April, 2012 Archives

I was wrong about Melancholia on two counts. First, I thought that German Romanticism is about grandiosity and sentimentality. It is not. Second, I thought that all absence-related frames in Melancholia are trivial. My list contained five in-your-face absences: two having to do with empty chairs, one absence from a golf cart, one from a bottle of pills and one from a dish for collecting berries. Upon the second viewing of the film, I was glad to prove myself wrong. Melancholia has a complex visual language that gets buried under the obscene beauty of the film. There are some Antonioni-esque moves: like L’Eclisse, the movie begins with an end. Consider also absences. Showing a chair abandoned by Justine, who is the film’s main character, is seemingly plain in its message. We get it – she is not there. But things are not so simple. The camera anxiously hovers over her absence, zooms in and out, and jerks away. Justine’s absence is not calm, it is anxious, just as her presence is. Moreover, there are obvious formal parallels between the empty chair image and the preceding sequence. Justine’s absence is framed by two men sitting beside her. Immediately before this, we are shown two trees framing a part of the sky where planet Melancholia is present but not yet fully visible.

Because the image of invisible Melancholia structurally resembles the image of Justine’s absence, we are led to wonder if these characters are one and the same. Their images, when juxtaposed, impart meaning to one another. German Romanticism spoke of a sense of absence that always points beyond what appears, and absences in Melancholia likewise transcend their initial appearances.

At a first glance, this sculpture by Micha Ullman is textbook minimalism. It is sterile like a MacBook, and it references emptiness as has become compulsory in modern art. In fact, it represents a horrific and real absence. The panels are library shelves symbolizing the Nazi burning of 20000 books in 1933, which forecast the burning of the people. As we keep looking, our perception becomes more determinate and the absence, in Ullman’s words, “more palpable”. We shift from seeing a void in the ground, to seeing vacant panels and then a library emptied of the burned books. The shift is also moral. We move from an appreciation of an impeccably stylized void to the understanding of the terror it symbolizes. This move is what is so disturbing about this sculpture. Our knowledge of what the sculpture means is overruled by an impression of purity it invokes. There is a sense of being cheated into this inappropriate impression and an indignation that an absence so awful is represented by something so beautiful. Could it be that Ullman’s artistic freedom was too unconstrained?

Ullman remarked that his job as an artist is to frame questions. He says that “we expect [the books] but they are not there,” and it is this incongruity that makes the absence visually salient. But visual salience is not enough. Ullman makes the terror more real – and the absence emotionally salient – through a clash between the sculpture’s pristine looks and our knowledge of what actually happened. The sculpture succeeds as a memorial only through this double incongruity.

Micha Ullman’s Bibliotek Memorial in Bebelplatz Square in Berlin, 1995.