Rilke The discovery of the of the sea is a precious experience that bears thought. Seeing the oceanic horizon is indeed anything but a secondary experience; it is in fact an event in consciousness of underestimated consequences. I have forgotten none of the sequences of this finding in the course of a summer when recovering peace and access to the beach were one and the same event. With the barriers removed, you were henceforth free to explore the liquid continent; the occupants had returned to their native hinterland, leaving behind, along with the work site, their tools and arms. The clearest feeling was still one of absence; the immense beach of La Baule was deserted, there were less than a dozen of us on the loop of blond sand, not a vehicle was to be seen on the streets; this had been a frontier that an army had just abandoned, and the meaning of this oceanic immensity was intertwined with this aspect of the deserted battlefield. But let us get back to the sequences of my vision.
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Early photographers were limited by the nature of their medium to static subject matter even in depicting subjects like war which we normally think of as very dynamic. The advent of new technologies gave rise to new possibilities of representation, showing war in all its unfurling speed, however this new dynamism sometimes created new problems of its own. Bunker Archaeology is part photo book, part architectural philosophy, part travelogue, and part work of history. Growing up in northern France during the Second World War the coast was always off limits to Virilio.
At the time the occupying German army were constructing a vast network of fortifications along the coast, intended to prevent an expected allied invasion.
This system of bunkers, gun emplacements and obstacles known as the Atlantic Wall was intended to turn occupied Europe into a veritable fortress ringed by steel and concrete. That invasion came as predicted, and these formidable defenses exacted a heavy toll but were ultimately overwhelmed. The war ended, the bunkers were for the most part forgotten. A decade or more later while on holiday in Brittany, Virilio found himself drawn to these squat concrete masses that surrounded him, and which his countrymen seemed for the most part to refuse to even acknowledge.
Many sought to forget the four years of German occupation, but these indelible concrete markers on the landscape refused to disappear. Rather than look away, Virilio looked closer, beginning an exhaustive investigation into the Atlantic Wall that would occupy most of the next twenty years. Approaching his topic through photographs, architectural plans, coastal maps and essays, the resulting book is a strange and brilliant meditation on the relationship between space, memory and experience.
In The Monolith he muses on the architectural ambiguity of the bunkers, comparable perhaps only to funeral monuments or border markers, and what the unique characteristics of these constructions said about the nature of modern war. The second half of the book contains black and white photographs of the bunkers themselves.
Approached for the most part with a detached, comparative approach resonant of with the Dusseldorf school or the New Topographics, for anyone who knows Virilio primarily as a theorist these pictures will come as something of a revelation. Through his camera the fortifications are revealed as bizarre neoliths and totems, a family of related structures, subtly different in their details, evolving in response to circumstance and necessity.
A number already are beginning to be absorbed back into the dunes, another totters atop an eroded bank, preparing to tip and fall. All have the aura of something dark and unspeakable, primordial nightmares in concrete. As I noted at the start of this review, this book in many ways pre-empts several contemporary sub-genres of photography, including perhaps aftermath photography, an approach that often consists of photographers returning to the sites of terrible events in an attempt to crystalise something of that past in photographic form.
But unlike this genre, which is often about hinting at histories that remain hidden, Bunker Archaeology tackles the question of histories that remain plainly visible, but are still too difficult or painful to understand or even to actually see. Bunker Archaeology is a remarkable book, a blurring of a rigorous examination of the form and purpose of deeply pragmatic architecture, with a profound and subjective discussion of the past.
Paul Virilio Bunker Archaeology
Review – Bunker Archaeology by Paul Virilio
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