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Firing Lines: parallels between Paul Virilio's bunker archaeology and my artistic practice
Based on a talk originally commissioned by Sluice in May 2016
©Copyright Patrick Morrissey and Clive Hancock All rights reserved.
Virilio talks about the ‘modern monolith’, the odd atemporality of the structures:
somehow they feel significantly older than they actually are. Although Virilio states
that “the monolith does not aim to survive down through the centuries; the thickness
of its walls translates only the probable power of impact in the instant of assault”,
the bunkers in northern France are still intact, still threatening, still in a state
The role of scale has always been important in my work, creating a dialogue between
work and spectator; over-
Another element that features in my work is presence. A successful actor, as I learnt
So while both Virilio and I approach the bunkers from different socio-
Piers Veness is a painter, muralist and sculptor and co-
Bunker, Normandy. Photo by Piers Veness
April 2006 Piers Veness
Charred Wood 2009 Piers Veness
“One of the essential characteristics of the bunker is that it is one of the rare modern monolithic architectures”. Paul Virilio, 1974.
Paul Virilio grew up in northern France during the Nazi occupation. After World War II, he began to explore the beachheads and the remains of the Atlantic Wall, the line of bunkers, fortresses and defensive systems that straddled the coasts of France, Belgium and Holland and up to Norway. In the 1960s he began to document those formidable structures, resulting in his book, Bunker Archeology, which was published in 1974. It is half text, half photographic record, and seemed to neatly crystallize my fascination with the bunkers at the same time as adding layers to my understanding of them.
I grew up in Portsmouth, a city forged by its naval history both in terms of its identity and its architecture: the seafront bristles with forts and rusted antique cannons pointing out into the sea; the mouth of the port is guarded by a series of squat, cylindrical fortresses built in the Channel during the Napoleonic War. For me, all these elements are a clear reflection of ourselves and our capacity for violence. When I was a boy, my father took my brothers and me down to the harbour to wave off the Ark Royal, laden with warplanes and smart sailors on their way to war in the Falklands, on their way to what Virilio calls ‘the duel’.
I had visited the Normandy beaches and seen the bunkers; the aggression in their
lines was a familiar language to me, with the architecture of war in my blood. So
when a friend recommended I read Bunker Archeology, the awkward dissonance of the
title grabbed my attention: it seemed to link these very real and very recent structures
to the civilisations and mythology of antiquity. Above all, the images really struck
me: eerie photos of the hunched, hard-
I recently went back to the Normandy beaches -
I've often thought about these bunkers and how to relate them to my work, but they’ve always seemed too perfect and too powerful to be able to directly work with – they could never be anything but themselves, and any work that includes them would be dominated by them. They are a perfect embodiment of what they were built for and what they stand for: the meting out of destruction. However, I have been influenced by their fusion of form and meaning, and by the way tin which one reveals the other: the purpose of the bunkers is clear in their sharp lines, and in turn their function necessitates such rigid lines. Perhaps it is wrong to call the bunkers beautiful, since they were designed for industrial violence, but nonetheless, there is an attractiveness in their monumental, hard lines; similarly, in my work, the meanings are inherent in the forms I use.