Declan Clarke

In a series of short films made over the past few years, Declan Clarke has cast a humorous and critical eye on the ways in which the history of ideas can be discerned in present-day social structures and interpersonal relationships. These works have hitherto frequently concerned themselves with major characters from British history, such as Wellington, Nelson, and Byron. The London-based artist’s Dublin roots invariably reveal themselves in juxtaposition to the Britishness of his subject matter, lending mordancy to his combinations of word and image. For his most recent work, Mine Are of Trouble, 2006, Clarke turns his attention to Rosa Luxemburg. Through still images, short video clips, voice-over, and intertitles, the film presents an account not only of the revolutionary’s life, ideas, and eventual murder, but also of how this narrative has interwoven itself with Clarke’s own life. The personal and the political cross-connect until it becomes impossible to disentangle them.

The first section, voiced by the artist, seems at first to be a straightforward lecture on Luxemburg. Archival photographs illustrate the journey from a childhood in Poland to political activism in Berlin, culminating in the Spartacist uprising of 1919. Image quickly follows image in the manner of an audiovisual presentation by a museum education department. As the story progresses to the last phase of Luxemburg’s life, however, still images give way more and more to snatches of video. Shot, home-movie style, with a hand-held camera, the film presents the Eden Hotel and the Tiergarten, for example, not as they were at the time of Luxemburg’s arrest, interrogation, and assassination, but as they might be experienced by Clarke or any of us today.

The pivotal location of the film, closing the first section and opening the second, is the U-Bahn station at Rosa-Luxemburg-Platz in Berlin. Much as Susan Hiller in her J-Street Project, 2002–2005, traced dark histories through the names carried on road signs, Clarke reads the station name as a node in a sociocultural as well as a geographical network. It was here, we learn from the intertitles of a silent sequence, that Clarke, while working as a lavatory cleaner in the former GDR headquarters building commandeered by the Finance Ministry of the newly reunited Germany, first encountered the figure whose ideas he would come to admire so much. His ardor grew so great that he eventually conceived the notion, he explains, of honoring Luxemburg by naming some potential future daughter of his after her. In a gently self-mocking tone he charts the failure of his relationships so far to produce such an offspring, though he does, he tells us, have a friend with a daughter named Rosa. As the film closes, Clarke’s unfulfilled dreams, fed as they are by a mixture of enthusiasm and desire as well as a voracious intellectual curiosity, overlay Luxemburg’s own thwarted wishes for something like a quiet family life. We are not sure, though, that Clarke has quite given up the idea of having a girl called Rosa, especially as he has now decided that a second daughter should be named after the Soviet cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova.

Michael Archer