Review of Conference Presentation (excerpt)
Études britanniques contemporaines
Revue de la Société d’Études Anglaises Contemporaines
Colloque de la SÉAC Numéro 43
Londres, novembre 2011 Decembre 2012
Isabelle Gadoin & Catherine Lanone
Université de Poitiers/Université Paris 3
This volume is issued from a joint conference organized by the SAIT (‘Société des Amis d’Intertextes’, the French Society for Intermedial and Intertextual Studies) and the SEAC (‘Société d’Études Anglaises Contemporaines’, the French Society for Twentieth-Century British Studies), which took place in November 2011 in Senate House, London – a fitting place, by Russell Square, to conjure up visions of the Blitz and rustling intertextual echoes, and connect text and image. Drawing upon key texts by Rose Macaulay, Robert Ginsberg, Michel Makarius or Sara Wasson, moving from Walter Benjamin to Jacques Derrida, the papers confront the representation of remains and an unstable age.
The variety of approaches at the conference was illustrated and summed up by Valérie Le Blanc’s video creation ‘The Renovation’ (2007), a fluid and vibrant exploration of a house caught in the moment before renovation, with its open paneless windows, its ladder leading nowhere, and its floating fragments of the past – traces of frescoes and wallpaper, rubble accompanied accompanied by the flickering letters of the alphabet, and the lyrical music (Enrico Caruso’s ‘Tiempo Antico’) echoing the whispers of time. The dance of the camera evokes the movement of memory fluctuating between past and present, as timeless ‘shards of pottery and ceramics’ are discovered side by side with traces of recent life, like ‘broken remains of champagne bottles’ (V. Le Blanc). Comtemplation sets questions into motion, and the place turns into a riddle, a maze of fragmentary suggestions: ‘the living can only guess at the answers to some of the mysteries generated by inanimate ruins’ (V. Le Blanc). When the song ends, ‘ a lively exchange at a fish market breaks the mood’ of contemplation; time rushes forward to the present and any unspoken mystery is broken by the clatter and banter of the living’ (V. Le Blanc). Dwelling on disappearing traces, the spectator is also moved to look into possible futures. But in this pendulum process, the past is revealed to be as much of a construction as the present and future: in our tentative apprehension of time, ruins, with their gaps, crevices, and black holes, work as emblems of uncertainty. Le Blanc’s work thus captures the tension at the core of the conference, which sought to explore the paradox of twentieth-century representation of ruins, neither the death of art nor the art of death, but a locus of in-betweenness and deferral, a new space which can be inhabited by the gaze.
Like the fluttering traces in Le Blanc’s work, all depictions of ruins are palimpsests. Spatial contemplation becomes a meditation on time; and modern representations can hardly avoid engaging with the tradition of literary and pictorial ruins: the aesthetic legacy of the eighteenth-century cult of the ‘Picturesque’ with its passion for ruins as crystals of time suffused with melancholy pleasure; of the Gothic with its labyrinths of vaults, broken palaces and shattered abbeys; of Romantic hubris and Turner’s luminous visions; and of nineteenth-century revaluation of ruins as dwindling points of aesthetic stability as well as symptoms of mutability in a changing world stamped by Darwinian ruthlessness and degeneracy. The papers therefore aim to analyze the hybrid functions of ruins, which do not only offer themselves passively for contemplation, but turn into metaphors of the literary process of construction or reconstruction, through such processes as citation, allusion, parody. They shift from sublime metonymies to broken signs of hardship and troubled consciousness, focusing not only on the visual motif of ruins but on the function of citation as an attempt to include the ruined pieces of bygone art and cultural systems, whether the purpose be to ‘shore fragments against ruin, as in the case of Modernism, or to challenge and deconstruct present exhaustion and past master discourses, as in the case of Post-Modernism. A symptom of trauma and a key to irrevocable mutations, Ruins become a way of engaging with History and the shattered self.
– received: July 19, 2013