled residues shining like
gold, half-finished collages and half-
drunk wine, the threatening notes eloquently written to the neighbours and
landlord, the cat, all the garbage bags full of bus tickets and
collected supermarket receipts - money spent recklessly on nothing worthwhile.
And More. The solicitor's bills.
The cans of air freshener, souvenirs, salvaged postcards from my
dead father, a scribbled manuscript about Kurt Schwitters, stacks
of 'fizzled out' drawings, all
unfinished. A great breathing accumulate of rubbish is coming to Life,
resembling the Great Accumulate in situ: Pure Mass, heavier than
earth, the converse of Plato's Ideal.
But there's an inexistent Quality hovering above it all.
Intangible, like an unseen eye directing the movements of a fly circling in rising
heat, is the Idea.
No, in fact I know what it is. It's
MERZ! Kurt Schwitters hardly knew what would endure of his unseen great work;
an exquisite can of worms opening up the present, and spilling itself
We, the clandestine martyrs of Merz may be the last vestige of an old
avant-garde [the multitudes of an elite]
to emerge as the new avant-garde of the Third Space [as defined by
Fanon, as sharing the borders of and exposing the trespass of the First and Second
worlds] by living absolutely within the
'episteme' of a new Global Order.
And this inverted naturalisation of the military term means we are all in some way or another discrete as an
avant-garde, [to be mobilised] since
it is no longer tenable to romanticise a neutral or 'equidistant'
pose, if breathing the same 'political'
air as the refugee. No time for philosophical musing. As Slavov Zizek
writes to resituate the maxim: don't throw the baby out with the dirty
water, keep the dirty water, throw out the
baby. Schwitter's may have laughed out loud at this
The fugitive, material, and localised space engendered of Merz in
various incarnations have expanded the contemporary field of a common understanding. Curating turns
into 'merzing', invoking the early specific and exemplary models from
Modernism. The Expressionist [the dark,
or sinister, if you like, the
'noir'] and its transverse [the
utopic] are amended from a Constructivist and Futurist romance with the machine.
Visions such as theirs are destitute when immersed in the 'dirty water'
of a global contemporary consciousness. All can
'share' the event, whether
football, or battle at the same global time.
Heraclitus' infamous fragment, that the best view of a battle will be
judged from a distance, takes on new echoes of a permanent state of
embattlement, waged in the 'cool' ether
incubating images of torture and genocide]. The
'artistically' edited video works produced at Abu
Ghraib, test the artist's iconoclastic/reflexive
critique of the populist image and therefore cannot compete with the iconphilic nature of the terrorist's
synthetic 'shared' use of the apparatus of
representation. Video space, rather than the white cube
space, becomes the ultimate weapon of techno-culture. Revolution beckons as differentiation lessens and the embers of duration are finally extinguished.
The Merz is an object without boundaries, aleatory,
accidental, and sprawling. Its anti-architecture
'environment' is not a literal 'filling
up' of space but a new concept of political space or
'platform', as we must acknowledge, which is
already with us. The transversatile appearance and disappearance of the
Merzbau, as it was constructed, reconstructed,
destroyed and then re-made (though never
completed) provides us with a very suggestive point of reference for our own contemporary
discourse, the 'dispositif' (to take a term
from Jean-Francois Lyotard), or 'how it
is'. The 'dispositif' is a
set-up, like a trap. Dada used the snare
of an 'unexpected' effect like this,
setting up expectation and delivering a blow directly to it. The polemic was
integral. Historical evaluation of the early avant-garde may forget this
infra-structural necessity. In the ashes of a specific model of an
avant-garde 'dispositif' a new experience
may begin by initialising a trajectory from Dada by inviting artists to occupy spaces to work to assemble structures in close
proximity, or to dislocate structures in the streets of the city that perform as interpolations
[i.e. interrupting a shared cognition
of common or public space with 'foreign' matter].
The 'dispositif' is at once Merz:
civic, embodied in diverse, collected,
residual objects, not as signifying the archaeology of a life or lives,
but as a real process of a difficult democratic principle, to be found and formed out of material
disjuncture. This is the art or the practice of the everyday. It
transforms our traditional concepts of the 'collaged'
image, destroying it and deserting it, extending it into space and
time, and redefining it as an arena of action. This occurs at the
level of 'display' and as
'detournement'. As a tool, Merz negates
the traditional media of memory and representation, [after Stalinism /
Hitlerism and Fascism it is impossible, now with an unprecedented,
unlawful Americanism, to believe in the unity of any social perception from a single point perspective
of knowledge, whatever field]. This revolution,
notable in the practice of Merz, exchanges the transformation of formal representational systems for
the transformation of the means and materials of representation. The practice anticipates the discourse
to be assembled in the severity of its [self]
criticisms, that first there is absolute defeat in the face of the conditions in which it may
arise. The 'dispositif' is not
just a representation of mental processes deposited in museums as a synecdoche of the past,
or the present, as 'facts' but much more
a 'set up' of affects and fictions that disable the reality traps set by
a dubious authority. Schwitters would, I
believe, welcome the return of such a resistant strain in art practice and
discourse, with a shrug, as if to say
'don't believe a word of it'.
However, writes Peter Weibel, assuming that the
avant-garde movements from 1950 to 1970 share the same epistemic field as the cultural
theories of their time, from semiotics to psychoanalysis,
we can apply these [certain] theories to art
movements, to produce new interpretations of that
period. And the present one no less so.
He continues to claim that the neo-avant-garde was a political
art, not at the level of representation, but at the level of the
dispositif. The reappearance of Merz-structures in the current
climate of change finds the Merzbau everywhere, at a horizontal,
rather than vertical plane, evidence of a profound boredom (the
stuff of art), its haunting form arising out of domestic and urban
commonality. As with the vernacular of 'do it
yourself' architectures, Merz embodies the dialogical process of
constructing, destroying and reconstructing things, reconstituting
the works' intricate layers to the point where what remains is defiant,
resilient yet fluid, or, its entry being
difficult, secreted on the margins, as
Schwitters constructed three versions of the Merzbau (which he also described as his
'cathedral of erotic misery'), the first in his family home in
Hanover, Germany (1920s), the second
in Lysaker, Norway (1937 -
40), and finally in Elterwater in Britain's Lake District
(1948). The substantial but incomplete remains of the third
Merzbau are now preserved at the University of Newcastle
(UK). Schwitters' refugee itinerary
took him from Nazi Germany through Europe and into Britain. The Merzbau,
although complicated and time-consuming in their production, concern
the loss of stability as much as they are simultaneously a striving towards that.
Schwitters' status as a wartime refugee cannot but be echoed in his artistic
practice, which itself, greatly dependent upon the accumulation of
stray and disregarded materials, implies a constant - but always constantly frustrated tendency
towards coherence and resolution.
The Merzbau is further distinguished by its approximation of totalisation,
Wagner's notion of the Gesamtkunstwerk being pertinent here. As a model
of a 'total artwork', an accumulation of multiple and often contrasting
elements, containing within itself biographical and autobiographical fragments,
the Merzbau is a paradigmatic object with respect to its influence upon the 'expanded
field' (Rosalind Krauss) of current artistic practice.
The multiple, differentiated inheritances of Schwitters'
Merzbau, not least with regard to the related
'principles' of Dada, the
itinerant, and the hidden or secretly preserved operate through chance:
accident and random circumstance provide an index of a personal state of change in angst (the now
naturalised urban condition). Merz and the Merzbau are the exemplary models for our sense of being
modern, for the complexities and contradictions which result from migrations,
wars, of which our current situation, as
'dispositif' is composed.
I think the Merzbau of today is a kind of limitless object. That the
re-appearance of these messy, noisy
assemblages, are evidence, in their sense of a disengaged
Real, a stubborn devise as effective as Diogenes' barrel
had been to proclaim utter disbelief in authority and its grand narratives: these
'machinic assemblages', [a
geo-political term from Deleuze & Guattari] or 'cathedrals of erotic misery'
[Schwitter's term] are symptomatic of a condition of an heroic isolation
which celebrates reification, to be privileged in the object as fetish.
The early modernist romance that engaged Dada made an elegy of indifferences into a political act. It
ennobled the small and the found in the collages, assemblages and sound poems of Schwitters to
re-set the 'beat' of a new synaesthetic
art, played on the hallucinatory percussion heard in everyday city life,
as its base material; Schwitter's
'concrete' poetry and assemblage is played
counter-point to the prosaic conceits found in Georges Bataille's
'evil' residues of literature, in titles
like 'The Sex Crime Cave', 'Grotto of
Love', 'Cave of Murderers', 'Cave of Depreciated
Heroes' or even we conjecture, to include again
'Plato's Cave' which takes on another
reading on the same material plane as other caves - suggesting that built-in systems of
value, and models of behaviour, like their
environments, are always subject to change.
Merz is a human space that wills itself within the absent centre of the political, as a location
or a 'home', nest, cave or
sanctuary. In fitting Dada spirit Schwitters chose to live,
during his period of internment in a prisoner of war camp under a table. But the human properties
that are unsullied in Merz structures are also evidence of the dislocation of culture, multiplying
an 'original' multiple [the Merz
structure, as an organic / architectural object is an
'incomplete' project]. Artists make a
[vain] attempt to rescue the idea of the enlightened thinking through
rational questioning of ideas overtaken by the inhumanism of technological progression, by situating
the Merz as a terra-firma wherever it begins again. The
generosity of the Merz is in providing the world an approximation of its conditions, growing the way
things or cities themselves grow in chaos. There are only the reports of
eye-witnesses to the 1923-43 Merzbau.
The photographs have replaced experience. The photograph now itself in excelis represents the
unrepresentable as already - no longer existent 'merz'. The king is
dead, long live the king! This says much about the
'world' in our own time, about our sense
of humanity and the continuing story of the Merzbau as our own lurid song, an arrhythmic heart beat
through History's dissonant body.
Could Merz present the modern as a 'not giving up' the fairy tale of
'humanity' itself, as it begins to
disappear from our comprehension? Schwitters set laughter along with his Dada peers as a strategy
and tactic to escape the banality of evil by ridicule and confrontation - desiring
machines, theatrical traps, confidence tricks or
set-ups, etcetera. Is it not the same
trap that incites the grand illusion of childhood where myth and fact so easily subsume together,
playing 'let's pretend' in the
home's grottos and caves that is stolen by ideology in order to persecute?
There is more to the wonder of discovering something 'dirty' in any Merz
Although Schwitters himself distanced himself from any Universalist motivation, Merz is in
'spirit' both emptying of meaning, so
as to be filled to the pinnacle with the messy and noisy void of the everyday. This is the very essence
of becoming Merz, a rational process of both staking a claim to axiom and
theorem, and of the paradox of the Merz: our
'inexistence' at the heart of the Real.
 from Peter
Weibel, 'Re-presentation of the Repressed:
The Political Revolution of the Neo-avant-garde'
in Radical Philosophy a journal of socialist and feminist philosophy, issue
137, May/June 2006,
Migrations of the Merzbau,
® Peter Lewis 2006.
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