In his second visit to the Tate archive, John Burnside reflects on the death certificate of Kurt Schwitters.
In the late 1950s and early 1960s, when our little town was blessed with a variety of intriguing, soft-spoken strangers, my mother would sometimes talk, in a hushed tone, about the DPs- which, I eventually learned, meant displaced persons. Immediately, it was a term I loved, and a condition to which I secretly aspired: for me, the displaced person was someone who had given himself over to the workings of chance, not from some frivolous impulse, but in response to dire necessity that, in spite of terrible hardships, he had met more than halfway. Alone, silenced, rootless, he lived in a world that had to be re-imagined from scratch, a world of new qualities, new navigations. It was a romantic notion, of course, but it gave my small-town, backwater self a first sense of the mystery in others; the trick of growing up, I suspect, is to find it, not just in the attractive foreigner, but wherever it resides.
On 8 January 1948, at 1a Windermere Road, Kendal,a man who my mother would certainly have considered a DP died of a) Actute Pulmonary Oedema, b) Myocarditis, according to Death Certificate No 435, Death in the Sub-District of Kendal in the County of Westmoreland, which was signed by one Alexander Cochrane MD.The man, whose name was Kurt Schwitters, lived at 4 Millans Park, Ambleside; his profession is recorded as artist. I suppose we could see death as the ultimate displacement: it is a journey that takes each of us, alone, into an unknown territory, where the language is unfamiliar (what does it mean, anyhow, oedema, myocarditis; can either one kill by itself, or are they decisive only when they work together, like secret policemen?). Yet Kurt Schwitters’s death certificate is exactly the kind of narrative I think he would have appreciated: terse, strangely dramatic, absurd and, today, almost 60 years after it served its purpose, open to a variety of questions, speculations and reinterpretations. I like to think that Schwitters, in an inspired moment, could easily take some fragment of this official documentation of his demise and transform it, re-imagine it, as the very opposite. Just as he took a few letters from the name of a commercial bank in Hanover and, in the collages, sound-works and handmade buildings he created throughout his career, proposed a radical alternative to the self-perpetuating limitations of this, our so very commercial existence.
Schwitters called his work Merz and, as a displaced person, first within his own city, then in Norway, and finally at Elterwater, he built a series of Merz constructions, houses of the imagination, houses of what some would call the unconscious (he called the first, Hanover, Merzbau, a cathedral of erotic misery). But the principle of Merz is present in everything he does, from his pioneering collage and mixed media works onward: he takes the detritus of this world - the things we lose and throw away, the things we never notice we have – and he reconfigures them, investing them with a previously unrecognised, yet inherent quality. In so doing, he discovers what the great British photographer Raymond Moore calls the no-man’s land between the real and fantasy – the mystery in the commonplace – the uncommonness of the commonplace. This discovery is predicated upon a willingness to go wandering in no-man’s land, for no good reason other than that it is there, a willingness, in fact, to become a displaced person of the imagination.
I think, had she seen Kurt Schwitters on the streets of our dying coal town, waiting for the bus to the site of his first (non-existent, but nevertheless imaginable) Scottish Merzbau, my mother would have recognised him instantly. If someone had shown her his work, in a gallery, or a picture book, she would have been mystified, but, given the chance to watch him at work for an hour or two, she would have known exactly what he was about. What he was about was Merz, a programme of displacement, a lifelong discipline of re-imagining. And Merz, which some have sidelined for so long as a merely Dada gesture, turns out to be an exemplum for the truly radical art of our time. As the age of the ultra-banal began, Schwitters searched for quality in the uncommonness of the commonplace, in everything the great Kommerzbank disdained, or threw away. This is what makes his work even more subversive today, at least in the developed world: when the enemy isn’t an old-style dictator or a shadowy secret policeman, but a smiling, lightweight cultural totalitarianism, quality is more subversive than