‘[Michelangelo] achieved just the kind of feeling I am after -he makes the viewers feel that they are trapped in a room where all the doors and windows are bricked up, so all they can do is butt their heads forever against the wall. ’ Mark Rotcko
Coca Rivas and Alberto Barreiro's notes, 5th June.
We had the idea of following the steps of the Lord of Darkness himself.
From the sky, London sketches an immense tangle of overlapping stories, a dense net of indistinguishable fiction and reality.
As the diaries of Jonathan Harker and other information gathered by Bram Stroker have it, Count Dracula moved to London in the last decade of the 19th century attracted by the artificial light of civilisation and with an anxiety only comparable to gravity when forcing the fall.
Jonathan Harker was asked to purchase three properties in different locations of the capital. Count Dracula would later store there several coffins containing Transylvanian earth to ritually reproduce the boundless power of his intimate universe.
A little more than a century after, we decided to pay visit to these places with tourists zeal and the hope of finding some remains of this obscure, romantic aura.
In Piccadilly Street, close to the Hard Rock Café, a seemingly abandoned old mansion projects a sinister shadow. Its heavy curtains are drawn. Still, a feeble light tells us that it is inhabited.
We then cross the river towards Berdmonsey and, menacingly overlooked by a council estate, we end up in Old Jamaica Street. It bends along with some ruins which are invaded by vegetation that harms the stone and hides away the syringes of the local addicts. A bit further on, somebody rests among the gravestones of an old cemetery.
We head north again to look for the number 129 of Chipsand Street, small and parallel to Whitechapel. It is where Jack the Ripper brutally murdered prostitutes. The entire neighbourhood was destroyed during the second World War by German raids and was then restored following the unconvincing criteria of the '60s.
The bilingual signs make life easier for the old, Bangladeshi immigrants and in a window of one of the few seemingly Victorian buildings, a rotten flower sinks in a glass of water, as if pointing out that a couple of metres in there someone rots away too.
It is too simple to find references to the Victorian imagery in the capital of Queen Victoria's empire. It is so easy that our attempts were completely brushed off. We came to the conclusion that the choice of these three locations must have had some hidden meaning, probably an unconscious one.
In the map, the three points trace a clear-cut triangle. Its perimeter outlines the Count's domains.
The intersection of the lines from any angle gives us the geometrical centre of the triangle and it is very probable that this location hides the secret of the mysterious property investment of the Rumanian aristocrat.
The lines crossed in the south of the Thames, quite close to its bank, facing the City and St Paul's, in the space occupied by what was once an old and majestic thermoelectric plant and is now a kind of temple for one of the most wide-spread religions of the 20th century: contemporary art. Dracula ruled from the Turbine Hall of the Tate Modern.
Alberto Barreiro's diary, 19th June
I took the day off to meet the most famous of vampires with no rush.
I had visited the new Tate quite a few times before and I could not recall any peculiar feeling, tickle or coldness down the spine to lead me into believing that that highly visited place could be hosting an obscure presence.
I left home not entirely convinced but, still, with curiosity and the desire of finding at least a detail that could confirm that Dracula, or what is left of him, is hidden in some corner of the building.
While walking, I took on a newspaper quick notes of the ideas that started to emerge in my mind, along with the rise of my enthusiasm and the closeness of my final destination.
I had reached the north side of the Millennium Bridge and I was leaving St Paul's at my back while my mind was entertaining itself with the term ‘un-dead’, adjective that defines the existential status of the vampire.
On the other side of the river, I rediscovered the immense, red-brick building that, quite beyond my expectations, had transformed itself into a coffin able to shelter anyone who was heading towards it. Even more, it was able to burn and eject us all as smoke through the enormous, central chimney so to produce the energy that keeps the illusion of this world alive and maintains constant the procession of attracted bodies crossing the river.
The high chimney reminded me that some corpses can have an erection, a pretty contradictory physical state. It then occurred to me that Dracula was not simply inside there but that he was the whole of it. He was the interior of the largest coffin ever built, and he was keeping his member firm as proof of an irreparable animalism or of life much before man, a life that was irreconcilable with civilisation. Or maybe, now that I think about it again, the high tower is nothing but the stick that Doctor Van Helsing used to hammer in the chest of vampires to fix their souls finally on the ground.
Our conjectures were not so wrong after all. I was getting closer to the main entrance, my will was weakening and I was totally aware that I was stepping into the bowel of the Beast that had turned his coffin -and human work- into his own body. And his interiors are his soul.
At first, the large Turbine Hall forced -as always- its sense of space. In that moment it did not seem that the creepy presence of the outside would manifest itself from the inside. But then I was face to face with an anthropomorphic sculpture by Gromley. An empty dummy made of lead. Its arms were open cross-like to show cuts on its hands and chest. It was when I started to perceive the un-gaze of an un-dead.
Still trapped in that feeling, I let myself slide on the escalators till I reached, almost unwillingly, a room where the visitors' chattering abruptly suffocated away. The room has a squared plant and is right in the heart of the building. Its light is much weaker than in the other rooms, it has walls painted grey and on them the series ‘Red on Maroon’ and ‘Black on Maroon’.
None but this is the anguish of vampires, of the un-dead, condemned to let themselves live eternally butting their heads against their coffins.
In Tony Scott's film ‘The hunger’ , the vampire affected by a rapid ageing is condemned to the worst of hells: the eternal conscience of himself, in total darkness, solitude and silence. Rotcko's paintings are the post-image of the world, the trace that remains in the eyes of the vampire and that fades away with his hope. Rotcko's paintings, as vampires, cannot be photographed. They are the light in the eyes of a dead person.
I fled the room that hides the conscience of the King of Vampires searching for the light of the windows overlooking the river.
Opposite stood the dome of St Paul's, built as if to mitigate the energy that just now the chimney was releasing. I turned and found myself in the room called ‘Imaginary Worlds’. I was in front of a collection of surrealist painting. The playful character had left space to random and indiscriminate brutality. The worlds of Ernst, Dalí or De Chirico look like the most terribly realistic representations of a cruel century, as cruel as the dreams of a vampire.
The pass in the rooms dedicated to the body became unbearable. I never appreciated the paleness of the portraits, never the intensity of the gazes, never time in flesh and its softness, never the cry for help of the un-dead. I heard their voices. When I got closer I realised it was coming from a video-installation by Bruce Nauman. Two monitors and in each an actor. On their faces an expression ever increasingly tensed. They repeated at different times a long list of sentences. The first I heard was:
I don't want to die
You don't want to die
We don't want to die
... this is Fear of Dead.
Immediately after the other monitor seemed to answer - tight-lipped- in a suppressed, enraged tone:
I am alive
You are alive
We are alive
... this is Living.
That's their condemn: art works share with the un-dead a condition of existence. They regard themselves as alive. And that's the way we at times perceive them. They are dead matter though, the paradox of mineral life, the disgust of a corpse with an erection.
I got out of that cemetery as somebody who had just waken up from an hypnotic trance. I did not turn around fearing that the feeling that kept me company in my search would vanish.
Crossing the bridge on my way home, I could see the black towers of the Barbican and I remembered that from the high balcony of a flat of the buildings, Susan Sarandon - in her role of an accomplished and victorious vampire - closes the film ‘the Hunger’ looking with satisfaction towards the place where the Tate Modern is now or, better said, the place where Count Dracula rests.
Alberto Barreiro © 2002
thanks Sian for the deep and extensive analysis of the piece.
I specially agree with the part where you say "I like...", but the description in the conclusion is not bad either, let me quote you: "...this story."
very insightfull, indeed.
I like this story.