Death ships and the secret crypt

Westman Islands
Vestmannaeyjar, by Matthew Herring, 2009 (c)

Reviewing the last two blog posts brought to mind an article by Jo Applin (who lectures in art history at York) about H.C. Westermann’s Death Ships (‘Death Ships’, Parallax 15:1, Feb. 2009). H.C. Westermann (1922-1981) was an American sculptor, known for his meticulously constructed and enigmatic sculptures, often made using traditional cabinet making methods, which fall between surrealism, pop art and abstraction. Westermann served in the US navy during the Second World War and Korean War. He witnessed a number of horrific incidents, including kamikaze attacks on US ships. In 1944, after the aircraft carrier USS Franklin was bombed with the loss of hundreds of her crew, Westermann was on board her sister ship, USS Enterprise, as she towed the still burning Franklin to shore. Westermann later described the sight of the huge, listing hulk and the awful smell of burning and of death. These wartime experiences probably lead him later to create a series of strange sculpted ships, which he called ‘death ships’. Their basic form is that of the hull of a large ship, often a sailing ship, with or without masts and always listing. Westermann played many games with this basic form, for example covering it with dollar bills or running it over with a car with inked-up tyres, but kept the basic form constant.

(There are pictures of some of the death ships on the internet, e.g. here and here. Wikipedia has some photographs of the Franklin, including this one, which shows the burned out Franklin on her return to New York in 1945. This image reminds me quite forcibly of the dark hulking presence of the death ships. There is also a quite heart-rending photograph of the burning Franklin with many of her crew still on board, here).

Applin talks about how, although the link to Westermann’s biography is easy to make, the death ships ultimately refuse to yield their meaning, or ‘speak’. She describes them as, “oddly inert, mute objects, full stops within Westermann’s visual lexicon”, and claims that “Westermann developed a secret visual language that seemingly described personal experiences and biographical incidents whilst simultaneously encrypting them and rendering them inaccessible”. Applin links this to the psychoanalytic theory of Nicolas Abraham and Maria Torok, who discovered the psychical processes of encryption and secrecy. Abraham and Torok describe how the secret becomes sealed off within the subject in a ‘crypt in the ego’; the ego acting as a ‘cemetery guard’ to protect the subject from the secret. Applin states that: “The secret crypt remains unspoken and unarticulated, like a foreign body wedged inside the ego that goes on to haunt the subject, irrupting at irregular and unpredictable moments within the analysand’s discourse and behaviour, confusing and disrupting meaning and narrative order”. This notion, and the descriptive language that goes with it (‘secret tomb inside the subject’; ‘foreign body wedged inside the ego’), I find quite haunting. Abraham and Torok claim that these secrets are ultimately undecipherable, “remain[ing] closed and impervious to symbolic interpretation” (Applin’s words). Applin seems to be saying that the ultimate meaning of Westermann’s death ships is precisely this secrecy, closed-ness and refusal to speak.

If Applin is right, then it must mean that the ‘secret’ at the heart of the death ships is something other than the wartime memories themselves. Westermann spoke of these memories and dealt with them explicitly in some of his drawings. They are not a ‘secret’ in the context of his life or work. Something deeper, perhaps: maybe something that explains why the memories haunted him. Maybe there is some aspect of the memory which is so impossible to assimilate that it becomes transmuted into the secret. Westermann was haunted by the burning hulk of the Franklin, container of so many corpses. Death is obviously part of what makes the scene into a horrific one: the same burning ship would perhaps be merely a spectacular curiosity were it not for the presence of death. Death is something we learn of in our early childhood, however. The stench of death and burning makes death more palpably real, but still doesn’t seem to explain it. The human creature is haunted by memories and other ghosts but something within human nature causes them to haunt. I wonder if a kind of ‘wrongness’ (surfacing as a ‘strangeness’, or ‘uncanniness’) is at work. The listing of the ship is wrong: ships are not meant to list. The deaths of hundreds of young men all together with no chance of escape or comeback is wrong: young men are not meant to die in their hundreds. The one wrongness recalls the other and the acrid black smoke stinging the back of the throat and the nauseating smell just nail it in. I’m just speculating now: I have no way of knowing and if Abraham and Torok are right then the secret is ultimately impossible to unlock anyway. The secret is not, perhaps, the memory itself. But it must have been something intelligible before being transmuted into something unyieldingly dense like scar tissue.

It is easy to see how extreme, traumatic experiences such as Westermann’s might cauterise themselves into the soul like shrapnel. Seen this way, secrecy might become a symptom of what often now termed ‘post traumatic stress disorder’. However, I wonder if the phenomenon is universal. Psychoanalysts have pointed to deep traumas which leave their traces in all of us. I think that when you seek to allow the creative process to lead you, you are in fact guided by what is secret and inexpressible to yourself. Long before I read Applin’s article I had the feeling that my own practice was driven by something which I could never articulate and which I described to myself as a ‘shard’ or ‘splinter’ lodged somewhere in my soul (or ‘ego’ in Abraham and Torok’s terms!). It seems to manifest itself as a certain underlying feeling that I struggle to find a word for and which is always unutterable and unfocussed. A sort of sense of loss is the best I can do. This feeling is precisely like a splinter: small enough to ignore, but undeniably there. Abraham and Torok describe something which affects the subject in ways that are unbeknown to them, so, if this is the same thing, it will always elude being pinned down – there is just a ‘sense’ of it. It is important to say as well that I don’t think it’s something that I would want or seek to be rid of; there is a certain pleasure in entertaining it and I think it is a generator of creativity.

Untitled painting, by Matthew Herring, 2008 (c)

When I was a student at the RCA I was troubled that I found images of the Second World War so fascinating and enjoyed looking at them. It wasn’t the excitement of war that I found myself drawn to, because I found the stillest images the most compelling (and still images more compelling than moving images). It was the sense of loss and sadness and the sheer strangeness (‘listing’) of war. ‘Tragedy’ is one of the words that we use to describe this aestheticised ‘enjoyment’ of loss and sadness. It was almost as if I had within myself a very small fragment of the same loss and sadness, which elicited some kind of recognition or identification, although I had not gone through what I was looking at,. There was a temptation to re-imagine my own past to accommodate some experience, such as participation in a war, in order to explain, or justify, the feeling. Someone might say that this is just the natural human capacity to empathise, but what I’m talking about is too stable for that: the feeling is there even when there is nothing to empathise with. It also feels like something deeper than empathy and may even under-gird (certain types of) empathy. (In some, much closer, situations I find myself being remarkably un-empathic). The haunting of the secret and enjoyment are all somehow mixed up: I was tempted to say that for someone who had actually witnessed horror enjoyment is entirely absent from the experience of the secret, but the sheer glee and humour in Westermann’s death ships and drawings makes me wonder. It might be more that we aestheticise the secret to live with it. There is an undeniable beauty to the strangeness of war. In that case, Westermann would be responding to the beauty of the listing ship, as well as to its horror.

One of the consequences of all of this, I think, encapsulated in Applin’s conclusion that the ‘meaning’ of Westermann’s death ships resides precisely in their own resistance to (certain types of) meaning. I find this helpful, because it frees art from always having to be so transparent; it is entitled to resist having its core laid bare. It’s not that the shard or secret itself is denied, but that the secret is kept secret. When I paint I find myself creating my own death ships. “He has put eternity in the hearts of men” (Ecclesiastes 3:9).


Darkness at Noon

Abstract painting, titled 'Bluebird'
Bluebird (c) Matthew Herring

Another book I have read recently is Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon (Penguin, 1964, tr. Daphne Hardy). This little novel is a penetrating and fascinating study on the psychology of soviet communism and of imprisonment. Rubashov, a former Bolshevik leader from the circle of Lenin is in prison awaiting death during one of Stalin’s infamous purges. The novel consists of Rubashov’s interior monologues as he paces up and down in his cell and his various interrogations before his urbane former peer, Ivanov, and the brutally effective second-generation communist, Gletkin.

At one point, following his interrogation by Ivanov, Rubashov discovers a silent partner in his internal monologues, which he christens the ‘grammatical fiction’. This other ‘voice’ only speaks very briefly and at unexpected moments (usually accompanied by an attack of toothache, or Rubashov’s nervous habit of wiping his pince-nez) and remains silent when interrogated. The ‘grammatical fiction’ is the ‘I’ which communism denied; it is Rubashov’s conscience. His humanity. Interestingly, the things that induce the grammatical fiction to the surface are the same sorts of things that act as hooks to drag up buried memories in Austerlitz (see blog post, Memory Rooms), namely, memories of small seemingly insignificant details of past experiences. “[The grammatical fiction’s] mental sphere seemed to be composed of such various and disconnected parts as the folded hands of the Pieta, little Loewy’s cats, the tune of the song with the refrain of ‘come to dust’, or a particular sentence which Arlova had once spoken on a particular occasion” (p.91).

All of these fragmentary memories are the tips of icebergs; the icebergs being a series of betrayals in which Rubashov sacrificed the lives of individuals for the sake of the Party. In Rubashov’s case, the memories are not deeply buried in the past, as in Austerlitz’s, but what is buried is the sense of any guilt or compassion attached to them. Correspondingly, the ‘memory-hooks’ are more transparent in meaning than in Austerlitz’s case and come to the fore without the needing to be re-encountered. All that is in fact needed is for the thing which buried them in the first place, namely the amoral ‘logic’ of the communist mind, to be stripped away by incarceration and the proximity of death. Austerlitz’s memories were laid down in early childhood and attach themselves more to inanimate objects and details of the physical surroundings. Rubashov’s memory-hooks take on a more symbolic character (the sorrow of the Pieta drawing; the cats which were sacrificed for their skins; the song with it’s allusion to death), because Rubashov really knows what it is that he has been repressing. It is this Rubashov that is the grammatical fiction.

Memory rooms

Abstract painting, titled 'Lift'

Earlier this year, I read Austerlitz, by W.G. Sebald (Penguin, 2002, tr. Anthea Bell). It’s about a Jewish architectural historian, Jacques Austerlitz, who escaped from Nazi Germany as a young child on a Kindertransport. His early past obliterated, in later life he embarks on a quest to recover his lost identity. The novel is illustrated throughout with black and white photographs – details of various buildings and spaces mentioned in the narrative; fragments of memory. Here is a quote I like very much. It’s in the context of Austerlitz talking about his youthful hobby of photography: “From the outset my main concern was with the shape and self-contained nature of discrete things, the curve of banisters on a staircase, the moulding of a stone arch over a gateway, the tangled precision of the blades in a tussock of dried grass” (p.108). This quote is on the same page as a block of four small photographs: a detail of coastline with the land in silhouette; a slightly blurred detail of leaves against the sky; tiles on a roof; and factory chimneys belching smoke.


Further on, Austerlitz finds his way into the abandoned ladies’ waiting room at Liverpool Street Station in London. The sight of the dilapidated splendour of this room sets him into a kind of reverie which ends with a vision of himself as a small child being met in that very same room by his foster parents. The book is full of rooms and other spaces which all point back to the past. When I started thinking about the abstract paintings I’ve been doing I realised that they seemed to derive from two or three distinct sources: the open landscape of the moors (or deserts), rooms and engineering structures, such as bridges and gantries. One motif, a rectangle with one corner chopped off, which I did a version of today, (it occurred to me) might derive from the plan of my bedroom in my parents’ house, which had a door in the corner, making the room have five sides (my bedroom in my current house is also like this, as was one of my bedrooms as a student). I’m interested in the idea that, if I let the ideas be themselves, then they will gradually show their meanings – that they all point back to something.


Part of the key to Austerlitz’s past is his recognition of details of his environment. The recognition he experiences in the ladies’ waiting room at Liverpool Street Station is the starting point of his journey of rediscovery. As he walks down the Sporkova, the street in Prague where he lived as a small boy, before his flight to Britain, he notices small details, which reconnect him with his past: “It was true that I could recognize nothing for certain, yet I had to keep stopping now and then because my glance was caught by a finely wrought window grating, the iron handle of a bell-pull, or the branches of an almond tree growing over a garden wall. Once I stood for a considerable time outside the vaulted entrance to a building, said Austerlitz, looking up at a half-relief set in the smooth plaster above the keystone of the arch. The cast was no more than a square foot in size, and showed, set against a spangled sea-green background, a blue dog carrying a small branch in its mouth, which I could tell, by the pricking of my scalp, it had brought back out of my past” (p.213).

Later, as he leaves Prague by train to retrace his journey to the Hook of Holland, he is convinced that he remembers seeing the pattern of semicircles, triangles, horizontals and verticals in the glass roof of the Wilsonova Station (there is a photograph of this on p.309). Then he gets out at Pilsen to photograph a detail of the station there, “which had touched some chord of recognition in me. What made me uneasy at the sight of it, however, was not the question of whether the complex form of the capital, now covered with a puce-tinged encrustation, had really impressed itself on my mind when I passed through Pilsen with the children’s transport in the summer of 1939, but the idea, ridiculous in itself, that this cast-iron column, which with its scaly surface seemed almost to approach the nature of a living being, might remember me and was, if I may so put it, said Austerlitz, a witness to what I could no longer recollect for myself” (p.311).


A few things interest me in this: the suggestive power of shapes, forms and simple things; the idea of inanimate forms impressing themselves on the mind of a child and then remaining there for the rest of the person’s life, hidden in the sediment of the soul and exerting a hold or a force; and the idea of inanimate aspects of one’s surroundings seeming to be alive. I remember walking with my mother to primary school up the hill beside Acomb Green, past an old house which had an iron gate with two gateposts. One, probably the older, was tall, round, slightly tapered and had an ornamental ball on its top. The second was shorter, square and had a flat square top. Both were painted green. I invested these two posts with complete personalities; or, more accurately, they just seemed to have those personalities. The shorter one always seemed to have just said something rude – the flat top probably reminded me of a pair of rude lips, or a jocund flat cap. The other seemed to be rather stuck up and to be telling the shorter post off. They were part of my everyday experience and it was rather like passing two old men who were always leaning over the same wall. “Now then, gentlemen!” “How do?!” “Morning!” (Now, when I pass them, I’m more likely to notice the painted false window on the wall of the house. I need to go down on my knees to be impressed by the posts again – height is everything).

Beauty of abstraction

I was struck recently by an interview on the radio with Cecil Balmond, the engineer who is realising Anish Kapoor’s Olympic Tower. He was talking about the aesthetics of the laws of physics and mathematics and how he took to mathematics when he saw the beauty inherent in it. The observation which struck me was that, for him, the beauty lies in the fact that it can be abstracted. This interests me because sometimes you come across the idea that the opposite is true – that abstraction is somehow cold, calculating and inhuman. (I’ve just read C.S. Lewis’s sci-fi novel, Out of the Silent Planet, in which the cold, evil imperialism of the character of Weston is linked to his scientific, abstract thought. The good character, Ransom, is a humanities academic. Ransom’s first instinct on encountering the alien race, the sorns, is that they must be technocratic, calculating, soul-less overlords to the cuddly hrosses – in fact, they turn out to be a feathered version of Tolkein’s Treebeard).

The quote I liked the best from Cecil Balmond was this: “I think the beauty is that it can be abstracted. I think that there is a huge power of abstraction in engineering, so that you are not limited to the surface of things; you can extract down, and, in extracting down I think there is a process beauty at work, because you come to the essence of something, and there is a beauty when you find that. So I think that in that sense, yes, there is a whole process of discovering beauty through engineering processes – through scientific imperatives – that gives you a feeling of discovery of beauty, though it’s abstract, and I think it’s because it’s abstract that it’s powerful”. I like the idea that by abstraction you can come to the essence of something – and that beauty lies there.