Mountain, building and book
by Montserrat Albores Gleason
“Now, he could see the Castle above him clearly defined in the glittering air, its outline made still more definite by the moulding of snow covering it in a thin layer. There seemed to be much less snow up there on the hill than down in the village, where K. found progress as laborious as on the main road the previous day. Here the heavy snowdrifts reached right up to the cottage windows and began again on the low roofs, but up on the hill everything soared light and free into the air, or at least so it appeared from down below.”
The snow on the castle’s outline seems to replicate it and generate the mountain. The operation inversely reveals Mircea Eliade’s idea about the sacred mountain as center of the world and the notion that “any temple or palace – and, by extension any sacred city or royal residence – is a «sacred mountain», by virtue of which it becomes the center”.1 In the quote from The Castle, Franz Kafka describes the distant view K. has of the building, of the castle. In this narration it would seem that it is architecture that allows the mountain to appear as if under that which has been constructed silently rested its archetype; as if the narration were that which unveils both: edifice and mountain.
In 2007 Jorge Méndez Blake built a brick wall by superposing bricks on one another, without mortar, 22 meters long, dividing the José Cornejo Franco Library in Guadalajara, Mexico, into two approximately equal sections. The wall spans almost the entire width of the library, stopping only 80 cm before reaching either side of the building. Acting as an imposition, this wall, although it does not completely impede circulation from one side of the library to the other, generates two areas that are visually cancelled from each other. Trapped in the middle of the wall is, as a part of its foundation, a book titled The Castle by Franz Kafka, the text which lends its name to the piece.
“The road that leads to the center is a «difficult road»...”2 says Mircea Eliade, and it is not coincidental that the book held by the brick wall constantly refers to the impossibility of K. ever reaching the town’s castle. Since the book supports the brick structure, it becomes invalidated as a legible object and K.’s distance to ‘the center’, that is, the castle, is almost as vast as that which separates the visitor from the book object.
It is Kafka’s fiction which exiles K. from the castle and it is in this fiction where the castle becomes a ‘sacred mountain’, that is, the center, and thus the difficult road. Now this narration is the central foundation of the precarious brick construction. The book has become a center and, inversely to the way the edifice in its narration (the castle) unveils its archetype (the mountain), the brick wall unveils the text. One could say that architecture, as an inverse archetype, unveils or unfolds the contents of the text. But if we are also to see the brick wall as an imago of The Castle, if at the same time that it unveils, it is unveiled by narrative, then architecture is also a center, the center on top of the center and a limit that keeps “everything else out”. That is, when architecture is placed at the center, built on the central brick, it cancels the possibility of physically reading the book but re-activates its narration. It is then a double game where architecture is interrupted by narrative and narrative is activated by the constructed; that is how they exile one another of their ‘typical’ spaces. On the one hand the text lives not only in the white space of the sheet, but now, thanks to the physical cancellation of the book, it operates from the architectural space. On the other hand, as the obverse of this problem, the construction is activated due to the narrative (the construction is now imago of the book and operates in the same way as the edifice described in Kafka’s text), it remains as a clear and unreachable limit; it holds the center in its foundation and becomes, simultaneously, castle, center and sacred mountain.
In 2009 Méndez Blake completed Das Kapital in Meessen de Clercq in Brussels. This exhibition is another clear example of the text’s cancellation by means of the wall on top of the book and the contents of the text unfolding through this cancellation. As the piece’s title suggests, the book imprisoned this time is Capital by Karl Marx and now it is not located under the central part of the wall, but in the intersection of two walls, as if the weight of history opened two possible paths and the contents of Capital had been truncated by it. Similarly, the gallery’s principal access has been blocked by the brick construction making it necessary for visitors to enter the exhibition through the office area, that is, redirecting traffic to normally restricted areas such as work spaces. It would seem that Méndez Blake wants to underline the difference between the type of work carried out in the exhibition space and that performed in the offices. Méndez Blake has said, “It is not the same to read Sherlock Holmes in Venice Beach than in London, or Kafka in Prague than in Buenos Aires”. 3 If we assume that through the physical cancellation of the book the possibility for a different reading is detonated (operating in the physical space), then it would be pertinent to say that it is not the same thing to make this reading of Capital in a public library than in an art gallery. Once again the fact is stressed that the text is not only altered depending on the space where it is read, the space is also altered by which is read in it, so that now not only does the presentation space for the artistic piece appear in the visitor’s path; internal spaces for the gallery’s operation appear as well.
As part of this exhibition there are also 100 pages of the first volume of Capital, framed in numerical order forming a grid on the wall. All pages have been printed on the same type of paper, except for page 62, which was printed on a kind of paper known in Mexico as papel revolución.4 On this page the phrase “the course of true love never did run smooth” has been underlined in red. The phrase belonged originally to William Shakespeare; it confirms Méndez Blake’s interest for the transference of fiction from one space to another. In this case it is not only relevant that fiction is transferred from the space in the white page to architectural space, but from one narration to another. On the one hand the book is hidden under the edifice; on the other, part of its contents are displayed in order to reiterate that it hosts another narrative space. It is then perhaps pertinent to say that it’s not the same to read this phrase in A Midsummer Night’s Dream than in Capital, and evidently it’s not the same to read it within the system of continuous works generated by Méndez Blake.
Fiction is the Beginning of Exile is the name given by Méndez Blake in 2006 to his exhibition at OMR Gallery in Mexico City. This title might seem like a possible code in order to decipher that which was described above or, in general, to describe the systems of operation used by Méndez Blake for the construction of his works. This exhibition starts out from the short story The Adventure of the Final Problem by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, where Sherlock Holmes falls into the waterfall at Reichenbach, Switzerland, and dies. Fictions expels Holmes from life, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle from continuing to write the classic. Three years after the character’s brutal death, the writer brings him back to life and continues to narrate his stories. Méndez Blake starts off where Holmes dies and resuscitates and where Doyle ends and restarts his narration.
The exhibition matches documents from the artist’s trip to Switzerland with fragments of the narration of this final episode. On the gallery walls are painted high-contrast murals which reproduce, fictitiously, the landscape of the Himalaya. This is a reference to the alleged two year trip to Tibet that Holmes made during his absence. Here the mountain appears as an ideal. The image has been constructed from fragments of various mountains from around the world and reproduces the way that memory reconstructs that which it remembers, drawing a parallel with the way memory reconstructs what has been read, reiterating the enormous distance between the real voyage and its memory; between the fictional trip and its memory. Books about the disciplines mastered by Holmes are ‘collected’ in a small library. The mountain range mimics the chain of books. Both the library and the mountain range include the literary voyage as well as the real one; they also include their oblivion or their reconstruction through memory. To re-read is to have forgotten and to match the reading with the memory of what was read.
Another example of the importance of voyage and of this system of textual chains constructed by Méndez Blake is activated with the actions he brings forth in the exhibition El tesoro de Isla Negra (2005) in the Sala de Arte Público Siqueiros in Mexico City. For this show Méndez Blake opposes Treasure Island by Louis Stevenson with Canto General by Pablo Neruda. In the last chapter of Neruda’s epic poem the artist finds the following quote: “Compañeros, enterradme en la Isla Negra / frente al mar que conozco”.5 Therefore, Méndez Blake traveled to Isla Negra in Chile and buried a volume of Canto General and in a parallel action donated a copy of Treasure Island to the Siqueiros library on the third floor of the museum. It is fiction that detonates this artist’s work; the action of burying the book stems from the fictional contents of pirate stories and Neruda’s poetic desire to be buried in Isla Negra. It is Holmes’ death and reappearance, his three year absence, which allows the artist’s system of consecutive chains to operate. Mendez Blake’s real voyage to Isla Negra is at once the voyage of literature and of fiction. His journey is a type of pilgrimage that stems from another’s narration, from reading as an artistic act in order to get to the real voyage and to the activation of fiction from within the exhibition space. Just as K. suffers the difficult voyage and Marx’s text lies at a crossroads, Mendez Blake travels to Switzerland in order to make both trips, the real one and that of literature.
If the path that leads to the center is a “difficult road” then the road that leads to the conversion of chaos to center must also be hard. In 1925 the English explorer Percy Harrison Fawcett disappeared in the Mato Grosso region in Brazil after searching for the lost city he named city “Z”. Fawcett was invited by the president of the Royal Geographical Society at the beginning of 1906 in order to undertake a voyage that would define the border between Brazil and Bolivia. In June of the same year he arrived at La Paz and it is due to this expedition that the explorer developed a fascination for this region. By 1925 Fawcett was convinced of the existence of city “Z” and, together with his eldest son and a friend of the latter’s, started on the journey that would lead to his eternal stay in Brazil.
In 2007 Méndez Blake presents La biblioteca Percy Fawcett de la exploración in the Casa Andrade Muricy in Curitiba, Brazil. In the middle of the exhibition hall rose a brick wall in the shape of a Z, and again, the bricks are laid one on top of another. The image of a virgin jungle printed on vinyl covers the gallery wall opposing nature and construction. Previously it was the mountain that unfolded architecture and reconstructed the memory of the voyage; now it is the jungle. For this occasion, the virgin land holds that which Fawcett believed to be constructed and, at the same time, holds his journey and its disastrous end. In the background the phrase You promised me poems can be heard repeatedly, a sound taken from a song by the English musician Tricky. It would seem that the phrase reiterates the promises that Fawcett imagined of the Amazon.
A scale model of a library, resting on a map of Brazil, comes out of another wall in the gallery. The library is formed by two courtyards joined by a stairway that resembles pre-Columbian pyramids. Books from colonizing countries are found in the lower courtyard, and books from colonized countries are in the upper courtyard. The books in the lower courtyard are aligned toward the exterior forming the walls of an internal courtyard populated by jungle. Since the collection of books is exposed to the elements, these volumes are destined to be ruins, to be governed by nature. In the upper courtyard, although the books are protected by a roof, some of the bookshelves run on to the outside, making it impossible to access the books they hold.
In this case fiction has escaped from literature in order to take root in the jungle (it is this which now creates its own stories), which has devoured city Z as well as Fawcett. In it resides the story of both the colonizer and the colonized and in Méndez Blake’s narration these stories end up also becoming jungle. Once again, the chain of vegetation that makes up the jungle finds its parallel in the chain of narrations that make up the library; the real and the fictional voyage meet once again and contain one another. Fawcett’s fiction, like his last journey, exists in the unexplored areas of Brazil, that is, in the possibility that nature will capture any remains of civilization and will detonate its civilizing fantasy. Méndez Blake’s exercise does the opposite to what the jungle does; it uncovers the fabrication in Fawcett’s story; it erects city Z, and it erects the library as evidence of the virgin zone’s colonization. To achieve this, he does the seemingly impossible, he traverses the jungle.
Fiction is in Méndez Blake the beginning of exile and the beginning of everything else. It is through it that a system becomes articulated within his work that cannot but contain the textual discourse of another. Mountain, edifice and text unveil each other constructing an operation where memory plays a fundamental role and which replicates the literary, and the real, voyage. If fiction in Méndez Blake´s practice occupies the center then once again it is pertinent to quote Eliade: “The road leading to the center is a «difficult road» (durohana), and this is verified in all levels of the real: difficult circumlocutions of a temple (such as Barabudur); pilgrimage to holy sites (Mecca, Hardwuar, Jerusalem, etc.); dangerous pilgrimages in the heroic expeditions of the Golden Fleece, the Gold Apples, the Bush of Life, etc.; getting lost in the labyrinth; the hardship endured by he who searches for the path to the self, to the «center» of the self, etc.”6
1. Translation from Spanish. Eliade, M. El mito del eterno retorno. Madrid: Alianza/Emecé, 1972, p. 21.
2. Translation from Spanish. Ibid, p 25.
3. Translation from Spanish. Ibarra, G. “(Sin título) Remasterizando la literatura. Entrevista a Jorge Méndez Blake”. SPOT magazine, year II, no. 7 (2005): 35.
4. Literally “revolution paper”.
5. “Mates, bury me in Isla Negra / by the sea that I know”.
6. Translation from Spanish. Eliade, M. El mito del eterno retorno. Madrid: Alianza/Emecé, 1972, p. 25.
Jorge Méndez Blake
Mountain, building and book