Sometimes the backdrops collapse and nothing remains.
(Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus, 1942, p. ..)

At first glance they look so tranquil, the photos of Marjan Teeuwen’s Destroyed Houses. While you do see immediately into how many pieces and fragments these houses have disintegrated, broken and sawn, all these pieces and fragments have been rearranged even more carefully, it seems, than the objects on seventeenth-century still lives. And unlike the still lives it is not the transience of the symbols depicted, the extinguished candle, breakable glass, musical instruments, skulls or rapidly decaying fruit, that speaks here. Instead, it is the timelessness and serenity of the pyramids and indefinable crypts that reigns. A wondrous paradox.

At first glance they look so tranquil, the photos of Marjan Teeuwen’s Destroyed Houses. While you do see immediately into how many pieces and fragments these houses have disintegrated, broken and sawn, all these pieces and fragments have been rearranged even more carefully, it seems, than the objects on seventeenth-century still lives. And unlike the still lives it is not the transience of the symbols depicted, the extinguished candle, breakable glass, musical instruments, skulls or rapidly decaying fruit, that speaks here. Instead, it is the timelessness and serenity of the pyramids and indefinable crypts that reigns. A wondrous paradox.

For through the breathtaking silence of an artificial arrangement, the destruction, the thorough way in which these houses have been demolished and the awe-inspiring enterprise of all this arranging reveal themselves at closer inspection. The mess it was, the all-pervading dust, the threat of collapse, the falling and creaking. And then the rebuilding, the endless lugging. For me these photos conjure up the image of women passing buckets of debris to each other in bomb-ravaged Berlin in 1945.

Those Berlin women, the so-called Trümmerfrauen, are easily found on Youtube, on fragments of colour film accompanied by music to keep viewers captivated. Apparently, the number of images available is limited, as some things keep popping up over and over again. For instance, on the ruins we regularly see the same women in long picket lines. Everything mechanical has been shot to pieces or is gone, all is done by hand, or by spade at the most. Some of these YouTube fragments show agonizingly long shots, taken from an aircraft, of the immense ruins with women passing on iron buckets in the midst of them, the way fires were extinguished in earlier centuries. Or they are busy chipping bricks clean.

They work on doggedly, some of them smile when the camera man stumbles towards them through the ruins. One woman covers the lens with her hand, fending him off and walking away. She is embarrassed. The violence of war has not numbed her to such an extent that she no longer sees the outsider’s gaze upon herself. Out of fear or pride, she does not want to show herself as a victim.

Today’s television images of such ruins are different. After a terrorist attack or air strike the victim is invariable directed by journalists and camera men and incorporated in a story. At most, the victim plays himself against a backdrop of destruction. The ruins are a news item, the suffering is immediately interpreted and framed. After this, clearing and rebuilding can start. That is never a news item and it is rarely shown, let alone the result of this process – unless it is shot to pieces again, blown up or bombed flat.

Clearing and rebuilding is not shown on Marjan Teeuwen’s photos either. Not a human being in sight. As if the camera man has taken to heart that one woman amidst the ruins of Berlin, who fended off, hid her face and walked away. But you do see the result in these photos. And with that result, the meticulously piled-up planks, pieces of plasterboard, lumps of stone and laths still tell the story of monomaniac survival instinct, of the indestructible labour of the Berlin women – and of countless other anonymous victims in history who, paralyzed, horrified, still get moving again because not moving is even worse.

It is strange that this raw survival instinct is abroad here, as these interiors simultaneously radiate such calm. As if they are completed and timeless. It is not just the calm after the storm. If you had to characterize the photos of the Destroyed Houses, you could just as well link them to abstract art or minimalism. It is with good reason that this work is sometimes compared to Jan Schoonhoven’s white reliefs. The rhythmic patterns of these artists seem to be all but a comment on what is going on in society. If these reliefs are aiming at anything, it is at showing metaphysical reality, suggesting the structure of the world. Can you view the photos of the Destroyed Houses in this way too, as latter-day Schoonhovens?

You can, for good art always lends itself to various interpretations that are sometimes connected in unfathomable ways. Schoonhoven and destroyed Palmyra or bombed Aleppo in Syria meet here in mysterious ways. The relationship between different visual traditions and realities sometimes becomes richer if you map the various art-historical foundations from which images originate. One of the first things that comes to mind in this context is the admiration of the ruin, on which Hans den Hartog Jager writes elsewhere in this book. This admiration became widespread in the Romantic age, but started earlier with the famous etchings and engravings by Giovanni Battista Piranesi (1720-1798).

Piranesi sketched the dilapidated buildings from Antiquity, out of fascination with what the Romans had achieved, and as an early contribution to classical tourism, as an illustration for the wealthy young from all over Europe, travelling on their Grand Tour to Rome. But also out of a kind of curiosity for forms of architecture that transcended the accepted views of his time. Romantics added a new feeling to Piranesi’s visual language of the ruin, the Sehnsucht  for what was lost forever. And also the sublime, which expresses an aesthetic emotion in the very depiction of destruction. In the nineteenth century, many romantic painters reacted against over-heroic neoclassicism, creating scenes of loss, dismay and decay – from Goya’s nightmares to Géricault’s people drowning at sea.

War is not a party anymore, as Goya showed in his now-famous execution, The Third of May 1808 in Madrid. This is because the common man has entered the picture. When Gros painted the huge canvas in the same year to celebrate Napoleon’s victory (Napoleon on the Battlefield at Eylau), the nameless dead almost rolled into reality from the foreground of the canvas. Still, not all destruction was an indictment or an expression of horror. Ruins, for instance, were not merely disillusionment and decay. They also formed the backdrop for an escapist longing. During the entire nineteenth century, ruins were restored and sometimes even built, as an expression of an at times almost hysterical longing for the past.

It was this obsession with history that Futurism tried to break through when in the beginning of the twentieth century it called for a complete destruction of culture, including the burning and blowing up of museums and libraries, in violently phrased pamphlets by Marinetti and other agitated avant-gardists. Then the beauty of destruction vanishes, or rather: beauty is now in the deed, no longer in the image, for with in the Futurists’ work the image henceforth sang the praise of technology, speed and the energy of war that is released.

After Futurism, romantic destruction seemed to recede into the background in the visual arts, despite German Expressionism and legendary exceptions such as Picasso’s Guernica. And the very real destructions in the twentieth century, the mass murder and the catastrophes of two world wars, also put an end to the positive connotation with demolition and destruction. To an increasing extent, they were considered a consequence of Modernism, of the great narratives of history, of progress. Destruction was henceforth understood to be the unintended result of what ideologies that turned out to be totalitarian had in store for us.

Even if it was about liberation and reconstruction, the outlines of total destruction remained a bothersome presence: The novel Het stenen bruidsbed (The Stone Bridal Bed) by Dutch author Harry Mulisch is about this, calling back the all-too easily forgotten bombing of Dresden from the darkness of recent history. Similarly, little Oskar in Günther Grass’ Tin Drum (1959) makes destruction audible with his crazy drum roll, and in that same year Horoshima Mon Amour was released, the legendary film by Alain Resnais in which a love affair between a French woman and a Japanese former soldier perpetuates the ruins of the nuclear bomb in the imagination.

Only one acceptable form of demolition remained: the demolition of modernist thinking in philosophy and art: Deconstructivism and Post-modernism. Abstract, or rather: conceptual efforts to undermine destruction itself. With this undermining, we are beyond any aesthetic meaning of that destruction, ending up in a game of philosophical speculation, as with philosopher Jacques Derrida, the hero of deconstructivism. Or, earlier, with Martin Heidegger who in 1951, in the era of hesitating reconstruction, amidst a deafening silence on recent history in which he himself had played a controversial role, related ‘building’ and ‘dwelling’ to each other in an unfathomable way. ‘However hard and bitter the shortage of houses may be,’ the philosopher of the Black Forest wrote in his essay  Building, Dwelling, Thinking, illustrating his skepticism toward such modernism, ‘the real problem of dwelling (…) is older than the world wars with their ruins’ and ‘lies in the fact that mortals always start searching for the essence of dwelling again, that they have to learn to dwell first’.

Such philosophical comments on destruction and reconstruction are diametrically opposed to the slaving of the Trümmelfrauen craving for restoration and also to the power of building evident in the photos of Teeuwen’s Destroyed Houses that undermine haughty speculation with the primitive intransigence of reconstruction and stand up to the noncommittal post-modern avalanches of images of recent decades.

We are too far downstream by now. For in the Destroyed Houses, building is indispensable for showing demolition and  destruction is indispensable for making building plausible. It is therefore better to turn to another foundation for this work, the Arte Povera. It may be a small stream, but the return of Italian artists to raw, everyday materials, to installations not intended to be immediately sold to the bourgeoisie, to the arrangement of the insignificant that surrounds us, proved highly influential in the visual arts of the last half century. Think of the iglos by Mario Merz, of the Venus of Rags (1967) by Michelangelo Pistoletto, in which the naked Venus of Milo was positioned against a high pile of rags. Clothes that in their desolation still breathed the life on which they had been worn, as do the pieces of houses in Marjan Teeuwen’s installations. In Arte Povera it was the process that counted, the labour required to achieve something; often they were temporary projects, made especially for the location.

In the catchment area of Marjan Teeuwen’s art Arte Povera, Minimal Art and Zero converge. But a more visible foundation from which her work can be experienced is formed by the installations and interventions, or rather: cuttings by Gordon Matta Clark (1943-1978). This American artist made holes in buildings that were about to be demolished, as is the case with Teeuwen, and he recorded these interventions on film. He is well known for his contribution to the Biennial of Paris in 1975, where he created a large, cone-shaped hole through two houses near Les Halles, a sort of negative space, recorded in a film of 18:40 minutes (Conical Intersect). A few years before that he had constructed an interior of found demolition waste and disused doors in a container (Open House, 1972).

As with Teeuwen, the intervention in a building is a temporary installation (in the case of Open House including a performance), while there is also an image that remains. In Matta Clark’s case that image is film, for Teeuwen it is a handful of photos. This  is crucial, more radical in a sense, and in this sense the work is very different from Matta Clark’s. The photos of the Destroyed Houses force you to infer the restless activity of realizing the work from their frozen state, as if blood, tears and sweat constitute the cement between the countless fragments.

Visitors of Huis op Noord (2013/2014) called the location little Syria, recounts the artist, whereas the installations reminded  the curator who opened the exhibition, Ludo van Halem, of still lives, vanities that present us with the memento mori, and at the same time its reversal: an homage to the power of construction. The photos and installations show a dynamic standstill. And in this dynamic standstill they do not primarily refer to the hereafter the way seventeenth-century still lives do, not to the memento mori, dying as a call to piety, but to the dying we see on television and which we know to be daily practice a couple of thousand miles from our homes.

‘To cut into a building, to turn it inside out, Matta Clark’s topological loppers come in handy’, writes curator Sergey Kovelaevsky in a nice illuminating essay, The Radiating Perspective of Marjan Teeuwen (2011), on the occasion of her Destroyed House Krasnoyarsk (2009). Matta Clark ‘transformed architecture into sculpture’, he quotes the artist. ‘Where he stopped, my work starts.’

This does not mean that her work is sculpture, on the contrary. They are installations and photos, and they belong together. The installations are temporary, the photos remain. There is an image and there is a process. Just as movement means nothing without standstill, and standstill means nothing without movement, the two sides of Teeuwen’s art are inextricably linked. Most photographers take a picture, she says about this herself, ‘here, photos are constructed’.

The paradox of this work is that building cannot do without destruction and for that reason, we should not automatically consider building as ‘good’ and destruction as ‘bad’. Here, building is not a reaction to decay that never stops and forces us to carry out maintenance, restoration and construction – in this work, building is a second step after active demolition work. Seen in this light, Marjan Teeuwen’s installations can only be engaged as long as they do not lose their autonomy, to which moral and political ambivalence is a precondition.

In Rudolf van den Berg’s film about Marjan Teeuwen in the series Hollandse meesters in de 21e eeuw (2016), we see her sitting in Destroyed House Leiden (2015), with a laptop in her lap. On screen, religious fanatics destroy centuries-old sculptures in the Middle East, a horrible sight to which the artist shakes her head and moans softly, as you yourself would be inclined to do. In its desire for biographical interpretation this film may deserve some criticism, but the demolition of the houses in Leiden is visualized beautifully at the end of the film, with Teeuwen in the foreground. Given the huge amount of physical effort, the threatening danger of collapse, the extremity of the entire enterprise and the patience with which this Destroyed House was constructed, this must be an emotional moment for her.

But here, she does not regret the demolition. ‘Das Endspiel,’ she says. ‘It’s been good.’

When we see an enormous piece of wall collapse under the machine’s violence, we as viewers get carried away by her excitement about the destructive forces, akin to the iconoclasm of the Muslim extremists shown earlier in the film. And to that of the iconoclasts from the sixteenth century, a hidden presence in the DNA of Dutch culture. The destroyed the interiors of the churches, which then could become the empty and light backdrop of Pieter Saenredam’s paintings, another influence from the catchment area of the Destroyed Houses.

What makes these Destroyed Houses by Marjan Teeuwen so strong is that they show the survival instinct without denying destruction or denote it unequivocally as something that is morally reprehensible. Only this way it can relate convincingly to the destruction that is so prolific in human history, up to the violence that sends endless streams of refugees across the globe. The homage to the resilience of life can only exist because clearing the debris is not merely good or bad. This art expresses how everything breaks down, that man crawls from under the ruins time and time again, like a wounded animal, and how he or she starts building again, blind to fate. That is no simple optimism, for the built environments shown on the photos are completely senseless, empty, made for the moment, in the full consciousness that they will be demolished again soon, and will never be inhabited.

The image in this work is ‘cleared’ in three senses. For starters literally: the debris and all rubbish have been neatly piled up, put down in rows and boxes. This makes an absurd impression that evokes something cheerful at second sight, like a clear day.

Finally, the word ‘cleared’ indicates something that has been gotten rid of. Or someone. The Dutch expression ‘opgeruimd staat netjes’ (meaning ‘all things nice and tidy’) suggests a kind of relief that something has disappeared for good, that it has been beaten. Or exterminated. You have gotten rid of it. That is not necessarily an optimistic thought, as history has shown us time and time again. It evokes embarrassment in the Berlin woman who does not want this to be shown, that she is shown in this way. Because lives have been eradicated.

Something similar is experienced with the Destroyed Houses, and therein lies their engagement. They are demolished deliberately. They are rebuilt with perseverance. Or they are demolished with perseverance and rebuilt deliberately. Just like the absent lives that were lived there. And then they are destroyed, because that was the intention. So something else can be built.

And can be seen. Thanks to the installations of the Destroyed Houses. And the photos that record this, as a call for movement.

Maarten Doorman

Philosopher, Author and Poet

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