“Melancholia. A Sebald Variation”

King's College London | Inigo Rooms
57 Waterloo Rd, Strand, Somerset House East Wing
September 21, 2017–December 10, 2017

Guido van der Werve, Nummer veertien, home (Number fourteen, home), 2012, video, color, sound, 56 minutes.

From its visionary apologists we might think of melancholia as an exceptionally creative and redemptive form of despair. Yet the intense beauty of work by the likes of Walter Benjamin, Susan Sontag, Julia Kristeva, Laura Nyro, and, for this exhibition, W. G. Sebald, is barely salvaged from the crash into painful states of mourning. At the end of the day this is still a hazardous depression that you wouldn’t wish on an enemy.

From Albrecht Dürer’s Melencolia I, 1514, on through books, documentation, and artworks, this show reveals the artist’s studio as a site of catastrophe. Dürer’s remarkable engraved image of discarded tools and despondent creatures is not so far from Hermann Claasen’s or Richard Peter’s featured photographs of World War II ruins or Wilhelm Rudolph’s drawings of the aftermath of Allied bombing raids. Moreover, Anselm Kiefer’s series of postapocalyptic black-and-white photographs, such as Melancholia, ca. 1980s, showing lead airplanes in a gloomy studio, directly reference Dürer’s nightmarish slump. The exhibition pivots around Sebald’s 1999 book On the Natural History of Destruction, which recounts the erasure of German cities by British carpet-bombing toward the end of the war. There is even a recording of John Wynford Vaughan-Thomas’s live commentary of a Lancaster bomber over Berlin, and video of a 2001 discussion between Sebald and Sontag about the former’s photograph collection, among other things.

The pulsing heart of the show has to be Guido van der Werve’s Nummer veertien, home (Number fourteen, home), 2012, a fifty-six-minute video commemorating that Polish master melancholist, Frédéric Chopin, with an epic endurance triathlon beginning in Warsaw and ending at the composer’s grave in Paris. An exhibited quotation from Sebald helps account for such extreme aesthetics. Melancholy, he says, “is a form of resistance . . . In the description of the disaster lies the possibility of overcoming it.”

— Mark Harris