What Remains by Artun Özgüner

What remains

There is a fresco in Istanbul’s Chora Church that depicts the resurrection of Christ and his salvation of the human kind from Hell. Concerned with understanding the end of times and the world, as we know it, Christian eschatology projects this motif for the resurrection of Christ, which is widely referred to in most Abrahamic religions in the imagination of the apocalypse. Accordingly, Christ prevails over Satan, breaks the locks of Hell saving Adam and Eve for redemption. The fourteenth century fresco in the Chora Church also follows these iconographic conventions. However, beyond the spiritual message of the image, something that lies bare in front of the onlooker’s eyes is intriguing; a material heap of scattered padlocks and gates on Satan’s trampled remains. In a way, this image shows us the profane, material remains of the apocalypse, once the struggle with evil or the enemy is over, and all humanity is sublimated, transfigured into celestial, heavens. A heap of broken padlocks. So prolific and detailed are these depictions that one may give a detailed historical account of thirteenth century padlocks.

Detail of the thirteenth-century fresco from the parekklesion of the Church of Chora, Istanbul.

I take long walks nowadays, as we all do. The first couple of weeks, I would go to nearby parks. Then I felt the need to stare blankly at an expanse of water, so I set the ponds a few hundred meters away as a new destination for a couple more days. It doesn’t matter how big or small one’s prison is. Once you hit your walls, you begin to dwell on them. There’s no going back to the centre or the previous periphery. Whether it is a room, a neighborhood, a country, the earth, or another planet. Humanity is always about shifting the walls of its prison. Why do we get bored in our spaces? Is it the space itself that becomes uninteresting after a while, or the sense of being confined? Or, all the more acutely, is boredom a sign of weakness, an incapacity to engage in one’s own disinterestedness, regardless of the limitations of space, as Riet was questioning?

So, one day, I decided I needed a change. I realised that I have been avoiding the more densely populated areas towards southern neighborhoods. One explanation of why I steered away from these areas was not motivated by precautionary measures. I wanted to avoid the apocalyptic scenes of the lockdown; deserted bars, abandoned restaurants, long supermarket queues and near empty busses, except for those who still have to use them. When I finally presided over my fear, I walked in the opposite direction towards central London. With all the lockdown measures in place, my fears of the apocalyptic scenery were met with proper referents. PVC shields placed on grocery tills to protect workers, stencil or sticker signs on pavements to remind pedestrians of social distancing measures, security-taped park benches, dashed and thrown-away masks, non-degradable wipes, latex gloves, emptied-out hand sanitiser containers, plywood panels covering shop fronts.

Material remains of our current state of affairs. Photographs by author.

Where are the cigarette butts, Aubree?  Those that used to cover the pavements as ghostly markers of people having gathered there once; in front of pubs, bus stops, restaurants, museums, theatres and cafés. They seemed to have disappeared with all the people. When we will be saved from this “evil” epidemic, these will instead be the material remains that have witnessed our distress and accompanied us through this turmoil. As objects they seem to silently cry out that something has happened in the deserted streets where very few humans now linger. I couldn’t help but think of them as the scattered padlocks after the resurrection depicted in the Chora Church fresco. Potential material remains of yet another profane apocalypse that are likely to stay around well after our lives are once again “saved”. In a thousand years time, if archeologists dug them up from garbage pits, what will these silent objects tell of our attitudes and beliefs, some probably futile, towards the current health crisis?

We don’t know what the current heap of material will reveal about us in the future, or how people will look at them to understand us, but there is a backward way of understanding the human attitude towards a pandemic. When you search for “plague” in the Victoria and Albert Museum’s online catalogue, nearly a hundred striking objects yield in the result. They range from diamond pendants to silver rings, seen as amulets to ward off the evil of the plague. There are ivory implements from the 1750s, which were used to grate dried tobacco into snuff, believed to be a protection against the Black Death. A pipe case from around the 1690s is a reminder that even children were taught to smoke at school, since it was believed to cleanse the air. Another fancy object, from the 1500s, is a “pomander”, a hollow silver rosary bead or pendant that could be filled with strong aromatic substances, believed to ward off numerous diseases.

The most striking of all, however, are the less affluent objects. Objects that are nonetheless remnants of the plague, but not some elaborate product, with a promise of protection that has been passed down from collector to collector, until finally landing into the safeguard of the institution. These are namely, some leather shoes with the pairs lost, found in the various plague pits of London in Finsbury, Moorgate or London Wall. They are not even, as the V&A catalogue reminds us, findings from “excavations in the modern sense”, but rather accidental ones, found by workmen on building sites. They are reminders that, then as now, not all of us have the luxury to afford more sophisticated objects to protect ourselves, or put it more honestly, to afford the luxury to “fight off demons” that are no more self-evident then the health threat outside. One shoe particularly, dating from somewhere between the mid-fifteenth to sixteenth century (when the second wave of the plague pandemic had hit), is strikingly evocative, as it would have fitted a one-year old toddler barely getting on her feet. Of course it is very tempting to speculate that the shoe might have been worn by a very young victim of the plague, who was possibly not affluent enough to protect herself with ivory tobacco graters or silver pomanders. The V&A catalogue reminds us that from the materials used, the shoe possibly was a product for the lower and middle class citizens of London. This is because leather was used for practical footwear as opposed to silk and velvet worn by the wealthy. The catalogue also reassures us that given its pristine condition, the shoe could not have been discarded due to excessive wear. So our shoe might have indeed ended up in the pit prematurely along with the grim fate of its young owner.

Leather shoe. 1450-1550 (made). London (found). Courtesy of the Victoria & Albert Museum.

If anything I wish I could tell the story of the little child, who wore this shoe. What kind of a world did they live in? What did they like, what made them laugh? What did they play with? And if they were cruelly devoured by the Black Death so prematurely (if not the wearer of these shoes, some others definitely) what did they see in the very little time they lived? Years from now, long after our struggle with COVID-19, some of our contemporary objects will be accidentally found elsewhere, and I am afraid that what they will say about us will not be so different from the social discrepancies evident in the objects at the V&A Museum catalogued with the plague tag. We may be victorious over some “evil” virus, but some other evils, of a more social nature, live on and they leave their mark on what remains.

Thinking of that little child, I suddenly realise that boredom too is a luxury not affordable for all in times of turmoil. There must be something or better yet things, that makes us human after all. On my next walk, I decide to ask for a cigarette from a comrade approaching from a distance. They will understand.

Artun Özgüner is a PhD candidate on the V&A / RCA History of Design programme. His research explores the trajectories of commemorating and representing the Turkish nation-state through physical monuments and print media from the 1908 Constitutional Revolution of the Ottoman Empire onwards. He also teaches in Contextual and Theoretical Studies at the University for the Creative Arts.