Interpreting MERZ: Exposition and/or Exhibition
A site of richness and multiple textures which feeds curiosity. It is obviously decaying. But decay, as anyone who has watched meat rot knows, possesses a vitality of its own. Such vitality is infinitely preferable to sterility and stadia … what an architect sees, blindly and banally, is not richness …. But, rather, something that is crudely classified as a brownfield site, that is tantamount to being classified as having no intrinsic worth. It is a non-place where derivative architecture can gloriously propagate itself with impunity.
A brownfield site is a job opportunity, a place where the world can be physically improved. The architectural urge doesn’t acknowledge the fact that it’ll all turn to dust. Jonathan Meades, ‘Ugly Truths’, The Guardian, 19/09/12
The partial-word MERZ extracted from the name of the COMMERZ-UND PRIVATBANK is made by Schwitters into a new word: possibly initially an arbitrary selection or interpretation (in the way that Schwitters’ found and used these letters).
Through repetition based on decision the catch-all MERZ is now identified with Schwitters’ work and process.
From a background in surrealism Barnett Newman thought about his more austere stripe painting Onement for over a year in 1947 before deciding to continue painting with a restricted language of vertical lines which he called ‘ZIPS’.
In contrast Schwitters provides an evolving meaning to MERZ as this naming includes the sculptures locked into buildings as well as portable work, work that is destroyed only to be reconstructed and his way of working adjusted to new materials in new circumstances. Schwitters’ persistence with renewal and regeneration in an architecturally embedded MERZ implies an artist making one work, extended to fill a lifetime. The iteration of MERZ across this variety of forms, some apparently ephemeral, some uniting what has been broken, some unfinished and others frequently destroyed – invites re-use.
Schwitters avoided being too proprietorial or overly authorial with MERZ, he didn’t take exclusive ownership of this new ‘term’ but evolved meanings that invite fresh narratives spinning from his own insights and interests.
I have some sympathy towards Schwitters’ generosity in the stimulation of meaning without vainly imposing limitation, by his not limiting the associations of MERZ, suggesting that what he sought to encapsulate might inspire the reader to continue the evolution of MERZ and shift a once privatised and commercial element of an utterance towards reflecting more nuanced use that might carry shared or sympathetic projects forward.
I’ve been interested in the use of words in art, and not least in the simplified domineering possessive language of art in the market. That interest in the idiolect and restricted uses of language in semi-private group-work as settings for the artist avoiding absorption/definition.
Over the last twenty years or so I’ve been a regular visitor to the Lake District taking long walks. I hadn’t been working in art for some time when I started visiting Ambleside. I would spend wet days reading about the area and its local personalities. I came across Schwitters’ work in the Armitt gallery/museum in Ambleside and in Kendal. My interest deepened through books and texts available locally on Schwitters last years in the area and with reading the Thames and Hudson volume.
A couple of years ago (2011) I thought of appropriating the word MERZ as the name for a studio-gallery I’d started converting from an old Lemonade Factory in Sanquhar in the northern Upper Nithsdale area of Dumfries and Galloway. The connection between Schwitters and this building and this area is not obvious, but in not being obvious this follows the juxtapositions I find interesting in Schwitters’ work and possibly more importantly in his response to circumstance, change and experience.
So in a formal sense the connections are not there and so the narrative becomes a bit attenuated at this point. In parallel to Schwitters’ assembly of text on paper and his name ‘MERZ’ for a body of work, I thought there were resonances in adapting his approach and providing description to a small abandoned landscape imprinted with industrial and domestic histories, and that’s why I thought to call the site ‘MERZ’.
Imagine a quarter acre plot of rubbish-strewn scrub-land in the centre of a small town. Something discarded and abandoned. It is divided by two rights of way to allow access to gardens serving two cottages along the eastern edge of the plot. It is bounded on the south and west by a dry stone wall running from a tired lime-spattered single story brick building. The three strips of land are not easily consolidated or privatised (should one choose) divided as they are by two rights of way.
So this site had little obvious commercial value. Each strip being too narrow to build a modern house, and the two northern-most areas are in effect land-locked behind the strip adjoining the road.
Sp the site was ignored and overlooked for fifteen years and abused to the point of becoming an eyesore.
But in 1890 this was Sharpe’s Aerated Water Manufactures employing eleven people (eight of them women). Most evidence of former industry remained in the form of a long single story building with a small basement built from brick in the late 1800s.
Further inspection and clearance uncovered the foundations of several tin huts, a large brick courtyard, a small wooded area and a sandstone building that appeared on the first mid-19th century Ordnance Survey map. The title deeds show these buildings and a former railway goods wagon parked up on the brick-yard.
The small sandstone building had too shallow a roof to suggest the antiquity of thatch and was of no interest to Historic Scotland, This modest square building had probably served as a Bothy for shepherds working for the former feu the Duke of Buccleuch’s. The ‘bothy’ was the earliest building on the site and a stones throw from William Adam’s Town Hall, now a local museum.
The Tolbooth Museum and possibly the Bothy benefitted from stone recovered from the remnants of Sanquhar Castle. The debate as to whether the bothy had served a domestic purpose was resolved when frost damage opened the top of one of the gables to show a chimney flue running down into the two feet thick wall. So there was a increased possibility this was once a dwelling house or wash-house and not (as others had suggested) a stable.
The brick built factory – some 5m x 11m – had a tree growing out from under its foundations with the wall leaning dangerously and threatening the roof. The chimney stack had collapsed and brought down the surrounding slates. Water had rotted the purlins and encouraged woodworm and wet rot. The floor was mostly dirt surrounding a ten foot square pit. The former basement could be accessed from inside and outside, and was now filled with domestic rubbish under a rotten floor ready to collapse.
A large sycamore tree was buckling the dry stone wall on the southern side of the plot and self-seeding gardens in the houses opposite.
It was advertised simply as as ‘a site with a derelict building’.
But – in another Schwitters’ moment – it was a site that might be reinvented, repurposed and a place to redeploy and retain many of its parts. Past, present and future meanings could then be reflected in found materials reassigned to a new use.
Many of the elements of Schwitters’ work seemed to be represented in this possible project, a collage of old and even older forms of seemingly random left-over architectural elements all without a possible present meaning. A site that was never a blank canvas or sheet of paper in a conservation area where conserving ‘what’ was a frequent question. A site complicated by rights of way. Because of conservation and the maintenance of access for the cottages this could not become a brownfield site, it this was a place to rearrange, to re-introduce, to reuse: it was a MERZ.
Four feet of vegetation was cleared to find beneath a brick courtyard and several adjacent rectangular bricked foundations walls, rusting corrugated iron and evidence of a long-gone toilet block and their old drains. The earth and weeds were cleared over the summer of 2009 and time spent in vain searching for a well or aquifer to serve the former factory.
The brick path through the weeds linked retired miner Bill’s cottage to his shed where he makes (made) shepherd crooks. These were not selling locally for a price that represented a fair return. With the addition of a label and a back-story the crooks made a good price at the Royal Botanic Gardens in Edinburgh and over two years seem to have been bought by visitors.
Again here is an echo of Schwitters in the story of the disparity of rural manufacture (Schwitters’ painted scenes of Ambleside sold on the town’s Bridge) while he was sustaining a dialogue on Dada with MoMA in urban New York.
Margaret and Fiona’s walk to the ground that belongs to their cottages goes through the courtyard. It was Bill though who maintained his right of way by daily use, tending to the ground to left and right of the path, clearing the weeds and by planting trees. Although on land belonging to the long-abandoned lemonade factory/plumbers yard the small wood is mostly Bill’s doing.
His shed was a workroom, used for carving and steaming hazel and twisting the sheep’s horns, or for building up a bike and mending furniture for his daughter.
After a couple of years the main brick building has been brought back to use, the collapsed and rotten north facing windows were replaced so far as could be estimated in their former pattern with double glazed panels. Reclaimed doors were introduced. Doors and windows that could be saved or reused from around the site were built into a large shed on the foundations of one of the former outbuildings. The brick building has half a new roof and the rest rebuilt. The purlins had no support so the loft floor sagged alarmingly, not helped by extensive wood-worm. This was treated and a tie from the ridge to the ceiling joists put in. The loft has heating lighting and two small windows and domestic water tanks. The building has been insulated to a high standard and a wood-burning stove heats water for the sink in a fold out kitchen and shower and basin in a caravan size bathroom. The ‘domestic’ elements are there but they are hidden, the bathroom following the line of wall that once housed a toilet and (I imagine) the manager’s office.
With an imaginative leap it is possible to see the spirit of MERZ in recovering this site, work is now complete to re-roof the sandstone bothy as a residential space for those using the studio-gallery.
The story that reflects on Schwitters also unfolds from a different angle.
I’ve had two parallel careers one in art and the other in TV. In a book in 1998 titled Don Quixote’s Art & Television I suggested these two activities were linked by an interest in space, in a communications space, and in distinguishing noise from meaning.
The gallery is such a space, sometimes a noisy (in the sense of confusing or meaning-avoiding) a space where to continue with an interest in art it is increasingly television programme/clip as well as the book or catalogue that offers a further space to represent the space/exhibition, a corridor into preferred/possible meanings about whatever the gallery encloses at a particular time.
For gallery we could substitute the picture frame, or the boundary – the supposed edge of the work. A sharp or grey fuzzy line in which physically as well as metaphorically we seem no longer talking about the work.
As someone who was a student of art at the time Minimal and Conceptual work was becoming known what I’ve outlined would then have been called ‘the context’.
In the background to our studies were Jasper John’s paintings that included the tools that were used to paint them, the flag paintings and more broadly the conversational unpicking of Donald Judd’s dictum that ‘what the artist calls art is art’ as well as the authorship implications of (for example) Robert Morris’s soft-form work, where both manufacture of felt sculpture and its arrangement in the Tate were only loosely under Morris’s supervision.
Clearly the assertion of art enabled anything to be art but the delegation of manufacture and arrangement also took the critical student back to the hollowness of art as nomination.
In 1970 I knew very little about Schwitters, nothing of his story, of the making of work within many immediate social settings while retaining an eye of a broader participation and intervention in international art. My access to Schwitters was through the collages of Richard Hamilton.
From the mid 1970s I was someone who had relocated and been dislocated from art-talk, into politics-talk and then to trade-union talk. So it was graphics and printing – those first order skills, learned-along-the-way skills – that were most useful, that enabled conversations, identities and narrative journeys to continue to completion; not an aesthetic or philosophical discourse that was of interest largely only to those working in a metropolitan and international setting.
So as I stumbled across Schwitters legacy in Ambleside and Kendal in the 1980s and 1990s I periodically sought out the pamphlets and books for evening holiday reading and – I suppose – found in those quieter moments an empathy for his making sense of what you do amongst those you are with.
But then I suggested just now that my longer-standing interest in TV, particularly in policy affecting broadcasting is related to this?
I think that the artist’s role is fundamentally about changing space, about defining something within a literal space (sculpture) or metaphorical space (painting) or within a language space (some Conceptual art).
In one way the television space (and now the internet space) provides access to the art space (in programming on the arts) but is also that space in which the work itself increasingly exists. The gallery is a studio for TV or (for books and catalogues) the photography studio. Attendance at exhibitions can be so low that it is not wildly wrong to suggest that more people become exposed to work not in the original but in its various forms of subsequent representation.
In written work as well as through art-work in the 70s thru 90s I suggested that the representation of art (through the photograph) had become the more obvious and longstanding way that we know work. The exhibition is then a staging post for the more substantial representation through media.
With the widespread use of digital technology the clone of an original work is to all intents and purposes a second original. You can think of examples where restoration and conservation remain the application of nineteenth century techniques applied when copies (from Xerox copiers onwards) were fully-fledged substitutes. Preserving the original plays out the influence of the markets when – again in earlier writing – there should be a separately defined methodology for public art, art where the ideas prevail and the concrete can be represented through copies.
Elsewhere I take these thoughts towards the suggestion that the art market remains stubbornly Newtonian in its physics so that our understanding of art as a transferable and original good is fixed in a seventeenth and eighteenth century way, whereas the art produced from the twentieth century onwards is the more interesting if our interpretation of its narratives are not dictated to by market values.
In parallel with quantum physics we might regard art as a particle, a transferable, mutable work in progress, not work that shelters under conservation and restoration to perpetuate through defiance collision and decay, that strikes a false resistance to being reformed and reused. Work most fundamentally exists now not in any singular physical form, it exists mostly through its representation through language and facsimile, in the narrative that surrounds ‘work’. When asked ‘what is a work about?’ one answer invites us to reply that ‘about’ means circumlocution, circulating around as well as the more linear intention or substitution.
This then is the final possible link with Schwitters, a way of working in art that largely salvages, modifies, encapsulates conversation, then moves on – each work a sketch for the next, each work a stage on a journey from which – if we view this from the market viewpoint – the legacy left standing as being important is just an arrangement of those stages, and so becomes a story that is readily modified to exclude or to include the figurative or pictorial (in Schwitters’ case). Otherwise a story predicated based on instances of work that left the studio rather than the need for working, or art-working.
Schwitters contribution as someone who was forced to migrate and journey is that significant parts of his work were not made to travel, were not made to be collected, were not made for a market.
That’s why I like MERZ – Schwitters has stripped out of the centre of COMMERZE-UND PRIVATBANK a multitude of new meanings.
DR 2011 and updated 2016
A note on a local industry
The Sanquhar glove is difficult if not impossible to manufacture on a knitting machine not just because of its unique finger construction but because the initials of the intended recipient are knitted into the cuff. The knitting by hand of gloves cannot be a commercial venture without compromising the unique qualities represented – so this tradition requires a public and historic commitment by the knitters largely supported by sales as presents to family and friends whose initials are incorporated with each order.