Saturday, March 13, 2010


Palimpsest Projects of All Sorts

There is in fact in Atlanta at the moment a Palimpsest Project designed to approach history through fiction, to allow the revelation of past layers through the productively distorting lenses of a present buffered by imagined narrative. There will be a time to consider this one at length. But for the moment I want to write about layerings and palimpsests in general, and someplace else.

Anyone who has been reading me for any length of time knows that I am fascinated by restorations that go awry, adaptations that aren’t quite, and in general things that are not what they seem, even or especially when they try oh so seriously to be exactly that.

It is a model for the self that we inherited from Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud alike, those figures of nineteenth century modernism whose models of the psyche bespoke the era from which they sprang—whether they intended it or not.

It is also a model of postmodernity, a now-dated term that I like to keep using because modernity was such an identifiable project that anything that came after it was indisputably “post-.” And since the postmodern was irredeemably plural and plurisignative, the twists and turns of the contemporary since the heyday of the postmodern have remained, irresistibly, postmodern, even if it is no longer cool to call them that. Contemporaraneity takes place under the sign of the aftermodern; the altermodern is somewhere else and something else, no matter what Nicolas Bourriaud may think.

As with all overlapping epochs, there are still quintessentially modern and modernist moments in contemporary history, and I hope to write about one of them in a subsequent Counterforces post—or, rather, to write about the story I wish I were capable of telling, which is a typically postmodernist take on a modernist tale of historical restoration and homage to the failed determination of a previous generation. But let that pass.

Back when my own palimpsest had considerably fewer overlays and erasures, I wrote in Art Papers about the Spanish monastery in Miami, Florida: a medieval cloister, disassembled for transport to the Hearst mansion and then hopelessly jumbled when its packing straw was burned to prevent the transmission of hoof and mouth disease. “The world’s biggest jigsaw puzzle” was eventually put together, sort of, in Miami as a tourist attraction that only partially resembled its lost original, and is currently both a not-quite-museum and an Episcopal church.

That is a different kind of palimpsest of history from the exquisite piece of medieval architecture of central Germany that turns out to be a completely reconstructed replica of a building that itself was actually a Wilhelmine replica of medieval architectural fashions. It is also not the same as the Margaret Mitchell House that was twice reconstructed in the wake of arson and today serves as a center for contemporary literature that contains the apartment in which Gone With the Wind was written, in which it is uncertain what, if anything, is original. These two are instructively variant reconstructions, belonging to the same species as “This is my grandfather’s hammer. My father broke the handle and put on a new one. I broke the head and put on a new one. This is my grandfather’s hammer.”

It is, as I wrote in Counterforces a while ago, fascinating that the palimpsest of the imagined and the real that is symbolized and summarized by and in the Margaret Mitchell House should now exist in proximity to the Millennium Gate’s faultless mix of reproduced-Roman and plate-glass-Parthenon architecture. The blend is brilliant, and as fine a tribute to the irresistible acids of postmodernity as the Ikea store in the complex to which it forms a point of entry. As I wrote in that truncated essay, when the Millennium Gate is combined with the statues of Peace and Justice whose pedestals already look like they have been restored after a conflict, it constitutes the filling in of a niche of architectural history that had been missing because of the South’s postbellum poverty. Atlanta did get, and later barely preserved, the neo-Egyptian and neo-Orientalist Masonic syncretism of the Fox Theatre; now, thanks to the Millennium Gate, Atlanta has a neo or creatively alternative version of the Greco-Roman triumphal-arch syncretism it didn’t get.

What occasioned this particular chain of reflection was a press release from Bénédictine liqueur regarding the art exhibition they are staging in honor of the liqueur’s 500th anniversary. It is a more multi-layered tale than one might expect.

Curator Ami Barak’s exhibition of work by Yves Klein, Wim Delvoye, Davide Balula, Richard Fauguet and others is apparently focused on an alchemical metaphor, with the unexpected and distinctive transformations of material in these artists’ assemblages being considered parallel to the transmutation of Bénédictine’s 27 herb-and-spice ingredients into the unique liqueur of which the integrity is reported to have been maintained over the course of five centuries.

Apart from the contents of the exhibition, which runs from May 13 through October 17, the building in which it is being held is already a metaphor of creative transmutations of history.

The Bénédictine Palais (so the press release names it, though one might think it is the Benedictine Palace or the Palais Bénédictine) in Fécamp has nothing to do with the Benedictine order in which Dom Bernardo Vincelli created the liqueur in 1510. The monks passed the recipe down through the generations in Fécamp until 1789, when the Revolution sent them fleeing from the country. How the recipe was discovered by Alexandre Le Grand in 1863 would be worth discussing, were it not for the more immediately relevant fact that what the industrialist did with it is a model of proto-postmodernity in the heart of the nineteenth century's moment of the high modern. (The company website reports that Le Grand found the formula in a “book of spells” acquired for a private library in 1791 and thereafter forgotten.)

Le Grand persuaded the Benedictine order to allow him to use their name commercially, in exchange for royalties. (The preceding words are borrowed verbatim from the press release.) He registered the brand as a trademark, designed a label, and the rest is history.

After that, things really get interesting. Circa 1888, give or take a reconstruction after a catastrophic fire, Le Grand erected the Bénédictine Palais in Fécamp. The press release describes this building as “Le Grand’s ultimate marketing tool, a modern building with a 16th century feel, completely dedicated to his beloved spirit.” It’s the sole distillery for the liqueur. It is also home to the Le Grand family’s collection of religious artifacts from the 13th century onward, plus a library of a thousand volumes dating from the 17th to the 19th centuries. Since 1998, it has also been a gallery for contemporary art, in spaces previously used as industrial bays. It has hosted 70 or so exhibitions that included such figures as Niki de Saint-Phalle and Andy Warhol.

The liqueur has its own mystique without the hybrid history and architecture of the building…I’m sure the description can be found online readily enough, including the fact that only three people know the secret formula at any one time (I omit the obvious reference). But it is the Palais that caught my attention.

As much as other buildings I have discussed, the Palais was clearly created to fill in a gap. I am curious as to what became of the Fécamp monastery after 1789*, but even a secularized medieval building, had it survived, would scarcely be appropriate for the production of a liqueur in 1864…even though the monastery presumably housed a distillery of some sort or another prior to its dissolution.

Thus we got a Palais that looks authentically 16th century but is authentically of its 19th-century industrial day. And that, plus the juxtaposition of Klein and Delvoye in the same exhibition, is enough for me.

*An innocuous press release, on which the draft of this was based, often leads into thickets of Wikipedia entries. We learn if we are persistent that the abbey church survives in the city (but the entry is vague as to details) and that Fécamp was noted for miraculous doings: “According to legend, the trunk of a fig tree carrying the Precious Blood of Christ collected by Joseph of Arimathea was washed ashore on the riverbank at Fécamp in the 1st century. Immediately, a fountain of Holy Blood gushed from the site and the relic quickly attracted many pilgrims, enhancing the reputation of the city. The name ‘Fécamp’ was artificially connected with this legend by monks: Fici-campus, the camp of the fig tree.” A church associated with the Precious Relic still exists in Fécamp, which shrine apparently was unconnected with the Benedictine monastery. The “ruined buildings of the Benedictine abbey” are mentioned in conjunction with the Bénédictine Palais, so apparently there was some effort on Le Grand’s part to build on the original site.

If so, the Palais would be a literal as well as a metaphoric palimpsest. But I have traced this particular palimpsest as far as I am going to.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Good point about the reconstruction of the M Mitchell house.
Read RHETT BUTLER's side of the story: