Serpentine Gallery, Kensington Gardens, London
17-29 April 2007
In England, during the early 1940s, there had been a real belief that a German attack was imminent, so much so that a battalion of bunkers sprang up over the country, with a particularly high concentration in the coastal regions of Kent and Suffolk. These installations, known as 'pill boxes', constituted the main, but feeble, line of ground defence, should the enemy invade. Unlike the monumental concrete bunkers conceived by the combined machinations of engineers and architects in France and Germany, the pill boxes were quirky and hastily erected. Nevertheless, they were places where a sentinel could poise his rifle for attack, or simply peer out at the horizon through one of several thin apertures perforating the structure.
The pill box was a place designated for observation; a place where the eye remained fixed on some unknown point, some possible sighting. Ever attentive, the occupier was to remain silent and discreet, lest some sudden movement or sound might draw attention to his position. In order that the sentinel remain hidden, the pill box itself became an object of discretion, albeit, idiosyncratically. Some had the appearance of disused cottages; others, as shingle banks lining a shore; a few were tucked into hedgerows or partly buried in the ground, and one was even disguised as a broken-down removal van.
In 1915, Professor Mather and his assistant, Mr Irwin, made one of the earliest sound mirrors by cutting a concave bowl into a chalk cliff between Maidstone and Sittingbourne, with a view to detecting the low rumble of enemy aircraft. Three years later, another version was cut into the cliffs at Joss Gap, a bay bordering the chalk cliffs on the Isle of Thanet. A photograph from this period shows a man in a long trenchcoat in front of the 15 ft sound mirror wearing a stethoscope connected to a sound-collecting trumpet. A decade later, free-standing concrete parabolas or, to use the colloquial term, 'concrete ears', averaging 30 ft in diameter, spotted the landscape around the Romney Marsh area. Previously, acoustic detection remained the property of the mobile sound locators: four or five cones hinged together, side by side, and mounted upon a metal easel. Like the sound mirrors, these instruments were useful for tracking aircraft, and were used in conjunction with searchlights.
'Clamor' (2006), a work created by the artists Jennifer Allora and Guillermo Calzadilla showing at the Serpentine Gallery, explores the relationship between the military installations and sounds, particularly music, used in war. Created as a bunker of the type found in Hochwald West, it spans an entire room. Yet, somewhat reminiscent of the pill box, the bunker has, in part, the appearance of a rocky outcrop. Around its curved surfaces are cut a number of apertures resembling those of a military kind; however, their positioning and dimension are only brought into effect during the live musical performance (which plays regularly throughout the exhibition) taking place within the installation. With the instruments protruding out of its belly, musicians play fragments from military marches, patriotic songs, evocative symphonies and songs popular during wartime; in effect, war music from around the world. The sound, made by a combination of wind instruments and percussion, ranges from the wavering lament of 'The White Cliffs of Dover' to the strident salute of the 'Star Spangled Banner' and the 'Yankee Doodle Dandy', which romps in almost Rabelaisian parody into the sombre tone of 'Jerusalem'. Sometimes musical reference breaks down into uncontrollable noise, and this too seems apt in relation to war, since armies as far back as the Greeks, and beyond, have used noise, whether it is the unified war cry erupting from the throats of legions, or the ranks of drummers and trumpeters used in an advance, most notably in Charlemagne's army, or the eighty or more elephants, stampeding and trumpeting, in the front ranks of Hannibal's charging infantry, for the purposes of not only instilling fear, but also of exaggerating the size of their infantry.
In a certain sense, history finds itself imprinted upon the work of Allora and Calzadilla. Not only are the wind instruments, the trumpets and trombones, closely related to those used in mounted attacks, they also resemble acoustic equipment of the kind used for tracking enemy aircraft. When the instruments are not in use (and the sounds heard are prerecorded), when they are seen to be resting on the edge of an aperture, their roles reverse from that of a sound-maker to that of a listening device: the silent trombone becomes a sound detector, similar to the ones used in the Great War.
Allora's and Calzadilla's work is allegorical. It stretches the focus of attention beyond the physical object and into the realm of imagination, an imagination shaped by the hand of history.
Book review: Sir John Vanbrugh: Storyteller in Stone
A new biographical study of the architect Sir John Vanbrugh (1664-1726) is most timely. The historical importance of this remarkable polymath has been in need of revision for four decades or more. Vanbrugh was positioned in different ways by Sir John Summerson, for example, or by Sir Niklaus Pevsner. On one hand, due recognition was paid to him for the designs of Castle Howard, and for Blenheim Palace, especially. But in the past two decades, the relationship of such buildings to their total landscape has been reconsidered, as has the work by Vanbrugh's collaborators, such as Nicholas Hawksmoor, and even successors, such as Capability Brown.
Ettore Sottsass: Architect & Designer – book review
Perhaps the most surprising statement in this book (at least for a European) is that Ettore Sottsass is still virtually unknown in the USA. This despite the shock and horror of 'Memphis' (and the film parodying its style, 'Ruthless People', starring Danny De Vito and Bette Midler), the work of ex-Memphis designer Peter Shire in California, and the fact that Sottsass himself designed the GE115 computer, which was made jointly by Olivetti, Bull in France and General Electric in America in 1967.