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Austerlitz in South Texas
It was smaller than I had anticipated. The photographs of Pronghorns in my old books were stately and glossy on the page, with a wonderful program of white blocks on light brown hide, attentive under stiff tall horns. I remember staring at them as a child, imagining the adventures that would lead me to meet one.
This Pronghorn (the locals call it an antelope) was bright and upright in the morning. It was staring at me the way wild animals stare—perpetually strange, removed, forever strangers in their borderless intensity. How does its mind work? I kept thinking. I knew it would not remember me, not the way I’ll remember it. Did it see me that day in a range of concussive moments to retain a sense of me? Does this constant awakening to my presence give the sheep that blameless sense of tight danger and its body that coiled fright?
As the antelope wandered further than I could follow, I looked away from the concrete configurations, slightly up the hill to the Chinati Foundation buildings. I thought of W.G Sebald’s book Austerlitz again. I had been thinking about Austerlitz since I arrived—something or other about fortifications and how they are obsolete as soon as they are completed. I remembered it was about World War II, and about the transformation of memory over time, how we can lose the ability to walk through certain doors once impacted by history and time. I was disappointed at the bookstore on Highland Avenue in Marfa, only to find The Emigrants. Austerlitz was the book I wanted. All I knew was that my experience in South Texas was only partially based on the art, and though I had finished the essay on Bob Irwin that brought me, there was more than art to understanding my experience there. I needed to think, specifically, about military camps and literature.
The Chinati Foundation is housed in a repurposed military base, Fort D.A. Russell. Founded in 1911 as an American patrol outpost, the Fort monitored the impact of Francisco Madero’s burgeoning Mexican Revolution on along the U.S. border. The camp was used for cavalry during World War I, and again in World War II— it joined 26 other military and prisoner-of-war camps in Texas alone. I grew up near one of these camps, Camp Howze, in north central Texas, between the towns of Lindsay and Gainesville.
Something about Jacques Austerlitz’s story stuck to the walls of both camps. Austerlitz is a house of mirrors, an effort in literature that conjures the sense of how sites impact memory, and vice versa. At its heart, I tend to think, is the shape of a star: a symbol of infinity, vastness, and sublimity, which is subsequently found as the pattern used in fortifications, in Jewish ghettos, and, though unstated in the book, as the badge which designates a people for discrimination and death. In Austerlitz, spaces are built and subsequently filled and shaped by the passage of time. Austerlitz’s exile from Prague and the discovery of his parents’ fate, finds place and shape and memory collapsing into the river of time, which churns and brings a force to spaces.
For Austerlitz, the experience of certain sights open up his memory, and, often through a reflection on the spaces that he is in, he finds a deeper current of himself that had remained hidden, forgotten, or repressed. Typically, what Austerlitz discovers occurred in his childhood, and I had the suspicion that military camps had something to do with my own. The camp from my childhood definitely mapped onto the camp Chinati is in now, and the resulting mood was surprising. It was like I was re-inhabiting again a space that I did not understand, getting a new chance to crack it.
It was through the dream-life of a child that I got to know Camp Howze, and those dreams were coming back. Growing up, people I knew would find bullet casings and all sorts of ephemera: one day, my uncle brought a rusted mortar shell to my grandmother’s house, a shell that would lie underneath her propane tank for years. I heard a story of a boy who, walking along a small, often dried up stream, called Fish Creek, found a rifle on the bank. Back then, these pieces of evidence went nowhere in particular and definitely not to World War II. I am not sure what I thought those crumbling structures were out there in the grass field, with two intact towers left to mark the terrain.
In my mind at that time, the camp was large and total, almost an amusement of a sort. At some point I learned a story that when it was decommissioned, the army, in lieu of transporting used equipment, buried the jeeps and the weapons and all manner of things in the ground, and I can tell you that the mere idea of this added a layer of sediment to my mind that could only be a rudimentary sense of how history works. All of these items, in my clumsy thinking, must remain like the day they were buried, as if the mere act of digging them up would send a legion of transports and old objects into the open and empty area of that part of the world.
I found one location in Camp Howze’s remains particularly menacing, a set of concrete steps left without context in the grass. I heard about these steps in an offhand way, in a brief brochure on the history of the World War II military facility. The steps were the only element left of a Waldensian community in Texas. (You may remember the Waldensians from Milton’s On the Late Massacre at Piedmont, his intense and terrible description of the Piedmont Easter of 1655, a slaughter of 1,700 people that ranks among the most gruesome in history.) I can only assume that the Waldensians came to that part of Texas for the same reason that most did, the verdant farmland near the Red River. They would only live there until the military bought their land for the camp. There is a plaque where the community once stood: Wolf Ridge 1886 to 1942, in memory of Milton Rivoire.
If the key shape of Austerlitz is the star, for D.A. Russell, and Howze it is conjoined rectangles, or to put it another way, corridors longer than they are wide. The functionary barracks are the simple architecture of haste, in Marfa the corridors often form the shape of a “C.” The Texas camps are not forts of stone but of mortar, they demonstrate a country rising to meet a sudden challenge, rather than the nations of Austerlitz that were attacked over and over, replacing fortifications over centuries to meet the demands of stronger weapons. D.A. Russell’s corridor shaped buildings form a constellation that curves like a crescent from north to south. Many other buildings used to occupy the mass, but they have been lost to time. D.A. Russell and Howze were both meant to train, not defend. D.A. Russell was dwarfed by the sky and the prairie, it occupied no promontory and was not designed to intimidate. No longer in service, the silence of its ruined corridors seem to mimic the apathy of nature to all these proceedings, to the wars and borders of humans.
However, for me the Chinati buildings of D.A. Russell had an unusual animation, far beyond the understatement of their design. They were not an art installation, but instead they were a reconstituted ruin, as though in their present (in the early part of the last century) again and seemingly open again to a future.
Everything about Marfa was big, even cosmic, on the grassland—the spiraling galaxy of the Richard Long, the light capture of the Robert Irwin, the mysterious way Donald Judd’s boxes hovered and disappeared at sunset—all this in a land built from volcanic aftermath, flat and isolated in between sparse mountain ranges.
Yet, with recurring thoughts of Austerlitz, I felt haunted and melancholic, as if in another dimension somewhere the infantry was still marching both into the past and into the future. Two scales—immense and intimate—were in direct relation here. After all, in the face of cosmic time, how much distance is there really between one moment of now and a pervious moment of Fort D.A. Russell? There did not seem to be any distance at all, just a quivering veil between me and the past.
I re-read Austerlitz when I got home to LA and it was just as awe inspiring and sublime as I had remembered. One moment in the book in particular held my attention, a meditation on time about a hundred pages in where the book takes off from Isaac Newton likening time to the flowing of a river. Austerlitz expands:
“Could we not claim, said Austerlitz, that time itself has been non-concurrent over the centuries and the millennia? [. . .] And is not human life in many parts of the earth governed to this day less by time than by the weather, and thus by an unquantifiable which disregards linear regularity, does not progress constantly forward but moves in eddies, is marked by episodes of congestion and irruption, recurs in ever-changing form, and evolves in no one knows what direction?”
This is the central premise of Austerlitz, these “episodes of congestion and irruption.” Buildings, animals, books, anything that have been touched by history have potential to churn into recurrence. Austerlitz the character, for instance, detects an inherent wish for destruction in buildings which he quickly links to a destructive wish in humanity. There are ruins, and buildings that will be ruins, and thus all human constructions contain this common character. Austerlitz eventually finds his childhood home just by knowing that he had been there before, following the marks that buildings and environments had left on his memory and mood. Only when he was there, he was not to know that Prague was on the verge of collapse, nor that his mother would be sent away to a camp shortly after he left.
I was caught in an eddy in Marfa, in a swirl of my own past and the historic details of the camp and geography—Chinati as a site of irruption. It was, as it happened, an unusual byproduct of Judd’s effort, a little wormhole created by a series of unlikely circumstances. All around me was the magic of nature, the clean lines and logic of Judd, Flavin, Irwin, yet all of this became a ground for memory, a stage for ghosts. D.A. Russell was near a border and it was important that is was near a border. Its existence as a place that served in three wars mattered. There was a tournament of land and war here in Marfa, or at least, in this part of Texas. Somehow, this tournament seemed to go back incredibly far.
Illya Kabakov’s School No.6 (1993) occupies one of the buildings, and seems to know all these things. Like Sebald, Kabakov is working on truth through narrative, except he is using the power of objects and how objects wear their history and memories. Kabakov builds the memory of a Russian school under communism through a number of cases recording the triumphs of the kids inside the classroom. It is amazingly dusty, and all manner of photographs and desks are strewn about, as if this school was left in a hurry with no time to collect any items to take to the place where the inhabitants were going.
I went at dusk, to sit on the floor and watch the sad downturn of the light over the school artifacts. It was as though the children had just vanished, as though they were full and alive but the moment before. The green walls were crumbling but they felt fresh. There was little girl in one of the cases with a bobbed haircut, cute in her bangs making a happy gesture with her right arm. There was also a picture of Lenin. There was a violin in one of the cases and I wanted it to play very badly, wanted to hear a little of the music that they played then, as history moved them in its powerful churn. Where had they gone? Where had the music disappeared to? I sat on the floor, numb and sad and tired from the day. I am not sure why I hadn’t noticed it in my trips to the school over the past several days, but there was a couple of drops of green paint on the floor.
What should I do with this green paint? I wonder how all of this adds up: Austerlitz, this military base, this mapping of me as a child onto me as an adult, the picture book and the Proghorn, an echoing chain reaching back into time. It was all quite weird there in Marfa, with my task of writing about art yet the ramble of idle thoughts and disconnected resonances.
I couldn’t help but think that all the quiet out there on the grass was somehow flowing and bubbling. Corridors echoed corridors everywhere, joining a chain of military structures and, thus, the spaces of belief and battle. What does one do? Without expecting, you can find yourself transported from one corridor to another. On one side, there is that open grassland of Texas, blameless like the Pronghorn, and on the other side are those detached steps.
Ed Schad is a writer and curator in Los Angeles. His writing can be found in Art Review, Frieze, Flash Art, Modern Painters, and Glasstire, as well as on his blog, www.icallitoranges.com.