Entrenched in the Mind
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.