Crossing the other day from France into Spain, I found myself in the area of the old customs post, the Aduana, not far from the banks of the Bidassoa. The old customs buildings are still there, but, thanks to the treaty of free circulation signed by fifteen or so European countries, they're now no more than vestiges.
It's a strange feeling one has in such places today: half ghost town, half wasteland. It's like a garrison town when the garrison's gone. Like being in some inn at the end of the season — a bit outside time.
It struck me that this empty transition zone was the very image of our present cultural condition. The big trucks pass, new socioeconomic spaces are being created. There's a lot of movement and activity, even hyperactivity, in our sociocultural context too. But way down, at a deeper psychological, intellectual, artistic level, isn't there an emptiness, a hollowness?
Most of what we call "culture" consists simply in society's attempt to fill that hollow emptiness with noises and images, bitty information, infantile games, futilities, or an art that's lost all ground: one little invention after the other.
Objects circulate, but the deep passage is never made. The subject waits, as he has often waited: for the Second Coming, for the Revolution that will make history sing ... or for Godot.
The figure I'm going to call in these notes the nomad-geopoetician isn't content to wait. He/she is out to move, while never just jumping aboard the first vehicle that passes.
The nomad-geopoetician frequents all kinds of frontiers, broods along the borders, lights out for the limits — always in search of grounded space.
Frontiers are often the scars of history. One can go on harping about history (it's an industry), or else one can start to move outside history, seeing the old frontiers with new insight, envisaging space with new vision.
Seen in depth, a frontier is an area where forces meet and confront one another, but also where new forms emerge. It's a field of possibility. And there are questions in the air: what strategies? What works?
There are times when the question of "frontier", as distinct from the mere administrative management of boundaries, is the order of the day. Think of the expansion of the Roman Empire, with its limes, its confinia, its extremitates. And then look at its fall: the old unities are dislocated and broken, the frontiers float and dissolve. So is it with our civilisation today. A potential field is opening up. It's a question of political geography, certainly, but also of culture and aesthetics.
It's possible to discern here and there, the initial signs of a new spatial conscience. The spaces in question are historical, post-historical — also natural.
It's time, high time, to restore nature to its rightful place. History has had all its own way for too long. I'm not talking about any "going back" to nature. I'm just suggesting a few steps to the side.
That's a move from geopolitics to geopoetics. Geopolitics is based on the power relationship between State and State. Geopoetics is based on the living (biocosmopoetic) relationship between the human being and the Earth. The frontier here isn't situated between political unities, but between the human and the non-human.
There you have the ultimate frontier.
There you have the difficult area, the complex place, in which a new existential, philosophical and aesthetic space can be formed.
Is it not fairly obvious that what our culture lacks, at ground level, is a sensation of space? Wasn't art in its original impulse a perception of space, then of bodies moving across that space, then of moments in the course of that movement? And isn't it something of this nature we roust recover today, instead of merely accumulating "art objects" based on conceptules in a constricted context devoid of amplitude, lacking anything like an expansive poetics? Further to this spatiality as such, I wonder if we might not be able to envisage a specific space that would be neither mythical, metaphysical, religious, psychological, or merely technical: a space resonant with geopoetic tonality.
Such were the questions I was putting to myself the other day, in the wasteland of the Aduana, on the border.
And hence the investigation I intend to undertake here, accompanied by the photographs of Ursula Schulz-Dornburg drawn from hermitages along the old pilgrimage road of Santiago de Compostela, the border country between Georgia and Azerbaijan, a string of bus-stops in Armenia, the lost landscape of a mesopotamia, and a bunch of research bases in the Arctic.

1. Paths of Stone and Light

The Pyrenees have always been both barrier and passage. Hence that line of frontier posts stretched out all along the chain from the Portus Veneris (port-Vendres) in the East to the puntas arenas of the West.
Remember Hannibal the African coming in against Rome through the Perthus. Later, the marches were Carolingian: marca hispanica, marca hesperica. Frontier fluctuations, boundary perturbations, Emperor confronting Emir, Cross dashing with Crescent. Frankish troops on the Southern Front, Saracen troops on the Northern Front.
When the Regnum Francorum, the Carolingian empire, began to collapse and crumble, the nationalisms arose, in Catalonia, in Navarre: ethnic complexes, territorial identities, soul and soil. An old story. The old story — history.
Transcended only, if at all (politics and religion can get so dose) by those pilgrims carrying a shell to Compostela.
Over paths of stone and light.
I was once a great frequenter of the Ossau valley. A narrow corridor, with only the bottom land turned over. On the heights, up above Laruns, agriculture comes to an end. Serrated ridges, craggy peaks, perpetual snow at 7000 feet. Pile-ups of boulders from Ice Age rivers.
Arudy stands at the entrance where, in a cave, were found rocks, pebbles engraved with horses and reindeer. We're on transhumance tracks, and among the most ancient sanctuaries of humanity. At a crossing of roads, a dolmen. Over there, another, placed on a little plateau looking out to the sun. Elsewhere, cromlechs, stone-circles: in the early days of the twentieth century, shepherds still built such stone circles around their huts.
Those raised stones constitute the first great road of stone and light, marking passage-ways as well as the gathering of upright people, indicating a relationship between soil and sun, earth and star.
I like to think of those raised stones as "the Atlantic stones". They've marked the Atlantic coastline for millennia and I've followed their megalithic cartography all the way from Portugal up to the Scottish archipelagoes. But I know they go farther back than the Atlantic. The Atlantic is what they face, but their background is Anatolia. Out from Anatolia, the migration went to those lands later, much later, known as Italy, Sicily, Sardinia, Spain, France, the Armorican peninsula (where there seems to be a peculiar concentration), England, Ireland, Scotland, Denmark, Sweden, Finland ... The big stone road. One must imagine great monotonous stretches of uncharted, unnamed territory, vast eroded plateaus and postglacial beaches. The time is the end of the Boreal period, the beginning of the archaic times called Atlantic. Sudden mists, strange lights and lightnings — and up there, far above, moon, sun, stars: appearances, disappearances, constellations. The earthscape is mineral, dominated by great stone blocks fallen from obscure disasters, and by scatterings of fragmented rock. In such a context, geometry (a point, a line, a circle) can be a kind of salvation, especially if you can feel that you are establishing a correspondence with what you haven't yet called a cosmos.
It's a world of geometry and meteorology.
Later on, the stories come in: you hear of petrified armies, of druid sacrifices, all kinds of spookiness and collective unconscious archetypery. All this is what some people call "poetry". But the real poetics are elsewhere: in the open space, in the migratory movement, the elementary necessity, the primal gesture. It's a lot more interesting to try and read beyond the legends. Basically, let's never forget, we're concerned with a road of stone and light.
All over the mountains and the moorlands you also come across cup-marked stones. The cup, or cupula, was maybe at the beginning a simple hollow in the rock face — useful, say, for drinking dew. Later, some were maybe carved out, ritually, religiously, and offerings (of milk, of blood) may have been poured into them. Certain stones too, because of their shape or their position — an erratic block all alone on the landscape — might be considered sacred: peyras sacradas. It's the case with the Peyre Blanque (the White Stone) at the limits of the Lannemezan plateau. Such stones, often associated with thunder and lightning, would become culture-spots. And then there were those stones written on, engraved, the peyras escritas, bearing schematic designs: concentric circles, sun symbols. The theme of light is recurrent. An old song that used to be sung at wakes speaks of the union of Sun and Moon. Here's the chorus: Ech dio que eo dab lui se mardec atav estec — "the day when the Sun married the Moon, this took place". This took place. What? — the essential.
In time (it's a human, all-to human process), things get personalized, characters are invented: intercessors, intermediaries. Among the Cantabrians, the Basques and the Iberians, one hears of Abelio, the god of light, of Herauscoritze, the god of lightning, of Aherbelste, the god of the black rock, of Belenus, the god of the sun, and of his wife, Belisama, who drives the chariot of the moon, of Asteartia, in whose company, according to a highly disapproving ecclesiastic text of 905, "women fly over vast regions". When Christianity comes along, it brings in St Michael, St James, St John the Baptist, Mary Magdalene, the Virgin, to take their place. But ancient echoes remain, and, back of the echoes, the fundamental ground-tone. The Pilgrim Guide to Compostela informs us that when they want to say "God", the Basques use the word Ortzi, which means "the brilliant thing", the stormy sky. As is well enough known, the Christian chapels and hermitages were very often built on old pagan cult-places. Back beyond all the ideologies and representations, it's always stone and light the massive immobility of stone (geological zazen), the iconostasis of light.
That's how I see, ground, foreground and background, those strong images of stone and light that Schulz-Dornburg took in the hermitages of Clemente de la Tobeña, Arruaba and Juan de Busa, in the province of Huesca.

2. Transition territories

In his book of travel-sketches, Through Russia, Maxim Gorky presents the wanderers and vagabonds of the land, the "nowhere people" smitten with the craze for vagrancy. In socio-economic terms, those people are "useless". But, out on their "roads of a thousand versts", trying to satisfy their "need for space", they go beyond the boundaries of the common and the banal, and, at least at moments, they come to that state where being spaces itself out, where the soul is dissolved in the Void, "when one no longer thinks of oneself, but, on the contrary, issues from one's personality and begins to see with unwonted clarity".
All of those Russian wanderers gravitate gradually to the Caucasus, to the lands of Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan:
"How come you to be travelling the Caucasus?", we read in a passage of Through Russia.
"Everyone ends by heading for the Caucasus."
Rising up between two seas, the Black Sea and the Caspian, the Caucasus mountain-range, with its craggy peaks: Elbrus, Kazbek, Ushba, offers more than one parallel with the Pyrenees. Except for this: the Pyrenees constitute a frontier between two countries, whereas the Caucasus represents the frontier between two continents. If there was ever a place of passage, it's the Caucasus.
For the existential basis of these mountain lands, one has to think of the nomadism and provisional encampments of the Nogai and the Kalmuks, the horse-raising of the Kabards, the pastoral wandering of the Kurds, the Tatar shepherds digging themselves burrows to protect themselves from the biting wind that blows across the bare plateaux of the Karayaz. Other mountain peoples, wanderers over territory covered with absinth, grey mugwort and the blue flowers of delphinium, found shelter in a whole labyrinth of caves. As to the original Georgian house, it was a hole in the ground or in a rock, with walls of stone or brick, the roof consisting of a layer of day in which would grow all kinds of grasses, thus providing he at in winter and coolness in summer. The country is tough — marked by storms and earthquakes. Near Baku there's a field of inflammable gas: the "temple of fire" (we're in the neighborhood of Prometheus and Zoroaster). Above it all, Elbrus, in Tatar Yal-bouz, "the mane of ice". Even long Christianised, the Svans still kept the crypts of their chapels full of goat horns, and among the Khevsours, it was considered unfitting to let anyone die inside a house: one had to die facing the sun and the stars, one's last breath mingling with the wind.
In time, those who at the beginning called themselves perhaps simply gortzî, "the mountain folk", divided into strict ethnic groups, with strict religious ideologies: Georgians, Armenians, Ossetes, Circassians, Chechens, Abkhazs, Kabardians, Lezghians ... The Caucasus became what the Arab geographer Abulfeda called "the mountain of languages". According to Strabo, on the markets of Colchis (the basin of the Ingour), you could hear seventy different tongues. At the market of Mozdok, in the Terek country, the hill-folk of Dagestan would rub shoulders with the farmers of Kabarda and the Nogai nomads of the steppe. So long as, under the religious veneer, the old pagan ground remained, the common ground, the relationship to the land, so long as the general assemblies of the mountain, amounting often to republican communes, still survived, conflicts there certainly were, but they were rare and short lasting. Christianity (all kinds of Christianity) and Islam (all kinds of Islam) existed side by side.
And the movement continued, between Europe and Asia across the Caucasus, between the Caucasus and Persia, Anatolia. From earliest times, there had been the Greeks on one side (the Argonauts, Jason at their head, on the hunt for the Golden Fleece) and the Mongols on the other. Thereafter came the Byzantians, for whom the Caucasus was a place of exile (it was to the monastery of Pitzunda that the exiled Chrysostomos was travelling when he died on the road), nekrassovtzî Cossacks, Dukhobors ("spirit-fighters"), raskolniks, Arabs running away from their Turkish masters, Swabian colonists ... There were places of pilgrimage: the Vardzia monastery, "the castle of roses", hollowed out of the rock, the monastery of Nakhichevan (the "first house" in Armenian) supposed to have been boot by Noah himself, the monastery of Echmiadzin, that contained three hundred and sixty-five ancient manuscripts and whose bell bore an inscription in Tibetan: Om mani padme hum — "the jewel is on the lotus".
When the Russian Empire came on the scene, the "outside" land, the land of exile (and of skirmishes) became a land of total war — and extermination.
The central fortress of Russia in the Caucasus was Vladikavkaz. The great military highway between European Russia and Tiflis passed by there. All along this road, "the Line", were raised a series of Cossack stanitzas, strategic outposts and watchtowers. Garrison towns were created, such as Grozny ("the threatener"). At its inception, in 1777, Stavropol ("the city of the cross") was simply "No. 8". The tribes organized in self-defense, for example, the Chechen, under their chiefs Daud-Beg, Omar-Khan, Khaz-Mollah, and finally Chamil (Samuel), whose last stand took place on Mt Gunib. The Muslim saw in the Russian only the Christian; and for the Russians, the Muslims were no more than brigands and terrorists. The whole situation, as so often happens in history, became horribly, monumentally simplistic.
It was in the Caucasus that Lermontov situated his novel A Hero of our Time (1840). This is the story of Grigory Alexandrovich Pechorin, who describes himself as "an itinerant officer". The book consists partly of short episodic stories revealing facets of Pechorin's character and career, partly of travel-notes in which the country itself is very present. So it is that in the crossing of the Koyshaur valley, we hear of "a nameless torrent roaring in a black gully full of mist", and that in the vicinity of Gud-Gora, "it was so still all around you could trace a gnat's flight by the sound of its humming", while in the distance, over towards the south, rises "the great white form of the Elbruz". As to Grigory Alexandrovich Pechorin, the first thing to notice is the charged symbolism of his name: Grigory — Gregory the Illuminator, the Christian missionary; Alexandrovich — Alexander the Conqueror; Pechorin — from Pechora, a river in Northern Russia. It's this latter reference that indicates Pechorin's distance from humanity. He has seen enough of humanity and is sick of it ("As our ancestors rushed from illusion to illusion, we drift indifferently from doubt to doubt") — all that remains for him is travel.
So Pechorin travels. He moves through humanity lucidly, but not imperturbably, knowing moments of calm, and indeed illumination, only in certain solitary places: "The air is pure, the sun is bright, the sky blue — what more does one want, what need have we here of passions, desires, regrets?" He follows his road, without hopes, without aims, that "road of stone" Lermontov evokes in a poem.
It's that stone-road, with its erratic landscapes and eremitic meditation places, I see in Schulz-Dornburg's images taken along the Georgian-Azerbaijan border, on the edge of the Kachetien desert.

3. An Art of Space

Arrived at this point, it would be quite possible to keep to the geographical line, following the course of the Euphrates, that has its source in the Caucasus, down into Mesopotamia (following also, in human terms, Armenian colonists in the Euphrates country, on the Mesopotamian frontier of the Byzantine Empire); or leaving the Caucasus, land of exile, for another land of exile, Siberia, and from there moving out to some Arctic research-stations. It would be a way of revealing the inherent spatial logic of Ursula Schulz-Dornburg's images. But I think by this time we have gathered together sufficient elements. What I want to do now is try to look at things from higher up, describe the space that has opened up during our peregrinations in more abstract terms.
Here and there (notably in an "introduction to geopoetics", Le Plateau de l'Albatros, Paris 1994), I've talked of what I call "the Motorway of the West". This is no place to go back in detail, or even summarily, to an analysis of the whole Motorway. I'll simply stop here a while at the last stage — ours.
For Hegel who, like Thomas Aquinas, had the ambition to make an enormous synthesis of world-culture, a kind of Summa Cosmohistorica, by tracking across the centuries and the continents the "world spirit" (Weltgeist), the prevailing Idea, paramount Reason, was no longer situated in the pure sky of Platonic idealism, it was in movement through time. Progress, with a capital P, was born.
All of the nineteenth century, and a great part of the twentieth, lived according to this conception of things. It's only very recently that belief in it has become totally defunct.
Hence, in the absence of any other great conception, in the absence of any consistent project, a state of things full of blind violence, abysmal punkdom, all kinds of more or less futile games, a cultural context founded on little more than accumulation, and an art based on conceptules.
But there are always, here and there, usually loners and wanderers, individuals with more foresight than others and a larger grasp of things. By the end of the nineteenth century, some minds saw the abovementioned situation coming. They took up a distant stance, and, leaving the Motorway, set out on other tracks, looking for new space.
The one who takes up a distant stance is the Hyperborean. The one who moves away is the Intellectual Nomad. The one who opens up, or at least tries to open up, a new space is the Geopoetician.
Following on from what I said above about the "hero of our time", Pechorin, I'd like to bring forward here two examples, in order to illustrate my proposition: Rimbaud and Nietzsche.
Both try to get out of what Nietzsche calls "the disease of history". Both, to quote Rimbaud, "go on strike". Both are hypercritical of most of what is called "art", with Rimbaud declaring that he prefers "earth and stones". Both move out on difficult paths across the world. Both arrive at a space that is almost anonymous, certainly only with difficulty nameable in common terms. For Nietzsche, it's the Engadine plateau in the Alps, where he enjoys "silence and light". For Rimbaud, it was first the crossing of the Alps, "with only whiteness to think about", then the burning desert of Abyssinia, glaringly empty, ferociously luminous.
The trajectories of both these individuals (who are in fact more than individuals) are exemplary, but curtailed. There's a degree of aberration in their errancy. And it was only at moments that they found the language ("a hermit's language", says Nietzsche) of the space their roads, tracks and paths had lead them into.
As I've indicated, the new space is difficult to define, and it is no easy matter to attain to the geopoetic dimension..
In his book of travels, Bourlinguer, Blaise Cendrars writes about one of the ports (transition places) he passed through: "We were tied up at the back end of the harbour [ ... ] between the Conlundulum, a cargo boat from Panama [ ... ] and the Pathless out of Londonderry [ ... ] at the end of a quay that was in the process of being built or being demolished."
Construction or demolition: there are two possible actions at least going on. What is sure is that nomado-geopoetic space is a lot more complex than the laboratory of "deconstruction" that was one of the marks of the end of modernity, and which only exchanged an orthodoxy for a sinistrodoxy.
With nomado-geopoetic art, there is negativity in the air, but it's a "supernihilistic" negative, which is to say it's a negativity beyond nihilism. As to the "outside" this negativity moves towards, it's much more than the "open air", it's open world. This is the space where the mind is rid of conventional mythical or religious imagery, metaphysical corridors and psychological blockages.
There may remain some slight traces of symbolism (in the Cendrars text, Conlundulum and Pathless may well have been real ships' names, but their symbolical significance is evident enough). Elsewhere, one will perceive, like a watermark on paper, the memory of ancient ways. But for the Intellectual Nomad, there is no turning back, nor is there pile-up of ethnographical, mythohistorical studies, but the way forward, outwards can be charged with memory, and the mind going forward will have worked its way through history out of history. In his Aesthetics, Hegel said that, in the Modern Age, the poetic mind would have trouble making its way across the opaque or trivial mass of social prose. The nomad-geopoetician opens up a way across the territories, moving through areas of transition, renewing ancient paths — on the search for World.
That's how I read Schulz-Dornburg's images.
When the word "art" is associated with the word "nomad", one thinks, in the first instance, of the objects that make up the furnishings of the dwellings in the desert: notably carpets (little cosmogonies) — and the dwelling itself, tent or hut (a concentration of the universe).
Once again, it's essential to comprehend and to see all this outside the frameworks of ethnology or art history.
The thing is to actualize the fundamental.
The most interesting museographic art today is no longer content to simply accumulate objects, it tries to open up space. What I see in this initiative of the IVAM of Valencia is that: the will to reveal the "new space", via a new nomad art, an art in movement, that follows the lines of the world, from stone to star.

Kenneth White

exhibition catalogue: A través los Territorios / Across the territories / Fotografias / Photographs 1980-2002 / Instituto Valenciano de Arte Moderno / Valencia

© Ursula Schulz-Dornburg.

© Ursula Schulz-Dornburg