Migrations of the Merzbau

Peter Lewis

It’s too hot. The inner city is a sweat-box. All the books are packed. On the move again. The artist cannot afford the landlord's rent, so must inevitably migrate. Where to this time? The council houses, squats, bed sits, and all the bad housing are full with artists and refugees, conjoined as the poorest sector of the urban populace. Nowhere to go, yet everywhere to run to, making do with things at hand and ‘forging’ our art on the run. We are all refugees and artists here. Leyton is popular and cheap. Everything is moveable in the evacuated zone, on the edges of London, rich in nationalities passing through, settling for a time, moving on. Alfred Hitchcock was born and raised here before migrating to Hollywood with Sigmund Freud under his belt. What starts as one thing becomes many others, so as to forget the memory of the original ‘cause’. How did we get here? It’s real, this place, but not an easy transition to make from the other side. Like the Book of the Dead, it’s an underworld passage that tests human endurance. And all this stuff to go too. All the home-made shelving, bits and pieces, the dusty books set in varnish, the stained, dust ingrained sheets used for canvas, toe clippings kept for sentimental reasons, the newspapers kept in crates, broken TVs, throwaway cameras, paint tins, bottled residues shining like gold, half finished collages and half drunk wine, the threatening notes eloquently written to the neighbours and landlord, the cat, all the garbage bags full of bus tickets and collected supermarket receipts - money spent recklessly on nothing worthwhile. And more. The solicitor’s bills, the cans of air freshener, souvenirs, salvaged postcards from my dead father, a scribbled manuscript about Kurt Schwitters, stacks of fizzled out drawings, all unfinished. A great breathing accumulate of rubbish is coming to Life, resembling the Great Accumulate in situ: Pure Mass, heavier than earth, the converse of Plato’s Ideal. But there's an inexistent Quality hovering above it all. Intangible, like an unseen eye directing the movements of a fly circling in rising heat, is the Idea.

No, in fact I know what it is. It’s MERZ! Kurt Schwitters hardly knew what would endure of his unseen great work; an exquisite can of worms opening up the present, and spilling itself everywhere.

We, the clandestine martyrs of Merz may be the last vestige of an old avant-garde (the multitudes of an elite) to emerge as the new avant-garde of the Third Space (as defined by Fanon, as sharing the borders of and exposing the trespass of the First and Second worlds), by living absolutely within the episteme of a new Global Order. And this inverted naturalisation of the military term means we are all in some way or another discrete as an avant-garde - to be mobilised - since it is no longer tenable to romanticise a neutral or ‘equidistant’ pose when we are breathing the same ‘political’ air as the refugee. No time for philosophical musing. As Slavov Zizek writes to resituate the maxim “don't throw the baby out with the dirty water”: - “No! Keep the dirty water, throw out the baby”. Schwitters may have laughed out loud at this revelation.

The fugitive, material, and localised space engendered by Merz in various incarnations have expanded the contemporary field of a common understanding. Curating turns into ‘merzing’, invoking the early specific and exemplary models of Modernism. The Expressionist (the dark, or sinister, if you like, the ‘noir’) and its transverse, the Utopic, are amended from a Constructivist and Futurist romance with the machine. Visions such as these are destitute when immersed in the ‘dirty water’ of a global contemporary consciousness. All can ‘share’ the event, whether football or battle, at the same global time. Heraclitus’ infamous fragment, that the best view of a battle is from a distance, takes on new echoes of a permanent state of embattlement, waged in the ‘cool’ ether incubating images of torture and genocide. The ‘artistically’ edited video works produced at Abu Ghraib test the artist’s iconoclastic/reflexive critique of the populist image and therefore cannot compete with the iconophilic nature of the terrorist’s synthetic ‘shared’ use of the apparatus of representation. Video space, rather than the white cube space, becomes the ultimate weapon of techno-culture. Revolution beckons as differentiation lessens and the embers of duration are finally extinguished.

The Merzbau is an object without boundaries, aleatory, accidental, and sprawling. Its anti-architecture ‘environment’ is not a literal ‘filling up’ of space but a new concept of political space or a ‘platform’, as we must acknowledge, which is already with us. The trans-versatile appearance and disappearance of the Merzbau as it was constructed, reconstructed, destroyed and then re-made (though never completed) provides us with a very suggestive point of reference for our own contemporary discourse, the 'dispositif' (to take a term from Jean-Francois Lyotard), or 'how it is'. The ‘dispositif’ is a set-up, like a trap. Dada used the snare of an ‘unexpected’ effect like this, setting up expectation and delivering a blow directly to it. The polemic was integral. Historical evaluation of the early avant-garde may forget this infra-structural necessity. In the ashes of a specific model of an avant-garde ‘dispositif’ a new experience may begin by initiating a trajectory from Dada by inviting artists to occupy spaces to work to assemble structures in close proximity, or to dislocate structures in the streets of the city that perform as interpolations, interrupting a shared cognition of common or public space with ‘foreign’ matter.

The 'dispositif' is at once Merz: civic, embodied in diverse, collected, residual objects, not as signifying the archaeology of a life or lives, but as a real process of a difficult democratic principle, to be found and formed out of material disjuncture. This is the art of the practice of the everyday. It transforms our traditional concepts of the ‘collaged’ image, destroying it and deserting it, extending it into space and time, and redefining it as an arena of action. This occurs at the level of ‘display’ and as ‘detournement’. As a tool, Merz negates the traditional media of memory and representation - after Fascism and Stalinism it is impossible now - in an unprecedented, unlawful Americanism - to believe in the unity of any social perception from a single point perspective of knowledge, in whatever field. This revolution, notable in the practice of Merz, exchanges the transformation of formal representational systems for the transformation of the means and materials of representation. The practice anticipates the discourse to be assembled in the severity of its (self) criticism; that first there is absolute defeat in the face of the conditions in which it may arise. The 'dispositif' is not just a representation of mental processes deposited in museums as a synecdoche of the past (or the present) as ‘facts’, but much more a ‘set-up’ of affects and fictions that disable the reality traps set by a dubious authority. Schwitters would, I believe, welcome the return of such a resistant strain in art practice and discourse with a shrug, as if to say, “Don’t believe a word of it!”.

However, writes Peter Weibel, assuming that the avant-garde movements from 1950 to 1970 share the same epistemic field as the cultural theories of their time, from semiotics to psychoanalysis, we can apply these theories to art movements, to produce new interpretations of that period,1 and the present one no less so. He continues to claim that the neo-avant-garde was a political art, not at the level of representation, but at the level of the dispositif. The reappearance of Merz-structures in the current climate of change finds the Merzbau everywhere, in a horizontal rather than vertical plane, evidence of a profound boredom (the stuff of art), its haunting form arising out of the superficialities of domestic and urban commonality. As with the vernacular of 'do-it-yourself' architectures, Merz embodies the dialogical process of constructing, destroying and reconstructing things, reconstituting the works' intricate layers to the point where what remains is defiant, resilient yet fluid, or, its entry being difficult, secreted on the margins, as 'heterotopic' architecture.

Schwitters constructed three versions of the Merzbau (which he also described as his 'cathedral of erotic misery'), the first in his family home in Hanover, Germany in the 1920s, the second in Lysaker, Norway (1937 - 40), and finally in Elterwater in Britain's Lake District (1948). The substantial but incomplete remains of the third Merzbau are now preserved at the University of Newcastle (UK). Schwitters' refugee itinerary took him from Nazi Germany through Europe and into Britain. The Merzbau, although complicated and time-consuming in their production, concern the loss of stability as much as they are simultaneously a striving towards it. Schwitters' status as a wartime refugee cannot but be echoed in his artistic practice which itself, greatly dependent upon the accumulation of stray and disregarded materials, implies a constant - but constantly frustrated - tendency towards coherence and resolution.

The Merzbau is further distinguished by its approximation of totalisation, Wagner's notion of the Gesamtkunstwerk being pertinent here. As a model of a 'total artwork', an accumulation of multiple and often contrasting elements, containing within itself biographical and autobiographical fragments, the Merzbau is a paradigmatic object with respect to its influence upon the 'expanded field' (Rosalind Krauss) of current artistic practice. The multiple, differentiated inheritances of Schwitters' Merzbau, not least with regard to the related 'principles' of Dada, the itinerant, and the hidden or secretly preserved, operate through chance. Accident and random circumstance provide an index of a personal state of change in angst (the now naturalised urban condition). Merz and the Merzbau are the exemplary models for our sense of being modern, for the complexities and contradictions that result from migrations and wars, of which our current situation, as 'dispositif', is composed.

I think the Merzbau of today is a kind of limitless object; that the re-appearance of these messy, noisy assemblages are evidence, in their sense of a disengaged Real, a stubborn device, as effective as Diogenes' barrel had been, to proclaim utter disbelief in authority and its grand narratives. These 'machinic assemblages’ (a geo-political term from Deleuze & Guattari) or ‘cathedrals of erotic misery’ (Schwitters’ term) are symptomatic of a condition of heroic isolation that celebrates reification, to be privileged in the object as fetish. The early modernist romance that engaged Dada made an elegy of indifferences into a political act. It ennobled the small and the found in the collages, assemblages and sound poems of Schwitters to re-set the ‘beat’ of a new synaesthetic art, played on the hallucinatory percussion heard in everyday city life, as its base material. Schwitters’ ‘concrete’ poetry and assemblage play as a counterpoint to the prosaic conceits found in Georges Bataille's ‘evil’ residues of literature (in titles like ‘The Sex Crime Cave’, ‘Grotto of Love’ ‘Cave of Murderers’, ‘Cave of Depreciated Heroes’ or even, we conjecture, to include again Plato’s Cave which takes on another reading on the same material plane as other caves), suggesting that built-in systems of value and models of behaviour, like their environments, are always subject to change.

Merz is a human space that wills itself within the absent centre of the political, as a location or a ‘home’, nest, cave or sanctuary. In fitting Dada spirit Schwitters chose to live, during his period of internment in a prisoner-of-war camp, under a table. But the human properties that are unsullied in Merz structures are also evidence of the dislocation of culture, multiplying an ‘original’ multiple (the Merz structure, as an organic/architectural object is an ‘incomplete’ project) - the ‘object’ in excelis. Artists make a (vain) attempt to rescue the idea of enlightened thinking through rational questioning of ideas overtaken by the inhumanism of technological progression by situating Merz as a terra firma wherever it begins again. The generosity of Merz is in providing the world with an approximation of its own conditions of messy plurality, growing the way things or cities themselves grow, in chaos. We have only the reports of eye-witnesses to the 1923-43 Merzbau. The photographic documents that remain have replaced experience. The photograph, now itself in excelis, represents the unrepresentable as a kind of already no longer existent ‘Merz’. The king is dead, long live the king! This says much about the world in our own time; about our sense of humanity and the continuing story of the Merzbau as our own lurid song, an arrhythmic heartbeat through History’s dissonant body.

Could Merz present the modern as a ‘not giving up’ on the fairy tale of ‘humanity’ itself, as it begins to disappear from our comprehension? Schwitters set laughter, along with his Dada peers, as a strategy and tactic to escape the banality of evil by ridicule and confrontation - desiring machines, theatrical traps, confidence-tricks or set-ups, etcetera. Is it not the same trap that incites the grand illusion of childhood - where myth and fact are so easily subsumed together, playing ‘let’s pretend’ in the home’s grottos and caves - that is stolen by ideology in order to persecute? There is more to the wonder of discovering something ‘dirty’ in any Merz structure. Although Schwitters distanced himself from any Universalist motivation, Merz is in spirit both empty of meaning and yet filled to the brim with the messy, and noisy void of the everyday. This is the very essence of becoming Merz, a process of both its claim to axiom and the difficulty of any singular representation of its axiomatic truth of the human, and of the paradox of the Merzbau: a stronghold of the imaginary as located in the ordinary, of our ‘inexistence’ at the heart of the Real.


  1. From Peter Weibel, ‘Re-presentation of the Repressed: The Political Revolution of the Neo-Avant-Garde’ in Radical Philosophy a journal of socialist and feminist philosophy, issue 137, May/June 2006, p20

© Migrations of the Merzbau, Peter Lewis 2006