Sybren Vanoverberghe’s 1099: A Violent Compression

“The world itself defines humanity by an unceasing and unrelenting violence”


Sybren Vanoverberghe‘s 1099: A Violent Compression Art Paper Editions.

Text: Brad Feuerhelm

The world itself defines humanity by an unceasing and unrelenting violence. This violence can be seen in the material record of geology, but also in historical ruin. The violence that oversees the historical ruin is often cast by the same tremulous and disturbing aggressions, but not always. The historical ruin is indebted to the territorial folly of man and his cultures.



In short summary of this thought, I would like to hereby defer to the great philosopher Paul Virilio about his observations of the ruins of WWII Atlantic wall bunkers from his exceptional book Bunker Archaeology as it relates to the weight and violence of the archetized and stratified world of geology (sinking sand) culture (re-purposed use) and oppressive architectural ruin (battered walls and perception)…


“I was most impressed by a feeling, internal and external, of being immediately crushed. The battered walls sunk into the ground gave this small block-house a solid base; a dune had invaded the interior space, and the thick layer of sand over the wooden floor made the place even narrower. Some clothes and bicycles had been hidden here; the object no longer made the same sense, though there was still protection here”.



Virilio calls into question the modern post-war ruin as an edifice of intent that has been reversed. He speaks of the massive concrete chambers of the Atlantic bunker ruin as though it were inviting and womb-like noting its ability to be reclaimed to mud and sea. He comments about its ability to protect, but how this protection comes at the cost of the author’s perception to both his body and the space itself. He recognizes the value of the bunker as it becomes emblematic of the “Atlantean” as it becomes buried in a tide of sand.


These colossal ruins that Virilio describes I myself have visited. I have photographed them and I have felt pure nausea inside their constricting bellies. These bunkers, in their march towards the sea have tilted to stand nearly upright. I have sat perpendicular to the bunkers roof inside as the impossible heft of so much concrete slides into the sea over time and I have ruminated about what fortune I must have to at once find shelter and at the same moment to have understood the gravity of my surroundings and their eventual compression into the belly of the Atlantic. It was fortuitous in its disruption of my perception of the intersection of safety and threat culminating in something that should I surmise that Pascal could have penned centuries ago in his book Pensees; the precipice from where I sat so close to life and death.



Within, I could recognize only a muted and ignoble sound from my sun-cracked lips; a hoarse wheeze which said everything about the beauty of the futility in which we believe our endeavors to succeed our bodies. In the dark tomb-like bunker, you could hear the sounds of grabs scurrying close to you waiting for the return of the reclaiming tide hiding from the din of children playing just outside. Ruins are often left as challenges of our perception towards time. The material that is enlisted in their use becomes a portal for which we must bear witness towards our inevitable end. They are also poor and feverish attempts in which we long and yearn to be recognized, the flag-bearing continuum of events past our observation. Ruins are lasting vestigial signs of pride before the metaphoric fall.



If things left unsaid are still to be learned, we must consider tumult and a dysphoria of time to be the sole progenitor of our existence and our primary right to access and systemize knowledge. Without accepting the inherent violence of the world, we cannot assume an architecture of knowledge or ascribe a distribution of value to its meaning.


“Without accepting the inherent violence of the world, we cannot assume an architecture of knowledge or ascribe a distribution of value to its meaning”


We may trace the undergirding of the material world, its latticework rebar and its potential as refuge, but to ignore its consistently brutal means is to court unconscious peril and in doing so we compete in the complete failure of the categorization of self as it relates to the material world and its seizures. These terrors, these violent markings shoulder the language of the world. It is no different that how we address our accomplishments along the landscape left to weather and wear; our architecture the codified referent for the violence of a language of life communicated by defect, default and defeat.



Layer upon layer of once-submerged silt lies atop calcified layers of reduced organic matter. Seashells, ash, dried and pulverized bone are the credentials for which to associate our significance. Without these layers of formed and unforgiving striations, we cannot access the passing of moments, nor the shifts to the earthen crust that we trod upon. This earth, in its unforgiving magnitude presents us with the ultimate qualification for life; namely upheaval. The records of its upheaval are sheltered under vast azure stretches of water and sand and when exposed, reveal a record of survival born from chaos unseen.



Upheaval, conflict, and disaster; natural or other give us the language of life. Without the eruption of Vesuvius in A.D. 79, a renaissance could not have been born. Without the excruciating pain of the inquisition, a religion could not have been challenged. We are born from these tremulous affairs and they form the very quest for meaning and understanding of our position within the cosmos. We are in essence born from these matters of violence. This violence is a specific language that we inherit with birth, our birth, but also the birth of our systems of knowledge.


“This violence is a specific language that we inherit with birth, our birth, but also the birth of our systems of knowledge”


Our endeavors, in the face of countless disruptions, plagues, wars and calamity are to present our forward facing cultures with ramparts, a hail of spears and mighty claims chiseled into the stone portico of folding stone keeps. These same portico’s that extoll the greatness of our ability to build and to war are but mere talismans of our larger fight against the erosion of our existence by the governance of tragedy and we capitulate, rend and dissolve all manner of empire, leaving only blackened and burnt bone shard, pottery detail and weathered wall as testament against the encroaching sands of time destined to bury and conceit our very presence.



Sybren Vanoverberghe recognizes the paucity of our efforts to harness time and empire through physical record. He assumes the position of an observer meandering through the ruins of the contemporary world looking at walls, mosaics, architecture and stone. He files away their surfaces, makes notes of the mortar between clay oven-fired bricks and ascribes a new value to their documentation suggesting a deep understanding of the violence of empire, of culture and of ruin. His instance to govern these models of ages allows him the freedom to stand oblique to their edifice and to act as a scribe translating historical defect into future concern. He walks and works between worlds penning notes of a time indecipherable from the past and future alike and in his doubt of what is observed, he finds greater truth in regarding the present moment, the only autonomous point of reference. His work will live on as it must, conscribing itself to the same actualization as the ruins that lumber before him; that of a displaced decay.



In 1099, Sybren Vanoverberghe proposes that we consider time, material essence, but also the paucity of memory as it relates to our efforts to combat futility through architecture and lasting elements. His effortless ability to illustrate our condition lies within his ability to understand and to disseminate the one casual truth of our collective efforts-that they are immaterial and that our ability to describe them in language temporal.


“In 1099, Sybren Vanoverberghe proposes that we consider time, material essence, but also the paucity of memory as it relates to our efforts to combat futility through architecture and lasting elements”



Vanoverberghe concentrates his efforts on the material remnants of history. Brick is word and leaves itself stacked and exposed to toppling down, creating the clausterphobia of rubble. His insight into the exotic and somehow still familiar forms ask the viewer to consider what effort, shelter and imperial architecture mean in a world in which nothing is but sand. How shall we speak about the past if it is not allowed to govern our present and obliquely challenge our future? The circulation of images of these architectural deformities that Vanoverberghe calls attention to are the challenged trophies of civilizations lost and whose mere existence bravely rests in our ability to discuss them and yet like any lost civilization buried deep beneath the sands of time or the rising waters of a lost archipelago, Vanoverberghe acknowledges that memory, history and culture are there to be ruined and his work enables the conceptual framework for which we are to view and challenge their edifice. The scaffolding as it were of this confrontational with historical materiality is ironically (not cynically the foundation, the very bedrock for understanding the violence of time against human concepts of progress. In calling these bold elements into question, Vanoverberghe releases us from the manacles of a destiny and gives license, true license for us to understand the complexity and violent world in which we exist and for which we wish to communicate in futility.



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