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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

Piers Veness

©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 of near-perfect preservation after more than 70 years, which shows how well-built they were. To me they join the ranks of those timeless wonders such as Stonehenge or the Pyramid of the Sun in Mexico. I have always been interested in the passing of time and the connection between modern and early people and how we are still essentially the same. The bunkers are from the modern period, but their function is deeply primal.

The role of scale has always been important in my work, creating a dialogue between work and spectator; over-large, monumental forms make us reflect on our own physical scale and our own timescale: the speed at which our time passes compared to that of a centuries-old monolith. I studied an MA in Theatre Design at the Slade, after which I moved into painting; yet I never lost what I learnt about three-dimensional space and its influence on the viewer - in fact it permeates everything I do. Space and environment can create as potent an impression upon us as two-dimensional work can: the spectator becomes an actor, a player who completes the scene. It is for this reason that I make murals, because they are both two- and three- dimensional: while formally they are flat, their effect on the space and the viewer leads to a dialogue between each. Even my paintings and screen-prints have a sense of this interplay between dimensions.

Another element that features in my work is presence. A successful actor, as I learnt first-hand, commands the stage, filling it and charging it with their energy. This is something that I strive for in my work, a sense that the piece somehow alters the space in which it is placed rather than simply being a part of that space. The bunkers, with their brooding violence, similarly dominate the coastlines, their latent power vibrating out across the beaches. To me they capture this sense of presence as effectively as the Easter Island statues.

So while both Virilio and I approach the bunkers from different socio-cultural perspectives, we share a mutual fascination with their significance and the way in which they act as reflections on human nature.

Piers Veness is a painter, muralist and sculptor and co-director of Square Art Projects

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 callsthe 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-edged blockhouses lurking along the coastline like lunar landscapes.

I recently went back to the Normandy beaches - the only shots fired now are the tourists taking photos of the bunkers like big-game hunters taking trophy photos. You can go inside the bunkers, stoop into their heavy, dark solidity; inside everything is drawn towards the gaping mouth where the guns were placed, overlooking the sea and the other’. The letterbox firing slit is an immensely strong visual motif, automatically creating anus’ and athem. Seemingly fused with the landscape they inhabit, the bunkers show their purpose in their lines, taking Le Corbusier's tenet of form follows function to the ugly, violent end of modernism. Efficient violence is still visible in these hulking forms.

I've often thought about these bunkers and how to relate them to my work, but theyve 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.