These fragments I have shored against my ruin
IN HIS WORKS, Martin Healy represents through photography, film and video his interest in the occult and systems of belief. His works such as Facsimile (2009), Fugue (2011) and Last Man (2011) choose as their starting point science fiction texts that are inter-related in their investigation into ways of being, ideologically and psychologically. His recent film works resonate with discussions surrounding projects for social change. The locus for transformation in the form of social, technological or environmental developments are all key elements in Fugue (2011) and Last Man (2011). Science fiction writing is paramount to accessing these underlying themes. Writers of science fiction use the medium as a means to propose political ideologies in which they imagine a society that breaks with the present society and project into the future; this is synonymous with the concept of Utopia. The relationship between Utopia and the political as well as the value of utopian thinking and its association with socialism continue to be unresolved and continually debated. Healy investigates this relationship through his dystopian films; they situate themselves within a present or projected time where the remnants of these ideological projects are what remain. The displacement of time and the sense of loss in these works highlight the failure of the utopian projects and the nostalgia for all things modern registers that the present is at a point of radical change.
Edward Bellamy’s ‘Looking backward 2000 to 1887’ (1888) forms the basis for Healy’s film work Fugue. The book was published in the late 19th century and influenced many intellectuals of the time and was associated with Marxist and socialist theory. The book’s protagonist Julian West, falls into a hypnosis-induced sleep in the dystopian conditions of the 1880s and wakes up one hundred and thirteen years later to a socialist utopia. The book captures the period’s radical sense of its own historical discontinuity and that change was imminent, similar to the current state of play within our own historical moment. West finds a guide, Doctor Leete, to explain to him the advances of the time; less working hours, retirement by 45, the goods of society are equally distributed, the emergence of consumer cooperatives. Bellamy’s version of socialism did not involve radical revolution but social evolution and had mass appeal to the average American of that period.
The glass city described by Bellamy is reminiscent of contemporary cities and is thought to have had an influence on urban planning and the development of garden cities. The setting of Fugue is the garden city of Tapiola in Finland that was designed in the 1950s and 60s. It was one of the first post-war ‘new town’ projects of Europe. The project was conceptualised by Heikki Von Hertzen and was an ideological experiment in that it was a collaboration between the disciplines of architecture, sociology, civil engineering, landscape gardening, domestic science and youth welfare. The 1960s garden city differed from Bellamy’s late 19th century vision in that it was based on micro political movements. The utopian city would reflect a microcosm of Finnish society. The project was also heavily influenced by modernism and Le Corbusier principles of urban planning for public housing. His Immeubles Villas (1922) called for large blocks of cell-like individual apartments stacked one on top of the other, with plans that included a living room, bedrooms and kitchen, as well as a garden terrace. The construction of tower blocks in cities illustrates the rationalisation, functionalism and therapeutic positivism of modernist architecture that was indicative of the 1960s. In the film the lone protagonist walks through the deserted landscape of the city, the tower blocks are viewed in the distance as he stands by the side of the lake. The garden city is overgrown and there is an ominous tension in the piece as we follow the character through the landscape. It is reminiscent of the apocalyptic films such as ‘28 Days Later’ where the city streets are uncommonly empty and all that seems to have survived are birds and nature.
This film is also a psychological portrait of an individual that has become dislocated from time. The term Fugue describes a specific psychological disorder that refers to ‘double consciousness’ or a psychogenic flight. The term was first classified in the late 19th century. A fuguer is an individual who moves between identities that are the product of competing temporalities. The primary symptom of fugue is unexpected travel away from home or work usually accompanied by confusion about personal identity or even an assumption of a new identity and the inability to recall ones past. The film depicts this sense of estrangement through the use of the deserted landscape and lack of expression by the individual, which allows the viewer little relation or empathy for the character. W.E.B. Du Bois used the terms double consciousness as a model for understanding the psycho-social divisions within the structure of American Society. In his study of racism, he was of the view that people themselves were somewhat responsible for their own mistreatment; ‘it is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity’. Fugue is a metaphor for the collective psychological state, reflected through the individual.
This idea is continued in Healy’s film work Last Man, the title of which is taken from an apocalyptic science fiction novel by Mary Shelley (1826), in which the world is decimated by a plague. This reflects Shelley’s disillusionment with the French revolution and the political ideals of writers of that period such as
Edmond Burke. Hugh Luke commented that “by ending her story with the picture of the Earth’s solitary inhabitant, she has brought nearly the whole weight of the novel to bear upon the idea that the condition of the individual being is essentially isolated and therefore ultimately tragic”. Healy’s Last Man illustrates this idea of the tragic isolated figure. The janitor wanders around what we imagine was once a busy airport terminal now defunct, he continues his everyday task of cleaning the terminal. The futility of his actions reflects his isolation and his denial to accept the current situation. This piece reflects our collective fear, the projection of a world where oil runs out and the society that we have become accustomed to is no longer in existence.
Both films reflect on projections of the future, which is consistent with the prognosis of the earliest science fiction novels. The narrative in both leads to the same conclusion, the utopian visions of the future have not come to pass and we have become the architects of our own destruction. We are at an interesting point in history where mass protests and demonstrations dominate our news but there is no unified thought of how a globalised transformation could materialise. Frederick Jameson saw that the formal flaw with Utopia is “how to articulate the Utopian break in such a way that it is transformed into a practical-political transition – now becomes a rhetorical and political strength – in that it forces us to concentrate on the break itself; a meditation on the impossible, on the unrealizable in its own right. This is very far from a liberal capitulation to the necessity of capitalism, however; it is quite the opposite, a rattling of the bars and an intense spiritual concentration and preparation for another stage which has not yet arrived”. Healy’s films Fugue and Last Man represent the rattling of the bars that Jameson refers to for both the individual and the collective. It is a projection of an alternate future.
Mary Cremin is a curator.
The title of this essay is taken from The Waste Land by T.S. Eliot
Du Bois, W. E. B. The Souls of Black Folk. New York, Avenel, NJ, Gramercy Books, 1994.
Luke, Hugh J., Introduction. The Last Man by Mary Shelley. Lincoln, Nebraska, University of
Nebraska Press, 1965, xii.
Jameson, Frederic. Archaeologies of the future: The desire called Utopia and Other Science Fictions, London, Verso, 2005, p232.