My brother and I live in very different places a continent and ocean apart, but the city that appears in our letters is neither his nor mine. It is an imagined city, the one we both grew up in.
I thought at first we were exchanging experiences, the way we once traded baseball cards. I had some of the players, he had others, and together they made up a team. He had some memories, I had others, but they’re all fit into a coherent whole.
Sometimes they do. But the scraps of evidence can be maddeningly ambiguous, and we are left to guess. Details have gone missing, our recollections but images in shards. It is not memories we exchange but interpretations. Unable to return we content ourselves with photos from newspaper archives, vintage games, old postcards, and the stories of friends and family.
Such memory work is at the heart of Andro Wekua’s Pink Wave Hunter, now on exhibition at the Benaki Museum in Athens. In his installation Wekua, a Georgian artist who lives and works in Berlin and Zurich, has reconstructed the city he was forced to abandon in his youth and has never returned to since.
His city is an unhappier one than the city my brother and I grew up. Sukhumi lies on the coast of the Black Sea in what was once the northwestern finger of Georgia but is now part of the Russian Federation. The once fashionable resort city on the Black Sea still bears the scars of the heavy air strikes it suffered in the 1992-93 Georgian-Abkhaz conflict, and the ethnic cleansing that ensued. The artist’s family was among the tens of thousands of Georgians who were forced to leave the city, fully 40% of the population. Wekua never returned.
The installation is composed of scale models of 15 buildings and structures from his birth city. In fashioning these maquettes, Wekua has relied partly on his own memories, partly from old photographs found on the Internet or sent to him by friends.
The documents are incomplete. The camera can capture only a part of the building, memory is retrieved in fragments. The constructions are thus unevenly remembered. Some are almost devoid of detail, a featureless slab of concrete with only the faintest of marks to suggest the presence of windows. Others, for which perhaps the artist had a better store of evidence, are made to painstaking detail and with remarkable workmanship.
But even here the construction is incomplete. The back or side of a building that the camera’s lens could not capture has been left unfinished in its sheath of aluminum or polyurethane casing. A row of old houses has been reduced to a strip of façades, propped up by scaffolding in the back, like a set for the stage. A railway bridge is viewed in chunks, minus its abutments and pillars. An exterior staircase ends in a blank wall.
In the middle of the city stands a scale model of a crumbling beachside café. A sign stands above the round, squat stone building, rusted metal letters on wires strung like a wash line between two poles.
Some of the letters are missing. They are like gaps in a game of hangman whose players had run out of time, when the bombing started and people fled the city. But enough is there to decipher the name. Dioskuri, the twin brothers Kastor and Polidevkes, sons of Zeus, whose coachmen legend has it founded the city.
These missing letters are emblematic of a deeper absence that haunts the city. Buildings stand empty. No one fishes from the pier. Signs of abandonment are everywhere: the rusted trusses of a railway bridge, peeling paint, the brown-ringed splotches of dampness on the roof of a station.
Wekua has likened the empty buildings of his boyhood city to the ersatz towns built in film lots, “a city of façades [that] still stands and waits to be used for a different movie.” He writes:
“I am more invested in the architecture of this city, and how its nature is being conserved and untouched while being allowed to deteriorate, a mirage of sorts… maybe this city does not and has never existed.”
Wekua designed the exhibition space himself. Eschewing the single platform on which these works were earlier presented at the Kunstahlle Fridericianum in Kassel, he has set each building on its own plinth and arranged the pieces in the hall according to a logic—if there is one at all—that seems to bear little resemblance to the geography of the city.
A conceptual axis leads from the pier at the entrance of the hall to a government building at the far end of the room. Cast in bronze and towering over the other constructions, it stands like a tabernacle of a sinister deity, and its soulless concrete plaza, a sacrificial altar. But apart from this axis, there seems to be no apparent reason to the arrangement of these constructions. The route we trace as we move from one building to the other corresponds to no tour that could be plotted on a guidebook map. There are no streets in this city. We become its boulevards and thoroughfares; we compose the city as we make our way through the exhibition.
This seems fitting, though. The landscape of memory is a terrain of mostly empty space that is interrupted only here and there by a structure of significance—a neighbor’s porch, a beach café, the boardwalk on the pier, the topoi of a first kiss or a lover’s betrayal—and we wander through it almost haphazardly.
Like memory itself, Wekua’s city is muted in hue and sound. The colors are those of the artist’s materials, the browns of firebrick, wax and plywood, greys of stone and concrete, here and there the metallic shine of bronze and aluminum. The only exception, the specks of powder blue on the shield-like panels in the railing on the pier.
As I wander through the exhibition, I can hear the noise from the café that’s around the corner from the gallery. It surges in when my concentration lapses and threatens to tug me out, like a wave breaking on shore that then sweeps sand and pebbles back out to the sea. It’s background noise, indecipherable for the most part. But if I listen carefully I begin to pick out the clang of tableware on the porcelain plates, individual voices, the clinking of glasses.
At first I’m annoyed by the sounds of the café crowd. What a curatorial oversight, I think, to place these meditative pieces next to such noise. But then I think maybe it was a deliberate decision. The noise – of life, company, the sharing of food and wine – only underscores the haunting desolation of the city.
Paradoxically, it is the crowd that seems insubstantial, and not this quiet deserted city of memory. Voices gather force and then fall silent, conversations rise and dissipate, friends meet and dine and say goodbye. The sound of fleeting encounters. Whatever has happened at their tables is gone. It will have left its mark, a layer of sentiment, for some a resin of deeper intimacy, for others the bleach of indifference or the hurt left by a careless remark or a confession of inconstancy. But even that will recede.
But the pier stands, its pylons rotting unseen in the brine of the sea. I look at its restaurant, oddly shaped like the prow of a ship, and think how it, too, once contained conversations much like the ones I’m now hearing. Conversations that will soon be lost.
Or perhaps not? Perhaps some were retold in the stories Wetua gathered in his effort to rebuild—to remember—his city. Stories shared by fellow exiles or distant cousins. Perhaps by a brother. Remembered.
I sometimes send my brother pictures I find of our city, the way it was when we were boys. He doesn’t want to see them, though. He doesn’t even want to go back, though unlike Wetua, he could. He’s afraid the city will be too small, too leached of color. I want to go, though I’m afraid, too. I’m afraid the city will be too real, too true to memory, and I will feel my exile more intensely than I do now.
We are like two scientists trained in different disciplines, the memory work of bugs and bones. He delves into board games and girder sets and the other toys of our childhood that he finds on e-bay, I work with the postcards and old photographs of our the city that I find on the Internet. But we’re not all that different. We are both overlaying history on memory, the archival on the personal, trying, each in his own way, to give substance to his recollections.
We are all exiles from the city of our childhood, and the place we unfaithfully but lovingly remember, indeed never existed. But that’s not the point of remembering, is it?
Image: Street Facade, from Andro Wekua’s “Pink Wave Hunter”