Yesterday I was cleaning out a closet I rarely use and ran across the issue of a design magazine that years ago had run a feature article on my flat. Well, our flat back then.
I sat down on the floor and opened the magazine to where the feature started. What first struck me about the glossy full- and half-page photographs of the flat was the eerie artificiality of the space that they depicted. Every light is switched on, as if in readiness for a grand party: the meter-long recessed kitchen fluorescents, downlighters, uplighters, tracks and table lamps, the nautical bulwark wall mounts. Halogen spotlights cast ovals of light on the warm amber of the polished wooden floors, as if demarcating the spaces where an actor will deliver his monolog. There are even tea candles burning in spice jars in the bathroom.
There are other feigned signs of life in this melancholic narrative tableau: a cast-iron frying pan on an unlit gas hob and a dozen small red tomatoes strewn across the kitchen work surface. Four perfect pomegranates sit at equal intervals along a narrow shelf. A brilliant but unnatural hazy glow emanates from the fireplace but the fire is neither the theatrical blaze of a roaring fire fed by properly dried oak nor the last sighs of a fire expended in embers.
Despite the furniture and pomegranates and daisies, despite the Uzbek prayer rugs and the dracaenas one has the impression of a haunting emptiness to the place. This is a party where even the hosts have not shown up. A play stuck in the moment after the curtain has gone up but the actors have not yet appeared stage.
The flat has been purged of all traces of the untidiness of everyday life. The day’s unopened mail, yesterday’s newspaper, kitchen dishtowels, a book left half read. The wine glass that doesn’t fit into the dishwasher and is left unwashed in the kitchen sink. Nothing is out of order, everything is lined up as it should be: the Breuer chairs, like over-disciplined Teutonic soldiers, in perfect parallel to the monastery dining room table, the rattan tray in the bathroom on which lie perfectly aligned stacks of decorative soaps and a small white ceramic vase with daisies. There is no dust on the shelves, no smudges on the windows, no chips in the wood, no stains or smudges on the floor. And of course, no people.
I was reminded of the photographs of Thomas Demand, whose work I had seen in Berlin in November at an exhibition at the Neue Nationalgallerie. Demand is known for his large-format photographs of scenes that he has painstakingly reconstructed in life-size scale in cardboard and paper from photographs he has found or, as in the case with several of the photographs in the Berlin exhibition, had been published in newspapers because of the notoriety of the events they depicted, such as the ransacked central offices of the Stasi or a tavern in Saarbrücken where a young boy was murdered.
His unpopulated reconstructions expunge the dirt and details left by the protagonists of these scenes. Papers are scattered all over the Stasi office but nothing is written on them. The shopping list in the tavern’s kitchen pantry is empty, and despite the box of cigarette lighters, there is no ash in the ashtray. The stunning clarity and remarkable color of these photographs underscore the thingness of these idealized objects and the silence of the rooms that contain them. They are the visual equivalent, as Adrian Searle noted in The Guardian, “of the inert affectless prose of a police report.”
The photographs of my—our—flat had a similar feel of artifice and hollowness, though the crime that was later (or then being) committed had nothing of the violence and tragedy of the events behind Demand’s photographed reconstructions. But they did serve, as perhaps Demand’s did for the German visitors to the exhibition who knew these events, to thrust me back to the time when I first read opened the magazine.
In his illuminating and beautifully written Photography, A Very Short Introduction, Steve Edwards describes the paradox that a photograph is at the same time both a melancholic “memento mori for the viewer’s own death, reminding him or her that all things pass and fade” and a means by which the past is restored and “blasted” into the present.
My initial fascination with the aesthetics of the photographs soon gave way to indignation as I began to recall how incensed I was when I first read the article. Much time has passed since then, and I can’t and don’t want to feel as angry as I was then, but the photographs of the flat did rekindle the sense of betrayal I felt when I first read the article.
The feature spanned eight pages, most of which as I said were devoted to photographs of the flat, along with floor-plans and a shot of the veranda, and an interview with the architect who designed the renovation. My lover. In the interview, he talked about the design choices he made, the lighting design, and the problems with renovating a landmark building. He mentioned how the whole building had been bought by a group of friends, and how important that was: “It means a lot that the person living on the floor below you isn’t just some stranger who just happened to move in but a good friend.”
About his lover who lived in the same flat as he did and who shared, if not in the renovation work than certainly in the cost, he said nothing.
Buying the flats – we bought two, one for the house and one for his studio and a guest room – was an expression of our commitment to each other and a reflection of the confidence we felt in the future of our relationship. It was our big common project. I was angered by M’s failure to acknowledge this. I felt betrayed. And disappointed – I had thought him more courageous. But he said, “My personal life has nothing to do with my work as an architect.” When I pointed out that other articles in the same magazine talked about “the architect at home with his wife and family,” he replied, “I don’t want to get into a fight about this,” and left the room. We never talked it about it again.
It’s never easy to identify at which exact point a relationship begins to unravel. Oh, there’s no mistaking the rent that infidelity makes in the fabric of two lives lived together. But those first frays are hard to see. Or if we do see them perhaps we edit them out as we interpret and construct and re-present the relationship to ourselves and others. Like Demand’s photographs or those of my flat.
Image: Thomas Demand, Tavern 3 Klause 3, 2006