During the Night: Art and Anxiety now

– Edmund de Waal

‘At the Kunsthistorisches I feel exposed...’

Thomas Bernhardt, Old Masters (1)

Just over five hundred years ago, Dürer woke from a dream:

‘In 1525, during the night between Wednesday and Thursday after Whitsuntide, I had this vision in my sleep, and saw how many great waters fell from heaven. When I awoke my whole body trembled and I could not recover for a long time. When I arose in the morning, I painted the above as I had seen it. May the Lord turn all things to the best.’

You wake up and don’t know where you are. A plain with low hills and fields. Somewhere from childhood. And the heavens have opened and the waters are coming down, the waters are coming towards you. It is the apocalypse: the world turned upside down. You can hardly breathe.

During the night you are exposed. You are alone.

We follow Dürer, his line of thinking, this moment of exposure. It is his aloneness that talks to us. He cannot control what is happening, only record what he remembers, what he sees, what he feels. This exactitude is not protection. It is a way of approaching what is happening when the world is unstable. During the night we are alone and vulnerable, the certainties disappear. Dürer paints and writes to see what will happen, to feel the edges of his control.

We return to these fears.

Four years ago I was invited to choose my favourite art works from the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna. They had just started working with contemporary artists. I was allowed to choose anything in the Kunsthistorisches Museum or from the Schatzkammer, or from the collections of armour or those of musical instruments or the coins and medals, or from the library or the archives. Tens of thousands of artefacts and paintings and documents, collected dynastically, obsessionally, all flowing into this building. I could go anywhere. An anonymous door led to storerooms with shelves of things, here because they were damaged or out of fashion or not quite as good as those on display, or reattributed, their presence not required. A note was added. I cannot have the Hapsburg crown jewels or those objects that are immovable – an Egyptian sarcophagi that weighs too much, a few objects in the collections at Schloss Ambras that are too delicate to travel. Can I have Titian? Or Cellini? Of course.

All I had to do was to choose and once I had chosen, create a display for them.

And it was Dürer. When it is shown to me in a storeroom of the museum, I was transfixed. The project became possible: I created an exhibition of the objects and paintings that made me anxious.

In these last months I have returned to these objects repeatedly. They mark the fears of previous generations. So what makes you anxious? Fear of erasure, disappearance? Fear of the shadows? Fear of bright lights, of being searched out and exposed? Fear of the fire, consumed by that we cannot control? Fear of being watched? Fear of being alone? Of crowds? Fear of the world changing inexorably and our lack of agency?

Using Dürer as my compass I chose the Scüttelkasten, or shake-box, a sixteenth century cabinet to be held and gently shaken: snakes, scorpions, beetles and spiders emerge from the dense forest floor of moss and leaves. It is the shuffle and tremor of things. You bring objects and the natural world together, but they move. Creatures emerge from under rocks, foliage creeps. How much control do you really have?

This unsteadiness of things was my map of the Kunstkammer. This might seem perverse. Surely room after room of golden skill speaks of dominion over the world, of collecting as power? Collecting is an attempt at mapping, a tracing of what you know. But objects and materials come back with travellers and you simply do not know what they are, whether what you hold in your hands is from an animal or a plant, what part of creation it belongs in, how old it is, what its properties might be. So in the Kunstkammer you find a nut found floating off the Seychelles, an ostrich egg, corals, a goblet crowned by precious stones. A narwhal tusk stands sentinel in the Schatzkammer as a unicorn horn.

But this is a world where objects have strange potencies. The fossilised sharks teeth of the credenza are ‘adder’s tongues’, dragons’ teeth, a strange flowering. The blooms are tongues. It is speaking of the dense secrets of poison. Every day at court, every evening at the table, there is a press of people. How do you protect yourself when you are surrounded by so much talking, so many people who wish you ill?

Bezoars – the matted stone-like substances passed by mountain goats – are a protection from poison, a bastion against dangerous melancholy. There is great power invested in these objects. The love charm, just a slither of gold, carries so much aspiration in its three grams, the gemstones condense curses amongst their symbols and numbers. A tiny cube of glass contains a devil. Coral is fire made solid, the Gorgon’s hair. This strange root is a crucifix. These fibulae are apotropaic: they turn back malevolence. Wear this and watch.

And the Handstein – strange landscapes created from minerals found deep in the mines of Bohemia – embody this. Mines are places of great danger. There are spirits who draw you on, places that give way under you, damp and noxious airs and gasses that make you sleep. There are seams that offer riches but are false. Here in these Handstein something buried is transfigured: embedded into the rock are the steps towards the place of crucifixion, a mine-working, a house. This is the landscape of anxiety, the attempt to make a safe narrative out of strangeness. I put them near Bosch’s unsettling painting of Paradise.

Everything becomes a vanitas, a warning. But the allegories are unstable, the meanings move. So what do you do? Try and create a structure to hold them still: the bezoars are encircled with gold, the reliquaries become more and more elaborate to hold their precious fragments, tiny figures of saints are placed in the Handstein.

I’m not sure that the shape of anxiety changes much. But here in the city of Karl Krauss and Freud and Elias Canetti, the stories settle around objects and images of anxiety. And of night time, that transition into the unknown – entre chien et loup – the liminal moment when we are less defended.

So for this troubling place. I made a piece.

I work in a factory in south London. When I moved in it was used for ammunition, for filling cartridges with gunpowder, mending shotguns. It was chaotic, stacks of wooden crates marked explosive, a store panelled in zinc, another for the secure storage of guns.

I made a vitrine, one of the largest I have ever attempted. And onto its nine shelves I placed small silver aluminium containers that were used for the spare parts for guns. Some were filled with lead, some leadshot, some with broken pieces of porcelain. I stacked small pieces of lead and I made porcelain vessels and glazed them in black and with oxides, heavy with the noxious minerals of alchemy. I created my own kind of Kunstkammer and brought this installation to the Kunsthistorisches Museum as my attempt at holding things together.

I named it During the Night. It was my way of standing next to those other attempts to look at the terrors of the night, the unspooling fears that are part of being human.

  1. Old Masters, Thomas Bernhard, Penguin Books, London, 1985, p.11
  1. Dream Vision, Albrecht Dürer, 1525. Watercolour on paper. Courtesy of the Kunsthistoriches Museum, Vienna.