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).


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