Two-channel video projection - 2003/4

Image and spoken text linking a ghost story by M. R. James, Kurt Schwitters' Merzbau projects, Giordano
Bruno's Theatre of Memory, a museum of antiquities, and a website.


Above: Performance version with live voice, performed at The Examination School, University of Oxford, England, 2004

Between 2003 and 2006 I had been invited to spend time at the Fine Art Department of the University of Newcastle upon Tyne where, in the 1960's, the artist Richard Hamilton had been a teacher. Hamilton was asked if he would be willing to help house the last traces of Kurt Schwitters' Merzbarn which he had built at the end of the second world war in an isolated farm building in the Lake District on the other side of the country. Schwitters had only just started working on the piece when he died. The wall remained in the small stone barn until the owner of the site felt that he was too old to carry on looking after it, so he approached the Tate Gallery to see if they would be interested in taking it into their collection. They considered the task too difficult but asked Richard Hamilton if he might be interested in trying to relocate it into the University. Assisted by one of his students, Fred Brookes, he arranged the difficult and risky task of removing the wall from the building and transporting it across England - by a firm accustomed to moving electricity sub-stations. The wall was lowered into a specially adapted area of the New Hatton Gallery. A few years later a white divider was built near it so that it wouldn't impact too much on the exhibition space.

Schwitters' Merzbau project is mysterious and unrecuperable. This is part through intention and part through the accidents and erasures of history. The different Merz projects, in Hanover, in Norway and in the North West of England, were internalised and private enterprises -Schwitters himself claimed that there were only five people who had any real knowledge of them. They consisted of constantly changing architectural spaces made up of niches and grottoes which contain objects and relics from the artists life - notes, rubbish, and possessions borrowed or stolen from friends. These he arranged in new relationships to generate narratives and syntaxes, and in turn they were covered over and morphed to become the components of new architectural elements in the growing space. The approaches and intentions of the work changed over their development, they were sometimes obscure and compulsive - almost pathological - other times cooler and more formal and engaged with the discourses of his artist contempories. Most of it was hidden, but a few photographs were published.

None of the the Merzbaus were finished, most were destroyed, the Hanover building by allied bombs at the end of WWII the Norwegian one by children playing with matches and the last one had the wall ripped off and moved across the country. That which Schwitters considered to be his life work exists only as fragments, photographs, descriptions and memories, representations and language.

'Ghost Houses' takes these fugitive traces and combines them with other narratives and images. Spaces that exist only as stories are combined with stories associated with spaces to make a work where one representation merges into another and is then replaced by another. The video screens become sites of slippage and concealment, where a place or an object or an event takes on a momentary resolution and identity before fluxing into another space, another representation. The Merzbau and their histories and images are elided, become Merz'd themselves into spaces of autobiographical narrative, of biography, classical history, Renaissance occult systems, museums, the ghost-story, art history and the spaces of language and the virtual.

Richard Grayson