En­trenched in the Mind

The London Magazine - - CONTENTS - Roy Foster

Keep Out! Bor­ders and Bar­ri­ers, Past and Present, Royal Geo­graph­i­cal So­ci­ety, Kens­ing­ton Gore, Lon­don, 12 - 25 Oc­to­ber As an his­to­rian, and a long­time ad­mirer of Ian­the Ruthvren’s work I find her re­cent and provoca­tive ex­hi­bi­tion at the Royal Geo­graph­i­cal So­ci­ety a vivid re­flec­tion of his­tory. The sub­ject also couldn’t be more rel­e­vant to to­day. Re­cently, I was judg­ing an es­say com­pe­ti­tion com­mem­o­rat­ing the great Ir­ish es­say­ist Hubert But­ler, who wrote con­stantly and quizzi­cally about bar­ri­ers and bor­ders. The set sub­ject was ‘What hap­pened to Europe with­out fron­tiers?’ and the en­tries were imag­i­na­tive, thought-pro­vok­ing and some­times omi­nous, sug­gest­ing an un­cer­tain and shift­ing world. The same is true of Ian­the Ruthvren’s work now. There are echoes of her ear­lier se­ries, on the Nazi for­ti­fi­ca­tions along coastal Europe, the so-called At­lantic Wall. Those pic­tures por­trayed the adap­ta­tion, or ru­ina­tion, of a keep-out (or keep-in) project that – for­tu­nately – failed. Her haunt­ing pic­tures of those de­fence-works more than half a cen­tury later showed them graf­fi­toed, or crum­bled, or even do­mes­ti­cated; they con­veyed a sense of ar­chae­ol­ogy and his­tory, soft­ened by the be­nign patina of time.

The im­ages around us to­day also use graf­fiti, and they also sug­gest his­tory – some­times as far back as the Ro­man Em­pire, in the won­der­ful shots of Hadrian’s Wall, show­ing the com­plex­ity of its struc­ture, and the near con­tem­po­rary Limes Ger­man­i­cus – whose late-nine­teenth-cen­tury ‘restora­tion’ says much about Ger­many’s idea of its his­tory. (Con­trast­ingly, the re­mains of Hadrian’s Wall sug­gest a very English kind of gen­tle neg­li­gence.) The pow­er­ful im­ages of the Maginot Line flag up an­other grim era in Eu­ro­pean his­tory. But above all, these ven­er­a­ble (or re­con­structed) sur­vivals are, by dint of putting them in the same vis­ual con­text as mod­ern bor­der-walls, a re­minder of what is meant by mil­i­tary power and the es­sen­tial­ist and my­opic def­i­ni­tion of bar­bar­ians. The ra­zor-wire boundary

erected by Pres­i­dent Or­ban in Hun­gary, against mi­grants en­croach­ing from Ser­bia, is a case in point; it’s there that Ian­the found the iconic im­age of cru­ci­fix­ion which brands this ex­hi­bi­tion. (And you can read an ac­count of the jour­ney which pro­duced that pho­to­graph, by Malise Ruthven in the New York Re­view of Books of 21 Septem­ber last.) What these pic­tures also con­vey – as with those of Berlin and the wall be­tween old East and West Ger­many – is the way that mem­ory pre­serves a sym­bolic boundary, some­times by com­mem­o­rat­ing it in art, as with the East Side Gallery. And Trump’s promised wall against Mex­ico is shown as al­ready sus­tain­ing a kind of vir­tual ex­is­tence, as an im­age for satire – as well as be­ing out­dated even be­fore it is built.

Look­ing at this ex­hi­bi­tion, and at the vi­sion be­hind it, I’m struck – as an his­to­rian – by what it im­plies about the way states are made (one thinks of the dras­tic re­order­ing of na­tional bound­aries after the First World War). Of course, I’m an Ir­ish­man as well as an his­to­rian, so the bor­der be­tween North­ern Ire­land and the Re­pub­lic holds par­tic­u­lar in­ter­est for me. To re­turn to Hubert But­ler, in the early 1950s he wrote an es­say called ‘Cross­ing the Bor­der’, where he de­nounced the kind of pas­sive in­tel­lec­tual stag­na­tion en­abled by the erec­tion of bor­ders, pre­vent­ing cre­ative dis­cus­sion of our dif­fer­ences. When a bor­der is erected, But­ler wrote, we be­come, ‘hyp­no­tised into think­ing that there is a real men­tal bar­rier there, and, like those neu­rotic hens which can be kept from stray­ing by draw­ing a chalk ring round them, we do not ven­ture across it’. Later in the same es­say, he fore­cast that, if Ul­ster’s unique kind of Ir­ish­ness were gen­er­ously recog­nised:

the bor­der will cease to be­come a men­ace and an anx­i­ety. Ei­ther it will be­come mean­ing­less and will drop off pain­lessly like a strip of stick­ing-plas­ter from a wound that has healed, or else it will sur­vive in some mod­i­fied form as a def­i­ni­tion which dis­tin­guishes but does not di­vide.

After the Good Fri­day Agree­ment of 1998, this be­nign sce­nario edged a lit­tle nearer; but the pic­tures of the Or­wellian ‘peace walls’ of North­ern Ire­land ex­hib­ited in this ex­hi­bi­tion show how deep a bor­der is en­trenched

in the mind – and how it re­lies upon re­cy­cling im­ages from his­tory, and sup­posed par­al­lels with other sup­pos­edly threat­ened com­mu­ni­ties. The Brexit ref­er­en­dum of 2016 seems to have ush­ered in – here as else­where – an era of li­censed xeno­pho­bia. At the same time, the mi­gra­tion cri­sis across Europe has brought ques­tions of bound­aries and bor­ders to cen­tre stage once more, while the idea of easy move­ment of peo­ples, which in­spired the Schen­gen Agree­ment, was negated at a stroke.

This is the un­easy world re­flected in Ian­the Ruthven’s pic­tures, and the thought­ful com­men­tary that ac­com­pa­nies them; but it stretches far be­yond Europe. The geo­graph­i­cal and his­tor­i­cal range of sub­ject-mat­ter in this ex­hi­bi­tion is as­ton­ish­ing, from Mex­ico to Melilla; the beauty of the im­ages points up rather than con­ceals the re­al­ity of worlds where hu­man be­ings are sub­jected to a limbo-life in No Man’s Land – and that’s a phrase and a con­cept which strikes all the more pow­er­fully after view­ing these pic­tures. The adap­ta­tion of bar­ri­ers, as with those oil-drum bul­warks in Cyprus, or the odd in­for­mal­ity of clothes hung out to dry on barbed wire, or the con­junc­tion of Banksy and Beth­le­hem – all these poignant im­ages are caught by an artist with a preter­nat­u­rally sharp eye for the odd con­junc­tions of so­cial and po­lit­i­cal his­tory. But she also can ma­nip­u­late the geo­met­ric beauty of spa­tial de­mar­ca­tion, as in a paint­ing by Richard Diebenkorn or Ni­co­las de Stael; the depth of field and the pow­er­ful use of colour in these pic­tures makes them en­dur­ingly sat­is­fy­ing. A Ruthven pho­to­graph bears con­stant aes­thetic ex­am­i­na­tion, and I speak as some­one who walks past an en­tire wall of them ev­ery morn­ing in my own house, never with­out a thrill of plea­sure. Her pic­tures in this ex­hi­bi­tion don’t tell us to ‘Keep Out’: they draw us in. They are his­tor­i­cal doc­u­ments. They are pow­er­ful. And they are beau­ti­ful. They pro­vide both an im­por­tant, and an ex­cep­tion­ally vivid, point of vi­sion where we can sur­vey the state of this ner­vous, op­po­si­tional and in­creas­ingly ex­clu­sion­ary world.

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