Drawing a map
around a void –
passage through
ʿSebald Variationsʾ 

Centre de Cultura Contemporània
de Barcelona
( CCCB )
11.03.15 – 26.07.15

To ascend from the atrium of the Centre de Cultura Contemporània in Barcelona to the upper floor gallery where ‘Sebald Variations’ is on view is to move from lightness to darkness. Dazzling sun pours into the main entrance hall through one enormous glass-paned face of the building and inconsistently illuminates the 30,000 black paper moths swarming the interior walls and architecture, upwards, towards the high ceilings, up, on columns and glass banisters, ultimately forging a path to the dim entrance of the exhibition.

Carlos Amorales’ painstaking Black Cloud ( 2007 ) has been mounted in several major galleries, but none as contextually meaningful as here, where the moth is a recurring image in German writer W.G. Sebald’s famed last novel, Austerlitz. The spectacle of moths is the visitor’s first hint of the exhibition conceived around obsessive threads in Sebald’s writing: of migration, the loss and imperfect recovery of memory, displacement, excavation and archives, the relation of image to text, and a contemporary view of the effects and meaning, if any, of the earth-splitting traumas of the 20th century. Sebald, writing from his own perspective, is inevitably concerned with European history, but the essential restlessness of his characters and prose is a raw nerve through which those who have experienced diaspora – myself included – or tried to recuperate individual stories from the pit of history find affinity. This is also why the ghosts of Nazism and Francisco Franco’s regime in Spain, a living Indian man and his brother declared dead by relatives in order to usurp the familial land, a train station turned art museum in Berlin, illicit views of government intelligence bases, a man crossing the planet along exactly the 0∞00’00’’ line of longitude – and, yes, thousands of flightless moths – can be uttered in the one breath of ‘Sebald Variations’. One of these variations is on official histories; the stories and artworks herein are pathways, maps, or conduits that present alternative accounts to official narratives, yet they themselves profess no concrete answer.

In print, the exhibition is a crowded list of names, featuring fourteen contemporary artists and four writers across nationalities: with visual works by Carlos Amorales, Mariana Castillo Deball, Taryn Simon, Jeremy Wood, Andrea Geyer, Simon Faithfull, Núria Güell, Pablo Helguera,Susan Hiller, Josiah McElheny, Trevor Paglen, Fernando Sánchez Castillo, Jan Peter Tripp, and Guido Van der Werve, and writing by Piedad Bonnett, Julià de Jòdar, Reinaldo Laddaga, and Valeria Luiselli. In person, the effect is incredibly cohesive, owing to curator Jorge Carrión’s organization of the show around a network of associations in Sebald’s work, words and texts which appear fragmentary to the viewer and function as whispered suggestions, always forming circuits and not ends in themselves. The artworks are primarily filmic and photographic, that great medium of the last century which revealed what could not be seen before by the public eye – graphic war images, private moments – and promised an idea of straightforward truth that has long been dismantled in our own time. Also featured are Sebald’s original manuscript pages and correspondence, delicately placed in long glass vitrines, multimedia installations by Castillo Deball and Güell, sculptural 3D models by Sánchez Castillo, two sound pieces in relation to textual works, and an in situ Sebaldian theatre which doubles as a venue for exhibition programming. Conceived as a meeting of visual art and literature, ‘Sebald Variations’ could have easily been too heavy with text, as so often happens, but the two spheres find their common basis in the formation of a question – undetermined: Where? Who? What is left and what does it mean? What do photographs and words mean after tremendous pain? What is the question again? There is nothing here. It is impossible. ‘I can’t remember, I can’t remember.’

Viewers are implicated in the question as excavators of the same histories present in the works on display, often appearing as evidence of a happening we have missed out on, as they too ( like the artists have ) search for the ‘why’ and the connecting bloodlines. The question is a contagion, the anxious drive behind Austerlitz’ story as he recovers from total amnesia his childhood as part of a kinder transport from Czechoslovakia; it is the nagging sense of an absence, but not knowing what is inside of it. Language and text form the base of the exhibition and have a large presence, but are never deferred to and never overtake the visual in a totalitarian sense. Language and no one medium is to be the sole source of truth after World War II. Part of the ‘lightness’ of text in the exhibition is the issue of translation: the dual and sometimes triple language of didactic panels in Spanish, Catalan, and English, not to mention the original German manuscripts of Sebald and mixed tongues of the artworks themselves. The chance that any one visitor will know all these languages is very slim. Built into the exhibition’s construction and meaning, the mixing of languages mirrors the destabilisation of narrative. As a non-Spanish or non-Catalan speaker myself, the pressure or desire to read everything in order to understand is obliterated, freeing me; locals, to whom this exhibition largely caters, the prominent didactic tongue being the one of Catalonia, will find a more typical curatorial format. But the scope of ‘Sebald Variations’ remains ambitious as a site for contemporary and historical reflection, and beckons to the numerous travellers and tourists who will pass through its cool, dark rooms, especially in these summer months when Barcelona is alive and consistently sun drenched.

In one of the provocatively poetic / theoretical texts on display, Carrión writes: ‘History becomes space’. It is in this sense that we can consider the translation of Sebald’s sphere of influence into an art exhibition, spatialising a void and visualising what it is to tell a story. Like it does for Sebald’s characters, the story unfolds for the viewer through travelling a physical route between seemingly unrelated contact points. How do we draw a map of history?

At the beginning of Austerlitz, the unnamed narrator conjures from his distant past the Salle des pas perdus at Antwerp Centraal Station where he first meets the eponymous character. The literal translation of this French phrase, meaning waiting room or lobby, is ‘hall of lost footsteps’, indicating something self-contained, where time ceases to flow, or is swallowed for a moment. The evocation of the loss of progressive time reflects the art gallery, too, as a contained ritualistic space, and transitory zone.The entrance to ‘Sebald Variations’ is what I would describe as slow and soft, a simple black threshold with white introductory panels and low lighting in contrast to outside. Amorales’ moths pause at the door. The interior of the gallery resembles a long hallway with a turn to the right at the end and a surprising number of rooms and pockets sprouting from the main artery. Low archways mark the structure of the hall and music from Van der Werve’s film Nummer veertien, home ( 2012 ) mumbles operatically in the background. Sebald’s portraits, sensitively captured by Jan Peter Tripp in L’oeil oder die weisse Zeit ( 2003 ), greet us and are half cast in light and half in shadow, which obscures the author’s face again, suggesting the ambivalence of the reveal. It is our turn; we excavate, we turn corners.

The framework of the show is immediately laid out visually for the viewer, which precedes any didactic or textual explanation; we see Sebald, his manuscripts, and Wood’s specially commissioned piece My Ghost ( 2015 ) –the latter represents fifteen years of the artist’s wanderings through London, England, printed on delicate silk fabric. The resulting snaking and convoluted paths, white on black, resemble both nerve synapses in the brain and an attempt at a cartography of personal memory, a space which includes time. My Ghost acts as a prologue statement for the works further inside, suggesting the presence of several infinitely entangled networks. Other works ask us to act as the investigator: Hiller photographs forested paths which appear totally ordinary ( Country Roads, 2003 ) except for their names, places with ‘Jude’ or ‘Juden’ still in their formal title but that point to disappeared histories, like the people and street signs they refer to; Güell’s installation Resurrección ( 2013 ) is evidence of an artistic and political intervention into the history of Franco’s regime and surprises us with photographs of common mass graves in Spain filed neatly away in beige cabinets; Castillo Deball, in Parergon aetas and Parergon itineris ( 2014 ), probes the history of the Hamburger Bahnhof Museum in Berlin and displays its past life as one of Germany’s first train stations through archival photographs, timetables, and a fictional newspaper.It is significant that Castillo Deball’s installation was first commissioned site-specifically for the Hamburger Bahnhof – what does it mean to displace it here? It is an essential dislocation, which, when I encountered it, serendipitously mirrored my own travel from Berlin to Barcelona, having been in that very museum in Germany a few days prior.

I cannot help but think that the dislocation of Castillo Deball’s piece, from the place where it was ‘birthed’, mirrors the diaspora of human beings from their place of origin, and the work which comes after in intense and sensitive efforts of recuperation. Andrea Geyer’s Gezeiten /Tides ( 2015 ) traces her grandmother’s travels after the Second World War as a newly independent woman through a projected slide show of personal photographs and overlapping German and English dialogue, but feels very personal to me, in the way that found amateur images of strangers in effortlessly relatable situations do. Many of the works, despite the histories they breach, feel like private diggings; I open one by one the drawers of Güell’s devastatingly mundane tombs, I sit and think about Geyer’s grandmother in relation to my own grandmother, ageing and left in Shanghai. It is only the excerpt from Taryn Simon’s A Living Man Declared Dead and Other Chapters I – XVIII ( 2008 – 2014 ), a research-based photographic project, that professes the idea of objectivity, documentary, and neutral recording ( while not being so, of course ). Over the course of four years, Simon traced several bloodlines with distinct or interesting histories and photographed its members, along with ephemera related to their story. The three excerpts included here, chosen with site-specificity in mind, are much more digestible than seeing the eighteen chapters at once, and probe the notion of fate in determining the course of our lives.

Camille de Toledo, in a panel discussion on ‘Sebald Variations’, has described the author’s approach as writing a story around a void, in a ‘geneology of absences’ which does not fill the hole of trauma with fictions, but utilises the fragment to confront what is not, and cannot, be there.¹ The exhibition asks how art and literature can become ‘ethical instruments of restitution’ to approach a scarred history and what an idea of an ethical aesthetics would look like. ‘Histories’ in the Sebaldian sense is not a word which lacks total subjectivity; it is the experience of time through individuals and how the fate and chance of larger events bear their marks, burrow through, the individual. Restitution may be in the form of a question, a wariness, the acknowledgement of events and subjects that are like tar, and ultimately not arising arrogantly or violently with an answer, as in the course of war. As with the Salle des pas perdus, the exhibition asks us to wait, for images to reveal themselves, for information to surface, and in the end, we are forced to go back out the way we came – one must thread back through the gallery space to exit, and still there are the imagined fluttering of moths.

1. Camille de Toledo, The Sebaldian Legacy in the 21st Century, a dialogue with Cristina Rivera Garza, March 21, 2015. http://www.cccb.org/en/
multimedia/videos/kosmopo lis-15-the-sebaldian-legacy-in-the-21st-century/216680.





卡洛斯·阿莫拉雷斯费尽心力的《黑云》( 2007 )曾在几个重要艺廊展出过,但没有一个如这般被赋予语境的意义,飞蛾是德国作家赛巴尔德最后一部著名小说《奥斯特里茨》中一个反复出现的形象。展览围绕赛巴尔德著作中让人着迷的线索:迁移、记忆的缺失和不完美的恢复、置换、挖掘和存档、影像与文本的关系,以及当代对于20世纪惊天动地灾难的效果和意义的视角,飞蛾的奇观是展览给观众的第一个线索。赛巴尔德是从自己的视角写作,必然关注欧洲历史,但他的人物和文字必不可少的不安成分,是体验到大流散—包括我本人在内—或者试图从历史陷阱中复原个人故事的人们的痛处。这也就是为什么西班牙纳粹和弗朗哥统治的幽灵能够在《赛巴尔德变奏曲》中表达出来:一位健在的印第安人和他的弟弟被亲戚宣布死亡以便侵夺家族的土地,柏林的一座火车站变成了博物馆,政府情报基地的非法视角,一个人沿零度经线横跨大平原,当然还有数千不能飞的蛾子。这些变奏之一,是基于官方的历史;故事和艺术作品都是路径、地图或渠道,为官方叙事提出了另类的解释,但它们本身并没有提出任何具体的答案。


观众在这个问题上被牵扯进来,成为展示作品中所呈现的同样的历史的挖掘者,作品往往成为我们错失的那些事件的证据,而它们( 就像艺术家本人一样 )也在探寻‘为何’以及连接的血脉。这个问题是一种传染病,是奥斯特里茨故事背后焦虑的动因,作者恢复了他儿时的整个记忆缺失,那是来自捷克斯洛伐克的难民儿童的一部分;那是缺失带来的不安感,但并不知道其中有什么。语言和文本构成了展览的基础,而且有着大规模的呈现,但从未在极权的意义上顺从或压制视觉。二战之后语言或任一媒界都不再是真相的唯一来源。展览中文本的‘光明’部分,是转译的问题:西班牙语、加泰罗尼亚与和英语的双重又甚至三重的展板语言,更不用说赛巴尔德的德文原始手稿以及艺术作品本身混杂的语言。一位观众会懂得所有这些语言的几率很低。语言的混杂成为展览建构和意义的组成部分,折射了叙事的不稳定。作为非西班牙语或加泰罗尼亚语的观众,解读一切从而理解的压力或愿望被消除了,让人自由;而这个展览大体上迎合的是本地人,最主要的交流语言就是加泰罗尼亚语之一,他们会找到一种更典型的策展形式。但是《赛巴尔德变奏曲》的眼界仍然是不凡的,成为当代和历史反思的现场,大量游客会经过冷漠暗淡的展厅,特别是在夏季,巴塞罗那非常活跃,持续阳光普照的这几个月里。


在《奥斯特里茨》开篇,无名的叙述者想起了遥远过去在安特卫普中央车站的候车室,他第一次遇到了由此得名的那个人物。这个法语短语的字面意思是候车室或者休息大厅,是‘迷失脚步的大厅’,表明某种独立的事物,时间停止了流淌,或者暂时被吞噬了。唤起逝去的渐进时间,也反应了艺术画廊成为容纳仪式的空间,一个过渡区。我这么形容,《赛巴尔德变奏曲》的入口缓慢而舒适,一个简单的黑色入口,有白色的前言展板和相对外面而言的低照度。阿莫拉雷斯的飞蛾停留在门口处。艺廊内部就像是一个长长的走廊,尽头有一个向右的转弯,数量多得惊人的房间和死胡同,从主干上萌发出来。低矮的拱门标志了大厅的结构,背景如同歌剧般低声播放着范·德·维沃的电影《十四号,家》( 2012 )中的音乐。让·彼得·特里普在《白色时间的错觉画》( 2003 )中敏感地捕捉到的赛巴尔德的肖像映入我们眼帘,一半在光明中,一半在阴影中,而阴影又一次模糊了作者的面容,暗示了所揭示的一切的矛盾性。这就是我们的转机;我们挖掘,我们度过难关。

展览的框架立刻就从视觉上向观众展现出来,在任何说教或文本解释之前,我们看到了赛巴尔德、他的手稿以及伍德专门委托制作的作品《我的幽灵》( 2015 )—后者代表了艺术家在英国伦敦漫游的十五年,印制在精致的丝绸上。最终曲折复杂的路径,黑色上的白色,就像是大脑中的神经突触,试图绘制出个人的记忆,一个包括了时间的空间。《我的幽灵》充当了里面其他作品的前奏,暗示了几个无限缠绕之网的存在。其他作品则要求我们充当调查者。希尔拍摄了森林里的小路,看起来再普通不过( 《乡村之路》,2003 ), 除了名字之外,有着‘犹德’或‘犹登’这些形式上的标题的地方,但指向了消失的历史,就像它们所指的人物和街头标志;古尔的装置《复活》( 2013年 )就是从艺术和政治上介入弗朗哥统治时期历史的证据,用西班牙排列整齐的米黄色壁龛普通的集体墓地的照片让我们感到震惊;卡斯蒂罗·德巴尔在Parergonaetas和ParergonItineris( 2014 )探查了柏林的汉堡火车站博物馆的历史,通过档案照片、时间表和虚构的报纸展现了它过去作为德国第一座火车站的生活。有意义的是,卡斯蒂罗·德巴尔的装置是第一个专门为汉堡火车站现场委托制作的作品—它在这里展出意味着什么?这是一种根本的错位,当我看到它时,偶然地折射出我自己从柏林到巴塞罗那旅行的几天前就到过德国的那家博物馆。

我不禁想到,卡斯蒂罗·德巴尔的作品从它‘诞生’的地方置换了位置,折射出人类从他们起源之地的离散,而作品也以强烈而敏锐地重新恢复的努力紧随其后。安德烈·盖耶的《潮汐》( 2015 )通过幻灯放映、个人照片以及英语和德语重叠的对话,追溯了祖母战后作为一个新的独立女性的旅行,但是在我看来感觉非常个人,在轻松可靠的环境中陌生人的现成业余影像就做到了这一点。除了它们所突破的历史外,很多作品感觉像是私人的挖掘;我一个一个打开古尔具有讽刺意味的平凡墓穴的抽屉;我坐下来,从盖耶的祖母想到了我自己的祖母,年纪老迈,留在了上海。这只是塔伦·西蒙的《被宣告死亡的活人及其他,第一至十八章》( 2008 – 2014 )中的摘录,这是一个基于研究的摄影计划,承认客观性、纪实性和中立记录的概念( 当然并非如此 )。过去四年来,西蒙追溯了多个与众不同的或有趣的历史的血脉关系,拍摄了其成员以及与他们的故事有关的瞬间。这里包括的三段摘选,是根据特定现场的想法选择的,比一次看到十八章更容易吸收,而且探寻了决定我们生命过程的命运的概念。

卡梅尔·德·托雷多在关于《赛巴尔德变奏曲》的专题讨论中,描述了作者的态度是围绕虚空来写一个故事,以一种‘缺失的谱系学’,并不是用虚构来填补创伤的孔隙,而是利用片段来建构并没有在那里、可不可能在那里的一切。1 展览追问了艺术和文学怎么能够成为‘恢复原状的道德工具’,着手处理一段伤痕累累的历史,以及伦理审美的概念看起来像什么。赛巴尔德系列中的‘历史’并不是缺少整体主观性的词句;它是通过个体的时间体验,大事件的命运和机遇所留下的痕迹,由个体来探索。恢复原状也许是用问题的形式,谨慎行事,对时间和主体的承认,最终并不是自大或暴力地提出答案,就像在战争中一样。就像在《候车室》里一样,展览要求我们等待,等着影向我们像揭示自己,等候信息浮到表面,最终我们不得不走回头路—人们必须通过展览空间来逃离,那里还有想象中飞蛾的飘舞。

1. 《The Sebaldian Legacy in the 21st Century, a dialogue with Cristina
Rivera Garza》, Camille de Toledo( 作 ), 2015年3月21日。http://www. cccb.org/en/multimedia/videos/kosmopolis-15-the-sebaldian-legacy-in-the-21st-century/216680.