Echoes of Voices in the High Towers, by post-situationist UK artist Robert Montgomery, is the first major public show presented in the Tempelhof Park (once upon a time Tempelhof Airport). Robert Montgomery is a poet on his own, and in the public space his poems become sculptures, light pieces, billboards, they are to be found on trucks driving through Istanbul at night, on the roof of buildings in Williamsburg New York, on a boat in Venice, in a window in Geneva and now everywhere in Berlin. For the opening he even burned, at dusk in Tempelhof, THE WAY THE PAGAN GODS ARE HALF REMEMBERED HERE. As another piece by Montgomery states: RATHER BURNED THAN CAPTURED.
The show is curated by Manuel Wischnewski in a quite exceptional collaboration between artist and curator. Barbara Polla went to Berlin and asked some questions to the artist for DROME magazine.
BARBARA POLLA: What does the Berlin show mean to you?
ROBERT MONTGOMERY: It’s my biggest project to date, so it means a lot. We’ve tried to make in the city on lots of different layers – the light poems at Tempelhof park are the largest, we also did a fire poem at that location for the opening, and then we have 23 billboard poems across the city, and also 5 anonymous pages inserted into 5 German magazines. Between now and October there will also be another large light piece go up in Berlin and drawings in 2 separate exhibitions in the city. It felt important to me to try to engage in a really serious dialogue with the city of Berlin on multiple levels, as it such an interesting place, both in terms of the creative culture there now and historically. I was invited to work in the city by Manuel Wischnewski at Neue Berliner Räume, and he did an amazing job working with city partners – getting us permission to work on the old US Airforce baseball fields at Tempelhof, which are really historic monuments of the Cold War, was a big coup!
BP: How did this show grow its roots into history?
RM: Well Tempelhof, the main site of the exhibition has many layers of history, it was the Nazi’s main airport and many by accounts when the Red Army took Berlin at the end of the war they couldn’t move the last of the SS command from the tunnels underneath the airport so they flooded and locked them, drowning the last of the SS there. Then in the Cold War it became a key base for the occupying American air force so the building seems to me to have the ghosts of those two wars and those two periods in 20th Century history written on it very physically. I really wanted to make my light poems on the baseball fields, because they are like a little piece of the America of the 1950s dropped into Europe, and they begin to speak about the complex political relationship between America and Europe since 1945. When I was a child in Scotland, from my Maths classroom window in Prestwick I could see an American flag and a small US airbase where the components of US nuclear missiles kept in Britain were flown in. That frightened me as a child and I almost felt like I lived in a “US occupied” Europe, and that is why those baseball fields are so personal to me, and why it was so therapeutic to me to put poems about peace and healing and regeneration there.
BP: How do you link politics of the past with the present – and the future ?
RM: Well I love the idea of our cities as museums, mausoleums, places that contain memory. I think that’s almost quite a magical idea. And the politics of history is a part of that. So when I work in a city I like to think about the history of the place – for example, the ideas we’re working on now for the Printemps de Septembre in Toulouse exhibition that we might be able to realize, there I’m interested in the moment the Catholic church slaughter the Cathars of Toulouse in 1180. Specifically I’m interested in the idea that the Cathars represent a rare blossoming of the Gnostic tradition of Christianity in Western Europe, the gnostics were anti-materialist, pacifist, and had lots of characteristics we associate more with Eastern religions (the beginning of Gnosticism is really in St Paul’s letters to the Eastern church). In the 12th Century the Cathars of Toulouse were even vegetarian, which I think is a wonderful historical fact! I’m intrigued by the way centuries later in the 1640s the Cathars anti-materialist and pacifist belief re-appear in the Quaker Christian dissenters in England, and how their ideas lead to the 20th century peace movement – modern Quakers were key for example in the establishment of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND). Cathar ideas echo in very very contemporary things like the Occupy movement, so it is this idea of recurring beliefs, echoes of philosophies that occur centuries later, as if these ideas are written in a spiritual rather than intellectual realm, that intrigue me.
BP: Interestingly enough, at Tempelhof, your art ground is made of grass, while a major chapter of L’Histoire comme une chair, the latest book to be published by the artistic director of Printemps de Septembre in Toulouse you just mentioned, in the context of History, is about the grass growing once upon a time in the streets of East Berlin… The grass in Berlin, like a statement ?
RM: The grass at Tempelhof? Well, you know that was another part of the project, the idea of land and the idea of the place as land before recent history – an idea of the old sacred European land before our separate countries were invented really. That was the point of the Fire Poem at Tempelhof, THE WAY THE PAGAN GODS ARE HALF REMEMBERED HERE. The Pagan Gods mean the pre-Christian gods from the time where in Europe we would have had no really separate countries but many gods. I love the ideas that we would have had many gods once, a god for joy, a god for sun, a god for rain, a god for music, a god for sadness, a god for sex, a god for death, a god for peace, different gods for different moods and states of being. It seems to put us in a much healthier relationship with the idea of god, don’t you think?
But finally and just in general I love to think of the city as “Wild Land” as much as I like to read it like a history book. I think that’s a really liberating idea, to feel the wind in the city, to feel the rain on your face, to feel the dirt under your feet under the concrete. The city as Landscape, as somehow an always untamed place. You know I talked about that in the light poem I made in London earlier this year too – the city as these two things, a wild place as well as a place we know, THE CITY IS WILDER THAN YOU THINK AND KINDER THAN YOU THINK, IT IS A VALLEY AND YOU ARE A HORSE IN IT, IT IS A HOUSE AND YOU ARE A CHILD IN IT, SAFE AND WARM HERE IN THE FIRE OF EACH OTHER. At the end of the opening in Berlin, as it was getting dark and the rain of the day started to evaporate and lift off the grass and you saw the mist of the rain rise up again in front of the light poems, I think that’s the moment that expressed that best, and it was probably the most beautiful moment in Berlin, and that’s also the moment I don’t have a picture of. Because I just looked at it.
Berlin, from July to October 2012