The most recent paintings of Jarrad Martyn are located in a conversation about the dislocating experience of commodified travel in our times of late capitalism. What Slavoj Žižek calls “the end times”. The paintings recount the artist’s encounter with a deserted theme park in Berlin, that stands in for the fractured experience of travel and our removal from first hand experiences. It is a theme that is fundamental to the way in which we understand how our actions are governed. His paintings are about all kinds of dinosaurs and their inevitable demise and our complicity in their creation and dreadful destruction.
In Lodge’s novel, Paradise news, a novel as much about the nature of contemporary travel as it is about the protagonists’ relationships, Roger Sheldrake, an anthropologist specialising in tourism, channels Guy Debord’s ideas about the commodification of our lived experiences when he describes his interest in “[t]he sightseeing tour as a secular pilgrimage. Accumulation of grace by visiting the shrines of high culture. Souvenirs [as] relics. Guidebooks as devotional aids”. (1). Lodge’s wry book is about paradise as a destination in travel and in life, Martyn’s equally wry paintings are about arriving at a deserted, derelict terminus in paradise. He paints a place that once was secure and sold the illusion of happiness in a world in chaos, only to become part of that chaos.
The abandoned Spreepark, once the Berlin Kulturpark, was, is, a real physical space that under the brush becomes a metaphorical space in which the way in which the world is constructed for us is revealed in its parallel forms; truthful and fictionalised , physical and virtual, all framed by multiple perspectives. The pictorial narration of the world the artist offers is simultaneously embedding and dis-embedding; for as the pilgrim and tourist make their way from one location to another they bring along with them a jumble of fictional expectations.
In 1969, in celebration of the first 20 years for the German Democratic Republic, the Berlin municipal authorities opened the VEB Kulturpark Plänterwald, a rambling 30 hectares of pleasure gardens. It was a haven from the city; its noisy, busy funfair was set apart from its landscaped grounds with its secluded cafes and winding walks through woodland; the separation of city and countryside was replicated in miniature form. It was, in essence, a socialist version of the 19th century Parisian gardens like Parc Monceau and the Tivoli, themselves a version of the English landscaped garden, but instead of the bourgeois flaneur strolling the grounds it was workers and their families. Instead of silk and wool couture swishing over sleek limbs, the Kulturpark was a mass of static as Czech and Hungarian clothes made from East German synthetic fabrics rustled away under the grey Berlin skies.
The landscaped garden was in turn the legacy of the Grand Tour, the aristocratic version of the contemporary gap year. Managed and shepherded through the galleries and landscape of Europe, the wealthy scions of the English nobility made their way through an edited version of classical Europe. The origin of the guided coach tour, the Grand Tour was a touristic experience that moulded the aesthetic sensibilities of generations. It was a pilgrimage in search of cultural enlightenment. The parkland legacy of the Grand Tour had vanished when the artist visited the Kulturpark in the European summer of 2014. It had already undergone two transformations. The Kulturpark as it was first conceived had gone the way of the dinosaurs when the meteorite of capitalism had exploded in Eastern Europe and destroyed the socialist infrastructure. The park’s next incarnation was as a theme park, which was then wiped out by the capitalist ‘boom and bust’ virus carried on the meteorite. But we are ahead of ourselves.
Divested by the state in the 1990s, the park was bought by Norbert Witte (a theme park entrepreneur with a history of spectacular incompetence) and it turned into Spreepark … the park was filled with the imagery of capitalist mass entertainment. Fibreglass boats in the shape of giant swans were floated down a newly constructed canal system passing a moored Viking boat with a dragon figurehead. Pedal cars in the form of massive, behatted and bespectacled pink heads shuffled their way down paths flanked by dinosaurs and a solitary mammoth. A Wild West town with a saloon bar and Tudor English village completed the landscape.
What the artist encountered was a shattered simulation of the world. All the more shocking because deep in our hearts, as Baudrillard pointed out decades ago, we know that the theme park is more real than our own lives. The theme park colonises the real world, draws it into its own embrace and then offers it back as a heighten reality, a vision of how life can be, a world of constant pleasure and no responsibility. Spreepark differed from Kulturland in its transcendent aspirations. Kulturpark was a tidying up of reality, culture and nature sat side by side, in conversation with each other. Its job was to explain that relationship to its users and allow them the recreational pleasure of believing that lie. Spreepark offered far more, it offered the ability to travel through time, to experience the age of the dinosaurs, to pass through past times of handgun violence and rural harmony. All this was achieved on the back of a giant swan in harmony with nature, or in the safety of a motor vehicle in the form of a giant head … the irrational absurdity of it all was subsumed under Debord’s notion of the capitalist spectacle - what appears is good and what is good appears. The dream that is sold to the willing tourist is a circuit of experience, a closed loop that can be entered and left seamlessly. The outside can be accessed as if it is inside; difference is eradicated and cultural exchange experienced as a frictionless encounter.
There was friction however. The park was mismanaged, Witte went into debt and for the purposes of this narrative was last seen trying to smuggle $15 million worth of cocaine into Germany inside the component parts of a fairground carousel. The park went into ruin, and it is at this point that the artist sneaks into its derelict grounds, wanders around inside it and is surrounded by the collapse of dreams, the collapse of illusion, and sees mendaciousness laid bare.
The paintings in this exhibition show the theme park ‘s replication of the world shattered and the illusion of tourism itself smashed to pieces. In the world of the tourist there are no cultural differences, no unequal power relationships that cannot be soothed with dollars. These paintings show the lie of this.
Our view of Spreepark’s shattered fantasy and its casualties, dinosaurs and cars, becomes a metaphor not only for travel but for the wider cultural condition we find ourselves in. We are both complicit in the tragedy and witnesses to it, linked together, simultaneously both victim and perpetrator. The contagious nature of the disaster in Spreepark is further heightened by the introduction into the scene of outsiders in biohazard gear. Protected from the chaos of the environment they are working in the same way that health workers in the ebola epidemic were, or the emergency workers at Fukishima were; these mysterious hooded figures mediate between us and the disaster we are witnessing.
Their faces shielded, hooded, their identities secret, they minister like priests to the fallen dinosaurs, rummage through the debris in the landscape and deserted buildings like forensic cops, mop up the collateral damage caused by the regime change. Just as we remain alienated at the edge of their world, looking in from the outside as we do at the world through the endless screens that frame our world for us, we are further alienated from the painted scenes by the disruption of the painting’s illusion of depth as scraped paint smears the imagery, reminding us us it is paint on the surface of something, not the thing it is depicting.
Whether this ability to distance ourselves from the cultural catastrophe we are surrounded by is a good or bad thing, depends upon one’s ideological point of view. Pilgrimage demands emotional investment, though if we are detached we can never be disappointed. At arms length to the world we can see dinosaurs topple, cars crash, watch the landscapes we have nurtured fall into disuse with disinterest. Such are the pleasures of the spectatorship of the proletariat.
Christopher Crouch 2015
1. Lodge, D. (1991.) Paradise news. London: Seeker & Warburg. pp 74-75.