Sophie Calle, from the Entfernung/The Detachment, façade of the Palast der Republik
Art, Music, Books & Film

Making Sense of the Hole

The first thing you notice about my colleague Lukas when you meet him is the hole in his mouth. Which, seeing that the mouth is already a hole, admittedly sounds kind of weird. I mean, how can you have a hole in a hole? Ok, it’s just a missing tooth, a first premolar, But the empty space is more than a gap in a line of enamel; it calls as much attention to itself as a bullring through his nose would. It is a hole waiting to be filled. It makes him look a bit like a cartoon. It doesn’t help that he already looks like Goofy, a big, gawky guy with a swathe of midriff flab. Lukas is pushing 40 but his face still bears the traces of his adolescence, so his missing tooth only intensifies his neoteny, as if he had lost his tooth in a high-school hockey game. He’s also an immensely likeable guy, usually in a contagiously good mood, and quick to break out into the broadest of, yes, smiles.

I’ve had dozens of conversations with him and you’d think I’d have gotten used to it, but every time I see him the little black hole in his mouth sucks in my attention. I start thinking, this might be some kind of a statement, his refusal to spend a couple of hundred and get some dental bridge work done. Perhaps he wears it as a mark of reconciliation with the inexorable decay that awaits us all. Or maybe he’s pathologically afraid of dentists.

It could be he’s just accommodated himself to it. I don’t know how much he misses his tooth or even remembers it but over the years his tongue must have slid over and between the gap tens of thousands of times, so this emptiness must feel natural now, a part of the architecture of his mouth. Time doesn’t heal all wounds. It just assimilates them into the surrounding topography. It makes them a part of us, amalgamates it into our identity. Not all wounds, I know. There are instances of inconsolable loss that we can never overcome, that continue to cause us pain, horribly enervating pain that daily remind us of our handicap, of how much less our life is now. The death of a child. The mutilation one suffers at the hands of an enemy, the unspeakable violations of self-dignity and personhood. Losses that become an ever widening hole that drains all energy, pleasure, the will to live. But the minor losses of our lives, like the hole in Lukas’s mouth, are things we simply become inured to.

Lukas is passionately dedicated to preserving the memory of the open-air summer cinemas of Athens, one after the other of which are being razed to the ground, leaving behind fissures in the urban landscape, though unlike Lukas’s tooth, not for long; the empty lot soon gives way to condominiums. He’s amassed an impressive archive of photographs of these cinemas, and managed to track down and interview many of the former owners and people who worked there, the women who worked as usherettes or staffed the concession stands. He also spoke to older residents about the cinema that once stood in their neighborhood.

Lukas’s archive is the bridge work of memory: his interviews and photographs are conscripted in an interpretive act of remembering that seeks to salvage a feature of the city that in many cases has been irrevocably lost. They remind me of Sophie Calle’s fascinating work Die Entfernung / The Detachment, which I had seen in a brilliant exhibition at the Berlinische Gallerie entitled Berlin 89/09: Art between Traces of the Past and Utopian Futures (and which is now a permanent installation in the Marie-Elisabeth Lüders Building in the Bundestag).  It consisted of twelve photographs that Calle made in 1996 of places in East Berlin from which memorials to the DDR had been effaced, together with twelve accompanying texts with excerpts of interviews that she conducted about the missing objects with residents and passers-by. There was a building façade in the Nikolaiviertel that once hosted a sculpture of a massive dove of peace, a plinth outside the Russian Embassy where once a bust of Lenin stood, the braided girders of a hexagon on the exterior of the Palast der Republik in which the symbols of the DDR had earlier been anchored (doubly eerie, now that the Palast itself has been demolished). We see the traces left by the detachment: the holes in the wall, the mounting traces, the earth that was revealed after part of a tiled courtyard had been gouged out.  Calle said of her work, “I photographed their absences and replaced the missing monuments with their memories.” What was striking about the memories she collected was how varied they were, how they were so infused with the subjective that it sometimes seemed as if the witnesses were talking about different monuments.

Absence often calls for remembrance, but what comes to the fore bears more of the subject who remembers than the object that is being remembered. Just as emptiness can only be defined by reference to what contains or circumscribes it, just as there is no hole in a hole but only with respect to the surrounding flesh or pipe or plaster, the memory of absence, the re-figuring of what has been effaced, is shaped by the container of the lives of those who recall what has been lost.

Holes are the subject of a recent exhibition by another photographer, Tasos Vrettos (who coincidentally is also very much interested in the Athens summer cinema, as witnessed in the photographs of movie-houses in his November 2009 exhibition Athens: City & Cinema at the Benaki Museum). The Hole Project, which was held at The Breeder as part of the 2010 Athens International Film Festival, is also a dialogue of texts written by friends of the photographer and photographs by Vrettos himself, though the conversation between the two is more esoteric and less obvious than in Calle’s or Lukas’s case. The “argument” in the show’s title is a reference to a line of reasoning Einstein developed in the course of elaborating the theory of relativity; it apparently addresses something called spacetime substantivalism (and indeed a reproduction of the relevant article from the Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy is placed beside one of the photographs). I must not be as smart of Vrettos’s friends, because there was very little of the Hole Argument I could fathom, except perhaps the claim that spacetime does not exist outside of the events and objects that inhabit it. But that didn’t really bother me, because it left me free to wallow in the gorgeous technical perfection of the photographs themselves, in the deeply saturated magentas, pinks and yellows of his Porn Festival photos, the soupy despairing greens of a cheap hotel restroom, the impossibly detailed, near fetishistic textures and patterns his lens captures. One of the photos depicts a pierced navel wreathed by a meandering decorative tattoo above which sits like a crest the word “HOPE” in dark blue ink. You can see the furrows in the skin, the shine in the piercing, the thinnest of hairs. It is almost too rich in detail.

Tasos Vrettos, from the exhibition, “The Hole Project”

The cavities, hollows and voids that Vrettos photographs seem to have nothing in common except their emptiness: the O formed by the gaping mouth of a woman being fucked, an empty cistern with an open plug, an icon with a part of the face missing, a navel, the holes in dice, maelstroms and whirlpools and swirling galaxies. Four female mannequins in fishnet bodysuits cut open at the groin to reveal the vagina, a red-painted indentation in the plaster hand of a martyr. Some are sad, others poignant or melancholic, still others, like the prison hole, creepy. But some of the best evoke in the viewer the experience what the Japanese call ma, the successive intervals in space and time that give meaning and form to the whole, which in theater we experience in the dramatic pauses in an actor’s speech, and in music in the silence between beats. And in Vrettos’ photographs, the dark shadows in the intricate arabesque of a grille door or the cylinder of space described by the dozen metal hoops whirling around the body of a cowboy-booted dancer. They were simply stunning.

Not every hole needs to be filled, not every absence needs to be remembered.

-/-

Image: Sophie Calle, from the Entfernung/The Detachment, façade of the Palast der Republik

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