Artists David Medalla and Adam Nankervis have spent the last week retracing the footsteps of Kurt Schwitters, visiting some of the places associated with Schwitters in the North West — including Warth Mill in Bury, described as a ‘claustrophobic terrifying dungeon’, where Schwitters was incarcerated with other artists in 1940, and Elterwater in Cumbria, site of his famous Merz Barn. Schwitters also spent some time in Salford and Manchester so, acting as flaneurs, in the spirit the nineteenth century French dandies who observed the city, the pair have also wandered around Manchester and Salford seeing what these places throw up. The resulting flaneuries, including text and images, will be shown in Tate Britain in two years time for a Schwitters retrospective.
During their visit, they stayed in the bed and breakfast at Islington Mill in Salford, where I had a chat with David. He explained: “We haven’t had any rest. Flaneurie is a French thing that involves walking around noting things, observing them and initiating actions. The end is organic.” He explains that the flaneurie fits in with his work as: “I do a lot of walking around. I’ve done things in the street all over the world — in the slums of India, in Africa, in Latin America." He added that the unpredictable nature of flaneurie is another appeal: "One oscillates between necessity and choice or a combination of both. I enjoy anything and I say yes to everything. A lot of my work is very ironic and totally unpredictable.”
David was born in the Philippines but went to Columbia University in New York, and has lived and worked all over the world. He met Adam in the Chelsea Hotel and they’ve been long-term collaborators but David describes it as more like a ‘dialogue’ because he lives in Bracknell and Adam is currently based in Berlin.
David’s half-century career has been fuelled by chance encounters and impromptu performances, taking “coincidences and chance and uniting them in a curious way”. Particular favourites he reminisces about are Mr Casanova International, a street performance where young men were asked to read sex adverts from the local newspaper, only realising they had taken part in a performance years later when they looked back and remembered and a toy Bambi shitting (photocopied) $100 bills all over Manhattan — an artwork which nearly got him sued by Disney! Spanning performance, land art and kinetic art, he’s also famous for creating hundreds of machines, including sand machines and bubble machines, and sculptures shaped like flowers that close when it’s cold and open when warm, and respond to favourite smells and sounds, such as lovers’ armpits, birds in the morning and jet planes overhead.
His works are often interventions into cities and places, reacting and responding to what’s around. 'Elegies for bendy buses', for example, was inspired when “babies in prams started making very interesting sounds. They were imitating the closing of the doors like a mechanical lullaby”. For one performance, David walked up and down Westminster wearing boxing gloves. “People were depressed about having to go to work on a blue Monday so I punched them. Some would punch me back which was quite terrifying.” For another work called Salute Roma, undertaken when David was homeless, he slept on a different one of Rome’s seven hills on each day of the week.
He’s made a hat, which he puts on during our interview, that he’s built from found objects during his visit: an alphabet in Chinese and English, playing cards arranged in full houses and part of a Salford University student newspaper with the headline ‘Change that’s just too big to fathom’, because he “liked what it said”, which he found during a visit to Salford Museum and Art Gallery. Across the road, David also took inspiration from a Karl Marx quote on the wall of the Working Class Movement Library, reading ‘Philosophy only explains the world. We have to change it’, although he thinks “Marx should have added three words — ‘for the better’.”
He plans to develop the hat further as a performance — “I will stand in front of estate agents in London saying ‘it’s full house’. I think I will be hated by estate agents — they rent even garages out for £1million”— and eventually visit the potteries of Stoke-on-Trent to create a ceramic version.
David has long been a fan of Schwitters’ work, which also crossed genres to encompass everything from collage to sound poetry. He explained: “My take on Schwitters is personal. I really like his work. I stayed in a cheap hotel when I first arrived in Paris and in a gallery two doors away was a very beautiful work by Schwitters — the rusty wheel of a pram called The Sailor, which I didn’t understand and it didn’t look like a sailor to me but I asked the gallery who it was and later I found out a lot about Schwitters."
He continued: "The Merz Barn has had a great influence on artists and on architects, for example Frank Gehry. Eventually they’ll make a musical of Schwitters’ life. His poems are beautiful when they are recited by him, even with old fashioned, amateur recordings.”
David particularly admires Schwitters’ 'transformation and renewal', explaining: “He thought that with the right spirit we can make a new kind of world, he was very optimistic. Schwitters was from a middle class, comfortable family but they [the Nazis] said he was a degenerate artist. He had to flee Germany and was incarcerated but he had that strength. He had to live in the cold in the barn in Cumbria with his wife and no heating except body heat and that’s admirable. That’s a lesson people can take. Human beings can suffer any form of destruction but with the right spirit can transcend it.
“I have a moment of sympathy as I was conceived and born during the second world war and ninety per cent of Manila was bombed during the war but I had an opinion that you could build a better world.”
David thinks it is important to, as he terms it, ‘surf the angst’. He advises: “There are moments when you get angst, despair, worry and fear. Learn how to use the moment and make the most of crisis and calamity.”
The Merz flaneuries project isn’t the first time David has produced work inspired by Schwitters or visited the Merz Barn in Cumbria. Two years ago he did a performance for which participants were given each other’s phone numbers and told to ring each other at midnight on one side of the barn, and recited their favourite vegetables on the other side of the barn, a response to Schwitters moving from Hanover — the city — to Cumbria — the countryside. David explained: "It was a poem, a choral symphony. It started to have a rhythm.”
David has been invited back to Islington Mill for a residency in October, and is interested in the city’s renewal. He visited Manchester for the first time in the 1960s, and remembers “the mills were closing and it was the end of the industrial revolution. There was a feeling of having been bombed (which it had, during WWII).”
He is looking forward to returning: “The new culture is really rising up. It’s amazing. When I come back I hope to do something about Manchester.”
Merz Flaneuries was part of a series of city wide events celebrating the work and legacy of Kurt Schwitters throughout March.
Find out more at www.merzman.co.uk.