Mounir Fatmi [Morocco/France]

The Silence of St. Peter Martyr

location of Forget: backyard, Wałowa/Lisia Grobla Str. (behind the clinic)
location of The Silence of St. Peter Martyr: wall of a building, Robotnicza Str. (can be viewed from the side of the shipyard)

Between cultures, countries and media, Moroccan artist Mounir Fatmi (who now divides time between Tangier and Paris) speaks his split identity through a “third way” synthesizing Western modernism and Islamic traditionalism. Fluent in the language of empires (France) and colonies (Morocco), he deftly marries icons of European, Oriental and Arabic traditions to investigate divisions and overlaps. The ensuing amalgams speak to both iconoclasm and synthesis – desecrating existing dogmas to highlight the eclipse of master narratives (religion/family/history) and the possibility of future hybrids. In his words, “I do not need roots; the only thing I need is a memory.” Also active as a political theorist and writer, Fatmi strategically crafts a language of metaphor and suggestion (rather than outright manifesto), arguing, “Those who shouted at the top of their lungs have lost their voice.” Instead, with unwavering urgency, earnest aspiration, and a sly, streamlined approach to the objects, videos and installations he creates, Fatmi announces: “Those who can still dream do not sleep anymore.” To seed and stretch this lucid insomnia his work repeats each action/event like the circles/cycles of religious ritual – turning gestures of faith and effacement into those of meditation and mutation. In so doing, Fatmi reorients conventional behaviors to cultivate new modes of thought: forging a trans-cultural network to fight both extremism and indifference.

When many of the theories, economic systems and ideologies from which the world was built are now in crisis, one must ask what should be preserved, and what should be forgotten? Buildings – as the physical manifestation of societal values and aspirations – embody this question. From the tallest high rises to the most humble dwellings, these structures live as the evidence of actions, and tombstones to those which have been erased. In a seemingly endless cycle of being razed and rebuilt (often as the consequence of war), Fatmi argues that – in human and economic cost – “If you want to forget, it is free…If you want to remember, that can prove expensive…” The video Forget lingers somewhere between these poles, looping historical black & white footage of paired Melchorre buildings being toppled by controlled detonation. They collapse with little fanfare, providing an inglorious end to structures built hurriedly in 1960s France to house immigrant workers as the country’s first sons were engaged in war. These buildings were ghettos for faceless workers to inhabit; yet despite their middling status and architectural failings, the Melchorre became the foundation of a community outside popular attention, and outside modernism’s dream. As a last, but ostensibly perpetual respite, Fatmi prolongs their fleeting memory by forwarding and reversing the footage – having the Melchorre rise and fall to the sound of a beeping heart rate monitor. Beating faintly but steadily in an infinite state of life, “They seem,” in the words of the artist, “to breathe, to resist the destruction, the loss, the memory. They are becoming monuments…” They are human, and in a pock-faced park adjacent to a hospital (with clear visual association to the World Trade Center towers), Forget compels us to remember the enduring link between being/s and building/s.

St. Peter Martyr (also known as St. Peter of Verona) was a 13th century Italian priest and Dominican friar both celebrated and reviled for his role as preacher, evangelist and Inquisitor. As a fierce opponent of heresy and idolatry he collected as many friends as he did enemies, eventually falling to an assassin’s strike before his canonization as a Catholic saint. According to the story of his martyrdom, after being struck by an axe to the head and knife to the back, Peter Martyr rose to his knees and recited the first article of the Apostle’s Creed. In his final moments, the steadfast devotee proceeded to dip his finger in his own blood and write “Credo in Unum Diem” (“I believe in one God”) upon the earth before succumbing to death. His unwavering fortitude was immortalized by the esteemed painter (and fellow Dominican monk) Fra Angelico (born Giovanni da Fiesale) in a 1438 fresco titled “St. Peter Martyr Enjoining Silence.” Here, with finger pressed tightly against his lips (as both a compositional and instructional device) this painting of Peter Martyr is located in a lunette above the cloister in Florence’s San Marco Church – directing the monks entering the sacristy to move quietly in their passage. Centuries later, Fatmi dislodges said finger in a digital animation/appropriation of Fra Angelico’s original painting – turning the silent, unmoving icon into a hallucinatory vision of unstable meaning. Rather than pointing to a singular purpose, Peter Martyr’s arm becomes a compass arrow gesturing in multiple directions as his eyes (and aura) move in and out of sight. Set to an aggressive mechanical soundtrack in a quasi-sacred site in the Gdansk Shipyard (was this once a church?), The Silence of St. Peter Martyr speaks volumes to the violence of that which is obscured in the absence of words. In the attempted silencing of Lech Walesa (by the KGB) he was made near-divine through Solidarity; in the post-industrial silencing of the Shipyard, will this site be reborn, or will it fall to the “cutting edge” knife of progress?