The nostalgia of a lost past
Ruins are of all times, but in no other age was there as much appreciation for old age and decay as during the Romantic Era. In the late eighteenth century, the Romantic Era arose as a reaction against the age of Enlightenment, that revolved around science, objectivity and progress. Other than their predecessors, the Romantics did not see any good in progress; they felt nostalgic about the past and fearful about the future. More and more often, personal experiences such as emotions, spontaneity and imagination were used as basic principles in art as well as literature, and historiography became more than merely committing events to paper. It was about discovering the stories behind the facts, which the Romantics mainly looked for in mediaeval history.
This new outlook on historiography revealed the capricious course that history had taken so far. Ruins were considered relics of the past, that could only be constructed through rubble and remnants. It is therefore no coincidence that the artistic fascination for ruins was at its height towards the end of the eighteenth century, when industrial capitalism not only caused an extensive degree of urbanization, but a growing awareness of just how unpredictable the future was as well.
Insignificance and decay
During the Romantic Era, the received classical notions of beauty of the Enlightenment – perfect shapes and harmonious proportions – were rejected. Ruins, which in no way complied with these old notions, gradually gained aesthetic value. They represented the destructive forces of nature as well
as the insignificance of mankind.
After the remnants of the city of Pompeii were excavated in 1748, the fact that a human being is utterly defenseless against the forces of nature and fate had become more tangible than ever. Ruins were not merely physical memories of the beauty and grandeur of the past, they warned us about our fate: inevitable decay. Consequently, the ruin became a pre-eminent metaphor for life itself.
In the early twentieth century, new ruins came to exist. Unlike those in Pompeii, they were not caused by some kind of natural disaster, but by the actions of mankind. The Industrial Revolution, greatly detested by the Romantics, not only brought on progress but a modern, industrial warfare as well. It was this new technology that would cause destruction of an unprecedented scale.
The fact that as of August 1914, hundreds of thousands of young men seemed to willingly head towards an almost certain death, had to do with more than just obedience. At this point in history, nineteenth century notions such as honour, noble warfare and respecting one’s enemy were still very common throughout Europe.
These notions belonged to the past as soon as the horrifying reality of industrial warfare pervaded the trenches. From this time on, all possible means were taken on in order to eliminate as many opponents possible: machine guns, grenades of extensive explosive force and lethal gasses. Nearly ten million men gave their lives on the battlefields or in the trenches.
Another ten million civilians died due to acts of war.
The destructive force of the first modern war not only manifested itself in the vast numbers of human casualties. Photographs of devastated cities, such as Ypres in Flanders, have kept the sense of horror and powerlessness alive up to today. The city, the Modernists’ research subject par excellence, became a ruin itself. Vast, utterly ruined urban landscapes have been part of war iconography ever since: desolate, gaping holes in the endless rubble, crumbling and at times still smoldering building blocks, and façades that were shot to pieces.
The Visible Sign
Although one of the greatest massacres in world history took place in Ypres, nowadays none of the buildings in the city centre remind us of war. As soon as World War I came to an end, the population craved for progress more than anything and tried to forget about the past as soon as possible.
If we intend to keep the memories to the horrors of warfare alive, we ought to preserve ruins rather than rebuilding them. However, the war ruins of the twentieth century seem to be all too confronting – at this point, even parts of the Berlin Wall are being taken down in order to make room for new apartments.
It seems we feel the need to rub out the past because we do not want to be reminded of it.
Designing is a way of looking back
While designing The Visible Sign, Han de Kluijver looked back at the ruins of cities that once flourished, such as Ypres. This city was recreated on top of the rubble, from which the remnants of buildings towered, not unlike fingers raised in warning: visible signs of destruction.
This is what the idea for the object you are now holding originated from. The rough exterior stands for the old city, the polished part for the new, rebuilt one. The hole is a bomb crater as well as a symbol for ancient times versus the present. Time inevitably leaves scars, but through the process of decay, in the end the rebuilt city will become vulnerable too. And this is how new ruins will always come to exist.
Cultureel Centrum Het Dak
NL-4142 EG Leerdam
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