Published  12/03/2007

A Secret Service: Art, Compulsion, Concealment

A Secret Service: Art, Compulsion, Concealment

Kurt Schwitters’ experimental practice ranged across sound poetry, drama, collage, typography, publishing and sculpture. When he died in exile in the Lake District in 1948, he was working on the last incarnation of his most mysterious yet compelling works, his Merzbauten or Merz buildings

Hatton Gallery, Newcastle
17 September–11 November 2006

De La Warr Pavilion, Bexhill-on-Sea
27 January–15 April 2007

Whitworth Art Gallery, Manchester
5 May–29 July 2007


These were personal and rarely seen environments that Schwitters created using found or pilfered objects, sculptures and collage. The first and most densely worked Merzbau, constructed in Schwitters’ house in Hanover, was abandoned when he fled Nazi Germany and later destroyed in an Allied bombing raid. The second and third versions he made in Norway, but these were also erased. Following escape to Britain in 1940 and internment as an ‘enemy alien’, he began work in 1947 on his final Merzbau, in a dry-stone barn on a farm near Elterwater in Cumbria.

Their mystery derives from the fact that, despite their significance as precursors of installation art and examples of Schwitters’ unique creativity, the Merzbauten have vanished almost without trace. All that remain are a few photos and eyewitness reports, Schwitters’ sketches from memory and one completed wall of the Elterwater Merzbarn preserved in Newcastle’s Hatton Gallery. This exhibition takes the Merzbauten, whose multiple meanings have now become an unsolvable riddle, and uses them as a point of departure for a group show of work that relates to the idea of secret or inaccessible art.

Before his suicide in 2000, American painter Mark Lombardi was concerned with uncovering the secrets of powerful organisations. Lombardi’s large sheets of paper show, in diagrammatic form, the opaque networks of influence that connect, for example, George W Bush to oil-rich sheiks and the bin Ladens, or the Vatican’s bank to convicted murderers. Meanwhile, The Speculative Archive group (founded by Julia Meltzer and David Thorne) investigates the meaning of the secret for those whose job it is to create and preserve classified information. Their film, 'It’s Not My Memory of It'(2003) features interviews with members of the US intelligence community, cut together with footage, such as exists, of ‘live’ and declassified secrets. This includes a short film made by the CIA in 1974 when, at the height of the Cold War, they recovered a Soviet submarine and gave its dead crew a formal burial at sea. The film records this strange, clandestine ceremony, which was only officially acknowledged in 1992.

Sophie Calle’s 1981 series 'The Hotel' takes the investigation of secrets into the social realm. She used a temporary position as a chambermaid to photograph and document the belongings and behaviours of strangers in hotel rooms, in an age before reality TV made this sort of surveillance mundane. While there is a voyeuristic edge to the resulting works, they have at heart a more innocent curiosity about the ultimate unknowable secret, the interior lives of others. Hence Calle’s exact references to the colours and materials of her unwitting subjects’ bedclothes, the particular brand of perfume they use (and which she sprays on herself), and the titles and authors of the books they are reading – as if through such evocative details she could catch and unravel their private selves. In this, her work is reminiscent of that other obsessive detailer of objects and the everyday, Georges Perec.

The question of what a secret art might be is interesting and seemingly paradoxical: if we know about the art, the secret is surely out. Two ‘outsider’ artists included in the exhibition, Henry Darger (1892–1974) and Oskar Voll (1876–after 1935), created bodies of work that were almost totally concealed during their lifetimes. While both men suffered from mental ill health, Voll was probably murdered in the Nazis’ forced euthanasia programme. But his notebooks full of pencil drawings survived, and present fascinating tableaux of alienated military figures bathed in uncanny moonlight. Although the art no longer exists in secret, it still retains its secrets: as with Schwitters, death has closed the door on any further elucidation, revision, or justification by the artist.

Displaying material objects from another culture will always produce a secrecy of sorts, whose source is the lacuna of context. This is especially true with objects associated with religious ritual, as in the intricate talismanic drawings by the Ethiopian artist and healer Gedewon. These were created as objects of study but also for an individual’s spiritual-medical needs; their presentation in a gallery creates an interesting dislocation. A number of artists in the show share the esoteric impulse to keep the heart of their work hidden or absent, and Tehching Hsieh’s performance pieces achieve this with great elegance. His time-based events of extreme self-abnegation, including living outside for a year, and putting himself into solitary confinement for the same period, are minimally documented by one or two photos and witnesses. The act thereby becomes almost legendary, with the documentation acting as a bare claim to truth that leaves the performance itself untouched and private.

This touring exhibition brings together a number of other artists, including Mike Nelson, Jeffrey Vallance, Susan Hiller and Kataryzna Józefowicz. The variety of works on show makes for a stimulating exploration of the connections between the private self, art, and secrecy.

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