During my degree in the early 1990s, I did a lot of work on the Tower of London, and in particular on the inscriptions made by prisoners incarcerated in the Beauchamp Tower. I worked with video at the time, mixing text taken from Dante’s journey through Hell with images of my own walk through the Tower. This weekend, while visiting the Tower, I relished the chance, in light of the work I’ve been doing on both my MA and this residency, of seeing them again, and, just as they did almost 15 years ago, these inscriptions once again captured my imagination.
Having visited Auschwitz and Ypres, I became aware, in this small room, of the nature of memorials. In Ypres, the main memorials are the graves and the names on the Menin Gate. At Auschwitz it is the possessions left by the victims. In this small room, prisoners who knew they would die, or at least feared for their lives, made their own memorials, sometimes carving very elaborate testaments to their own existence in the most difficult of conditions. Some would memorialise the long hours they endured and the torment which they suffered, such as that by William Tyrell. Carved in 1541 it is particularly poignant:
“Since Fortune has chosen that my hope should go to the wind to complain,
I wish the time were destroyed; my planet being ever sad and ungracious.”
In wishing ‘the time were destroyed,’ William Tyrell through carving the fact into the wall, has made not only time, but that particular moment, endure for as long as the walls remain standing, a moment which we can share some 465 years later. It’s strange how the moment remains yet his suffering has for centuries been at an end. He speaks to us directly and by hearing him in our own voices we can share more directly in his pain. Would the carving be so powerful if it was a fragment in a museum? No, I don’t think it would. The fact we are seeing it in situ, standing in the exact place he stood helps us to fill in the gaps more easily. We get a sense of his confinement, his life and the impossible sense of freedom as glimpsed through the window – the freedom which for us is not only possible, but certain. It is this same sensation which I felt in Auschwitz-Birkenau, the knowledge that I could at any time just walk out the gate. Here, I could simply turn and walk out the door. It is this rather uncomfortable contrast which makes the plight of William Tyrell, among many others all the more tragic.
The objects in Auschwitz, in particular the suitcases, were in many respects, memorials in their own time, unwitting memorials perhaps to a place (a home, a normal life) from which the victims had been driven. The names inscribed on the walls of the Beauchamp Tower however memorialise the place of confinement, the period of incarceration.
“We have been living this same moment ever since we were conceived. It is memory, and to some extent sleep, that gives the impression of a life of discrete parts, periods or sections, of certain times or ‘highlights’.”
This quote from Bill Viola is particularly pertinent when one imagines what it was like to be incarcerated in a space such as was William Tyrell. No doubt during his captivity, Tyrell spent time remembering, casting his mind back over periods in his life, over ‘discrete parts’ and ‘highlights’. And if ever a person is aware of living the same moment, then it must be the prisoner confined in his cell.
There is something else about this quote which is also pertinent to the room in the Beauchamp Tower. The myriad number of inscriptions covering the walls were carved over a period of almost two centuries and give us impressions of not only a single life as consisting of discrete parts, but of lives as being discrete parts of a greater whole or single moment of existence, an existence (the room) in which we are playing as much a part as the men once held prisoner within.
“If things are perceived as discrete parts or elements they can be rearranged. Gaps become more interesting as places of shadow.”
Using the example of the Beauchamp Tower, one can see how this rearrangement of which Bill Viola speaks takes place in the mind of the visitor. Time is collapsed into a moment, a period of almost two centuries is visible to us in one look around the room. Years and decades separate many of these carvings, yet we are aware of only the blur of the past. We are in effect rearranging these discreet periods, creating gaps – interesting (and ambiguous) places of shadow – which we fill with our own experience.