Curated by Markus Landert. Kunstmuseum des Kantons Thurgau, Warth, Switzerland
|The heritage of silence was very strong at the Kartause Ittingen historical museum. It is easy to imagine the life of the monks there, the isolation, and the intensity of the cold stone floors and sparse rooms. I decided to work with the heaviness of silence, using as a narrative thread the idea of a man in an apartment alone after a lover has left.
Janet There’s a small door to our right here. Go through it and close the door behind you. It’s always so nice and quiet in this room. Look into the mirror. You can see the outdoors, the other world. Now there’s two windows, two kitchens, two coffee makers and two of you. Isn’t it funny that the only way to see yourself is by looking into another world.
Man / George When you’re suddenly alone in a house the silence suffocates you like a thick blanket.
Janet Just leave me alone he said. So here I am in Switzerland and he’s in Berlin. That should be far enough away.
George The sound of my hand on the blanket, the sound of water running in the sink, the sound of my throat swallowing.
sound of Latin being read from next room
Janet Let’s go through the next door. whispering Close the door behind us. Stop. Listen. still whispering Let’s go on, out to the hallway. Turn right.
George The sound of a single fork falling onto the table.
Janet It must have been cold to live here in the winter. Imagine bare feet on these cold stones.
George The sound of my memories inside my head.
Janet I can see my shadow against the wall, walking with me. There’s a doorway to the right, into the monk’s cell. Let’s go in there. sound of footsteps walking down stairs and past you
George The sound of my fingers touching my face.
|There’s a lot going on around me in the museum shop. The telephone is ringing. Visitors are leafing through books and chatting to each other. The sales staff are giving out information and discussing the articles for sale. Suddenly she speaks to me: my mysterious guide. “Do you ever feel invisible ? Like you’ve fallen through a hole in time and no one can see you anymore ?” She seems to be standing right behind me, invisible to everyone else. “I’m going into the museum. I’d like you to walk with me.” With these words of invitation she leads me out into the cool corridor.
We walk together. She keeps very close to me. “I’m glad you’re walking with me. This place is full of ghosts.” She strides on purposefully, going down a few steps into the Fehr Room, named after the family that lived for centuries in these prestigious premises following the dissolution of the monastery. She shows me a photograph hanging on the wall. There they are, the Fehrs, eating a meal in the cloister garth – an idyllic scene from a time long past.
We go through a door. We are standing inside a space that has been partitioned off. Folded tables clutter up the small space; a coffee maker stands in front of a large mirror. It is a narrow space, a bit shabby. So even a museum has its in-between spaces, small hidden corners that aren’t meant for public viewing. Here, the impression of the past so carefully produced in the museum rooms reveals itself to be an illusion, a backdrop.
A man talks about being alone, about what it’s like when silence becomes oppressive, when the smallest noise takes on meaning. But we go on into the refectory, the monks’ lavishly furnished dining room. On the wall hang pictures of important Carthusian monks such as St. Bruno of Cologne, who founded the order, or St. Hugo of Grenoble, his patron and sponsor. On the paneling there are pictures of hermits; they too are important role models for the monks sitting around the dining tables. They do not talk while they eat. Carthusian monks take a strict vow of silence when they enter the monastery. Only once a week do they allow themselves to speak. One of the monks reads a passage from a book, in Latin. I don’t understand a word, and my guide, whispering, urges me to leave the room, to go out into the cloister. What is the man saying ? “The sound of my memories inside my head.” Who is this mysterious person talking about loneliness, silence, memory, and longing ? Is he a monk, or my guide’s lover ? Perhaps even my alter ego ?
In the cloister it smells slightly musty. On the ground, red bricks have taken the place of sandstone slabs. The homemade bricks were probably cheaper than the thick paving stones from the quarry, here in this wide cloister that connects the separate living quarters of fifteen monks. Now we meet the monks again. They go past us, singing. The sun is shining. The light is pleasant, soft. “I can see my shadow against the wall, walking with me,” my guide says. She can see her shadow ? And where’s mine ? Has she stolen my shadow, like the devil did to Peter Schlemihl ? I see only one shadow. We enter a monk’s cell. I look out of the window; I hear an airplane, but there’s nothing to be seen. Nor does the monk I hear coming down the stairs from the attic actually walk through the door. “What is real ? What isn’t ? Where am I ?” I wonder, and pull the headphones off. It’s all still there: the monk’s cell with its table, bed, and crucifix; seemingly untouched, as if the monk left only yesterday. I am back solidly in the museum that was opened to the public some twenty years ago.4
So I put the headset back on and follow my guide back out of the monk’s cell and over to a bench in the cloister garth. She draws my attention to the Fehr family who are sitting beneath an apple tree eating a meal. In my mind’s eye, I see the photograph we were looking at a few minutes ago. So that’s what is was like back then. Then suddenly there’s the sound of banging and crackling, fire and sirens, planes and horses. Violence shatters the idyll. Is this present-day war or the Ittinger Sturm of 1524 ? On the Ittingen Walk time shifts as much as space.
And on through the garden to the hidden back entrance to the museum cellar. We creep through a narrow, dark storage area into one of the museum exhibition rooms. “I read that the family used to grow mushrooms down here. Imagine how it must have smelt in the dark. Feet walking through earth.” How different from the air-conditioned, brightly lit museum space and its exhibits we are presented with today! What a difference between imagination and reality, past and present. Then we go upstairs, along passageways, around corners. I lose my bearings in the maze of rooms and have to rely completely on my guide. She leads me to a small, hidden partitioned area that is almost completely taken up by a filing cabinet with lots of empty drawers. I pull out one or two of them while listening to my guide. “All these empty drawers. They’re like perfect little worlds. Little boxes of forgotten air. I just remembered a dream from last night. I was looking down a deep water well into darkness. A man was kissing me softly on the lips, then I woke up. Close the drawer. Now that dream is in there.” An archive of dreams inside the monastery.
A view from the gallery into the monastery church with its cheerful stuccos and frescoes telling the story of St Bruno, then on through a labyrinth of rooms, down a small, steep staircase, along passageways and corridors, until finally we find ourselves inside the chapel choir. The monks walk past us, singing. They are leaving us. “I imagine them going to their rooms, the sound of their own bodies the only thing to keep them company. We have to go now too. Goodbye.”
I sit alone in the church. My guide has disappeared as mysteriously as she appeared. She leaves me behind in a reality that has been enriched by this exceptional experience. For a brief time it was as if I was living in a film, or rather in a dream, and even after I have handed back the CD player at the desk, the world around me retains at least a trace of dreaminess and unreality following my walk through the monastery. I am left with an idea of the fragility and illusoriness of what we usually call reality, and an understanding of the power of the imagination.