Robert Harbison’s exploration of the discontinuous, the broken and the forgotten in the arts reveals how we connect with places and physical objects to find a home in or among them, uneasy as that often is.
‘What is it in the air of the present that makes us suspicious of works or histories that are too smooth, too continuous?’ So begins Robert Harbison’s meditation on fragments, architectural, sculptural, textual and otherwise. Like ruins and fragments themselves which reveal the bones beneath the architectural artifice or hint at the existence of wholeness elsewhere, Harbison’s narrative is a thoughtful inquisition, peeling back the visible to question the invisible at every turn. Profound are some of the answers too. In terms of creativity, imagination and simply finding a footing in the physical world it seems that ruins have much to offer.
‘We live in the midst of ruin without realizing it’ he writes, ‘until the backing in a cupboard falls away revealing old wallpaper like a pixillated embroidery of flowers and leaves, or we notice that an unsightly lump high on a wall was the mounting for a defunct gas meter’ (pp. 94–95). Throughout this book the question of how we might inhabit the present when the ghosts of the past exist all around shadows the narrative. Implicit in the concept of ruination and fragmentation is a selective process of remembrance. Which fragments are to be kept and which discarded? Which ruins will be ‘maintained’ and which left to crumble?
The clue is in the subtitle: at its heart this is a book about stories and how, through their telling, we invest physical objects with meaning. In terms of narrative ruins are a special case for they represent a paradox, being more of the present than the past to which they seemingly direct our attention. Open to perpetual re-interpretation and accretion of new stories ruins and fragments represent unstable moments in time, both authentic and fake at once. As a result they enter us into that rare, questionable space of standing outside time, undermining its very construct as well as appearing to substantiate it and offer us comfort within it. Perhaps for these reasons they lend themselves so well to the imagination.
Imagination is in fact the unsung hero of the text, with the various examples collected here revealing us to be more inclined toward the fantastic than we might like to think. From works of literature to modern art Harbison illustrates this propensity that absence or partial presence has in inspiring creativity via numerous means, some traditional (architecture) others less expected (eighteenth-century literature; contemporary graffiti). Indeed I would urge anyone interested in heritage (and particularly those who work within related fields, for example buildings conservation) to read the closing chapter ‘Dreams of Recovery’ for a nuanced exploration of our quest for ‘authentic’ histories.
My suspicions on picking up this book were quickly confirmed: it is about far more than the title might at first suggest. In Harbison’s hands the concept of ruination and fragmentation go way beyond appreciating an ivy-clad castle or a decaying tower block. The text is peppered with evocative headings: ‘A disassembly line for the self’; ‘The spaces between words’; ‘Against restoration’; ‘The allure of the index’, all of which allow different ways in to a vast and seemingly limitless subject. Harbison manages to keep the words light despite the profundity at every corner, sifting through the layers of accumulated debris to reach the gold. This is a real skill and brings a poetic element to the text.
The processes of decay and loss are king, the ‘archetypal place of ruin’ the grave (p. 187). Ruins offer us a way to visualize and cope with time; perhaps this is why we long for them still. There is a human scale to their rough edges and unofficial histories in which the imagination can take root. And this, I feel, is the point. Here, in Harbison’s easy prose, ruins and fragments are lit from within, the reflected light revealing the contours of our obsessions and predicaments otherwise flattened by modernity’s fluorescent glare. The ruin is a story half-told, forgotten, remembered, lost; a fibrillation on the axis of memory.
Like the best poetic enquiry Ruins and Fragments is a challenge, not just to how we conserve and understand ruins but to how we think about them in the first place. It is an extraordinary book. In its will to explore the lesser-explored aspects of the subject it will not be easy reading for some. For others, myself included, it will be a text to refer back to for its insight, playful intelligence and ability to interpret the shadows that these monuments and artworks cast.