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Caridad Svich
on Johannes VanDerBeek’s Ruins
Caridad Svich on Johannes VanDerBeek’s “Ruins”

On October 6, 2016, playwright Caridad Svich presented an essay about Johannes VanDerBeek’s Ruins from the Tang collection. Following her talk, Skidmore students performed in front of the artwork excerpts of her play The Orphan Sea (which was having its multilingual premier at Skidmore’s Black Box Theater, directed by Skidmore professor Eunice S. Ferreira).

From the Small Things … or the Politics of Hope

I’d like to begin with a story, maybe even a parable of sorts. I have started to think about love and politics, and how at a time where militant sectarian violence appears to have overturned world order alongside the simultaneous rise of neoliberal economics as a new kind of “faith,” finding love among the ruins of civilization may be the only chance we have to progress as societies.

Now, to wit: I am not talking about a free and easy love, but one that asks all of us to bear witness to suffering, and to then move through it toward acts of communion, transcendence, and a direct appeal to selves that we do not recognize—namely, the self in love, the self that is ecstatically outside itself, the self that becomes selfless and at the same time a greater self (because of it)—one capable of seeing beyond the self and able to take in, or try to take in, the whole of humanity.

But I get ahead of myself here, because of course in neoliberal market-driven value systems, it is very hard to transcend the self; it is hard indeed to even see the rest of humanity.

These thoughts arise out of that which Ruins evokes through its materiality of impermanence. Here, Johannes VanDerBeek posits, are the scraps of rubbed-out, frayed, buried, photographed images from Life, Time, National Geographic, and other magazines, embedded in the ruins of a past held together, cobbled together, with wood and glue. Here are the lives of humans and nature, and humans in nature that remain after years—slivers of images arrested by time, pulling at memory’s tide. Crude and ephemeral, our lives and the record of our lives will be seen one day as merely this: ruins.

Look here. This was once Western democracy.

Perhaps someone will say.

Look how life was lived then. What can you imagine from this assemblage?

What images remain on the retina after the specter of Ruins falls away, and in turn, also becomes ruin, a hollow shape made of ephemera from the past?

In weakness, there is strength. In fragility, there is hope.

From the small scraps of these memory pieces, one might begin to apprehend not only a sense of one’s own fragility and mortality, but also the necessity to register and take stock of the small things before they, too, approach the vanishing point.

And this gets me to thinking about politics and words like “hope,” which are bandied about in callow and ideologically persuasive ways.

Hope is a difficult word. Its weight is immense. And yet it is only one syllable. Hope. We hold it on our tongues for a moment and it is gone. We hold it in our bodies for a moment and trust our bodies will remember to carry on.

But hope is hard-won. Even among the ruins. Because it asks us to put some faith in and register the small things.

Now, what do I mean by this?

Shall we make a list?

Sometimes lists help. They can be another assemblage of life.

  1. How do I regard someone else? Is there love? Is there generosity? Is there contempt?
  2. Who do I see when I walk down the street? With whom do I think I have an affinity or possible affinity and why?
  3. There’s a gentleman who cleans the sidewalk every day. Every morning. At precisely the same hour. In all weather. How long has he had this job? Does he have a family? Is he alone? How does he get by? And what happens if one day this job, which may be his only job, ends?
  4. At the far end of the street there is a garden. It is a purposefully unruly garden. But there is art there. In nature. And the humans, too, that tend to this garden.
  5. History is often told about the big things. Books are filled with epic stories. But history is, too, about the person that lived once and how they conducted their life, irrespective of who had power.
  6. Power is not our there, but within us. We often choose to forget this.
  7. A dog remembers smells. A dog will return to the smell of someone that cared for it.
  8. I lie awake at night and think about—not the weather, as some song goes—but about how the world often feels in a mad rush to nowhere, because there is so much forgetting or because the demands of the marketplace exhaust our capacity for tolerance and forgiveness.
  9. There are random acts of kindness everywhere, but it seems perhaps more so in cities, where the brunt of incivility is more profound.
  10. Even on wretched days, there is light or its possibility, unless the grand human conspiracy to savage the ecosystem outruns us all.

What would politics of hope look like if this, by no means exhaustive, list of small things was taken into account?

What ruins would be left of us then?

info Created with Sketch. plus Created with Sketch.
Johannes VanDerBeek (born Baltimore, Maryland, 1982)
Ruins, 2007
Life, Time, and National Geographic magazines, wood, glue
Gift of Stefan Simchowitz

Cite this page

video: Svich, Caridad. “Caridad Svich responds to Johannes VanDerBeek’s Ruins.” 2016. Tang Teaching Museum collections website, last modified October 22, 2018.

text: Svich, Caridad. “Caridad Svich responds to Johannes VanDerBeek’s Ruins.” Tang Teaching Museum collections website. First published as “From the Small Things… or the Politics of Hope,” Accelerate: Access & Inclusion at The Tang Teaching Museum 1 (2017).

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