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heritage of silence was very strong at the Kartause Ittingen historical
museum. It is easy to imagine the life of the monks there, the isolation,
and the intensity of the cold stone floors and sparse rooms. I decided
to work with the heaviness of silence, using as a narrative thread
the idea of a man in an apartment alone after a lover has left.
Janet There’s a small door to our right here. Go through it and
close the door behind you. It’s always so nice and quiet in this
room. Look into the mirror. You can see the outdoors, the other world.
Now there’s two windows, two kitchens, two coffee makers and
two of you. Isn’t it funny that the only way to see yourself
is by looking into another world.
Man / George When you’re
suddenly alone in a house the silence suffocates you like a thick blanket.
Janet Just leave
me alone he said. So here I am in Switzerland and he’s
in Berlin. That should be far enough away.
George The sound of my hand
on the blanket, the sound of water running in the sink, the sound of
my throat swallowing.
sound of Latin being read from next room
Janet Let’s go through the next door. whispering Close
the door behind us. Stop. Listen. still
whispering Let’s go on, out to
the hallway. Turn right.
George The sound of a single fork falling onto the table.
Janet It must have been cold to live here in the winter. Imagine bare
feet on these cold stones.
George The sound of my memories inside my
Janet I can see my shadow
against the wall, walking with me. There’s a doorway to the right, into the monk’s cell. Let’s
go in there. sound of footsteps walking down stairs and past you
George The sound of my fingers touching my face.
a lot going on around me in the museum shop. The telephone is ringing.
Visitors are leafing through books and chatting to each other. The
sales staff are giving out information and discussing the articles
for sale. Suddenly she speaks to me: my mysterious guide. “Do you
ever feel invisible ? Like you’ve fallen through a hole in time
and no one can see you anymore ?” She seems to be standing right
behind me, invisible to everyone else. “I’m going into the
like you to walk with me.” With these words of invitation she leads
me out into the cool corridor.
We walk together. She keeps very close
to me. “I’m glad you’re walking with me. This place
is full of ghosts.” She strides on purposefully, going down a few
steps into the Fehr Room, named after the family that lived for centuries
in these prestigious premises following the dissolution of the monastery.
She shows me a photograph hanging on the wall. There they are, the
Fehrs, eating a meal in the cloister garth – an idyllic scene from
a time long past.
We go through a door. We are standing inside a
space that has been partitioned off. Folded tables clutter up the small
space; a coffee maker stands in front of a large mirror. It is a narrow
space, a bit shabby. So even a museum has its in-between spaces, small
hidden corners that aren’t meant for public viewing. Here, the impression
of the past so carefully produced in the museum rooms reveals itself
to be an illusion, a backdrop.
A man talks about being alone, about
what it’s like when silence becomes oppressive, when the smallest
noise takes on meaning. But we go on into the refectory, the monks’ lavishly
furnished dining room. On the wall hang pictures of important Carthusian
monks such as St. Bruno of Cologne, who founded the order, or St. Hugo
of Grenoble, his patron and sponsor. On the paneling there are pictures
of hermits; they too are important role models for the monks sitting
around the dining tables. They do not talk while they eat. Carthusian
monks take a strict vow of silence when they enter the monastery. Only
once a week do they allow themselves to speak. One of the monks reads
a passage from a book, in Latin. I don’t understand a word, and
my guide, whispering, urges me to leave the room, to go out into the
cloister. What is the man saying ? “The sound of my memories inside
my head.” Who
is this mysterious person talking about loneliness, silence, memory,
and longing ? Is he a monk, or my guide’s lover ? Perhaps even my
alter ego ?
In the cloister it smells slightly musty. On the ground,
red bricks have taken the place of sandstone slabs. The homemade bricks
were probably cheaper than the thick paving stones from the quarry,
here in this wide cloister that connects the separate living quarters
of fifteen monks. Now we meet the monks again. They go past us, singing.
The sun is shining. The light is pleasant, soft. “I can see my shadow
against the wall, walking with me,” my guide says. She can see her
shadow ? And where’s mine ? Has she stolen my shadow, like the devil
did to Peter Schlemihl ? I see only one shadow. We enter a monk’s
cell. I look out of the window; I hear an airplane, but there’s
nothing to be seen. Nor does the monk I hear coming down the stairs
from the attic actually walk through the door. “What is real ? What
? Where am I ?” I wonder, and pull the headphones off. It’s
all still there: the monk’s cell with its table, bed, and crucifix;
seemingly untouched, as if the monk left only yesterday. I am back
solidly in the museum that was opened to the public some twenty years
So I put the headset back on and follow my guide back out of
the monk’s cell and over to a bench in the cloister garth. She draws
my attention to the Fehr family who are sitting beneath an apple tree
eating a meal. In my mind’s eye, I see the photograph we were looking
at a few minutes ago. So that’s what is was like back then. Then
suddenly there’s the sound of banging and crackling, fire and sirens,
planes and horses. Violence shatters the idyll. Is this present-day
war or the Ittinger Sturm of 1524 ? On the Ittingen Walk time shifts
as much as space.
And on through the garden to the hidden back entrance
to the museum cellar. We creep through a narrow, dark storage area
into one of the museum exhibition rooms. “I read that the family
used to grow mushrooms down here. Imagine how it must have smelt in
the dark. Feet walking through earth.” How different from the air-conditioned,
brightly lit museum space and its exhibits we are presented with today!
What a difference between imagination and reality, past and present.
Then we go upstairs, along passageways, around corners. I lose my bearings
in the maze of rooms and have to rely completely on my guide. She leads
me to a small, hidden partitioned area that is almost completely taken
up by a filing cabinet with lots of empty drawers. I pull out one or
two of them while listening to my guide. “All these empty drawers.
like perfect little worlds. Little boxes of forgotten air. I just remembered
a dream from last night. I was looking down a deep water well into
darkness. A man was kissing me softly on the lips, then I woke up.
Close the drawer. Now that dream is in there.” An archive of dreams
inside the monastery.
view from the gallery into the monastery church with its cheerful stuccos
and frescoes telling the story of St Bruno, then on through a labyrinth
of rooms, down a small, steep staircase, along passageways and corridors,
until finally we find ourselves inside the chapel choir. The monks
walk past us, singing. They are leaving us. “I imagine them going
to their rooms, the sound of their own bodies the only thing to keep
them company. We have to go now too. Goodbye.”
I sit alone
in the church. My guide has disappeared as mysteriously as she appeared.
She leaves me behind in a reality that has been enriched by this exceptional
experience. For a brief time it was as if I was living in a film, or
rather in a dream, and even after I have handed back the CD player
at the desk, the world around me retains at least a trace of dreaminess
and unreality following my walk through the monastery. I am left with
an idea of the fragility and illusoriness of what we usually call reality,
and an understanding of the power of the imagination.
Audio walk, 30 minutes
Curated by Markus Landert. Kunstmuseum des Kantons
Thurgau, Warth, Switzerland