developed for Scape Public Art
My people, they have suffered. But where are my people, and how?
My people, they have suffered. But where are my people, and how?- Victor Velichki
When Kyril Velichki left Sofia in 1918, he kept his reasons to himself. An inventory of his suitcase, taken on arrival at the Boston docks detailed the following contents: two jerseys (woollen), one pair trousers, one bible, two letters (language unknown), miscellaneous tools.
This last was an arsenal of tiny hammers and pliers and files rolled in an oilcloth. Eastern Europe was in the grip of communist uprisings. An immigration official confiscated the tools on the suspicion that the softly spoken, hard-eyed young Bulgarian might use them to manufacture bombs.
In fact Velichki was a master goldsmith. He had little English, but he dazzled the Jewish smiths of South End with his hands. With the Boston Jewellers’ Guild behind him, Velichki got his tools back. The first thing he made was two tiny masterpieces in a dark rose gold that glowed like embers.
The first, an exquisite miniature of Boston’s Cathedral of the Holy Cross, was breathtakingly exact. This he donated to the Guild. The second, which lived on his work bench and later disappeared, depicted St Nedelya, the cathedral in Sofia that had presided over his childhood. Those who looked closely at his St Nedelya saw that he had rendered the dome and the heart of the church as a ruin, as if a bomb had gone off inside.
Early each morning when the electric lamps were still lit, Velichki would pass the industrial area at Keany Square on his way to work. On a winter’s day he felt the ground shake. A roar like a freight train filled the streets, then he heard rattling gunfire as thousands of rivets burst. Up ahead, a round holding tank the size of a small apartment block collapsed.
The tank held molasses. A 40-foot-high wall of midnight swept through the town, throwing buildings from foundations, hurling a truck into the harbour, felling lampposts, picking up smiths and children and horses like driftwood. The streets turned to an oozing black sea populated by the strange, heaving, golem-like forms of drowning women and men.
The sugar in that tank came from the humid mountainous region south of Mexico City known as the Morelos Commune. The plantations and mills, long worked by Indian slave labour, had been captured by the Zapatista movement and turned over to peasant cooperatives to run. What flooded Boston came from sugar canes owned, reared and milled by calloused workers’ hands.
But in the months before the Boston disaster, the army had retaken Morelos. The wealthy hacendados, back in control of their estates, held a dinner dance for the relief effort in Boston. Flushed with victory, the drinkers at the Hacienda Tenango pledged six hundred pounds, and stoked a sugarcane bonfire till it lit the clouds. The money went towards installing new tungsten electric lamps in Keany Square.
The routed Zapatistas organised their own benefit for workers killed in Boston. They raised twelve pounds, which they gave to visiting American journalist Susanne Rand to deliver. She went on to visit Tultepec, where local artisans have been selling bespoke fireworks since the eighteenth century. The money was never seen again.
At the Merced Market in Mexico City, they sell Tultepec fireworks in the candy section. In 1986, in one of the market’s narrow crowded alleyways, someone dropped a cigarette into a crate of fireworks. The explosion detonated the wares in every neighbouring stall. It was a radiant artillery barrage of emerald and silver and gold; months of celebration compressed into a few lethal hours. In that technicolour hell more than sixty people lost their lives. Bereaved locals demanded fireworks sales be regulated. Then the earthquakes happened. “Everyone forgot about the fireworks,” a resident said.
Delegates at a rescue dog conference in Texas were in the air within ten hours of learning that an 8.0 quake had pounded Mexico City. Dog teams headed straight out into the haemorrhaging streets to locate the living and the dead. Team Four was led by a middle-aged Korean named Kim Young-Min and his German Shepherd, Myeongdo. Myeongdo means ‘brightness’ in Korean. For 17 people trapped in the rubble, the light at the end of the tunnel was Myeongdo’s wet black snout.
Myeongdo was born in Songpa, one of a litter of ten. In Songpa at night, in the vibrant south-east of Seoul, red and white neon crucifixes light the wide slow waters of the Han River. The Han takes its rise from Mount Daedeok in South Korea, and Kumgang Mountain in North Korea. Between 1950 and 1951, armies swept back and forth across this land like windscreen wipers clearing rain. The city was taken and retaken four times, and it doesn’t matter by whom, because after the war the two armies ended up exactly where they’d begun. Half a generation was slaughtered or starved. Only the highest-ranking officers had socks.
At the outbreak of war the thin, electrifying poet Ko Un was too malnourished to fight. The South put him to work burying the dead. He poured poison in his ears to drown the sounds of fighting, then, after the war, sought deeper silence as a Zen monk. He left the temple after he was found attacking the ancient wooden floor with an axe, screaming kill the Buddha, the Buddha must die! The master of the temple had laughed, and agreed.
Ko Un tried to kill himself. He tried to dissolve himself in booze, in writing 150 books, in helping lead the movement against the dictatorship of Park Chung-Hee. Nothing helped. He’d had to carry corpses on his back during the war, and he never managed to put them down.
In the dark of solitary confinement, sentenced to 20 years for treason, Ko Un began his masterwork, the Maninbo, the Ten Thousand Lives. He wrote one poem for each person he’d ever met. Memory was his lantern. His readers carry the lantern to Seattle, to St Moritz to Adelaide and beyond.
After the steady winter rains of 1938 and the lush spring that followed, a January heatwave turned the Adelaide Hills to tinder. Once lit, they broke into a wild sea of fire. With no organised fire-fighting force, six thousand volunteers tackled the blaze with tree branches and wet sacks. Everyone survived. The livestock was maimed and the people were soot-faced and dead-eyed, reduced to refugees.
In the aftermath, a caravan of trucks and carts rolled into town carrying a company of Chinese acrobats, dancers and singers. They came from Hebei, Fujian, Gansu. The visitors pledged half their profits to the bushfire relief fund. Crowds poured in. After the donkey polo match, the crowds cooed beneath “a display of fireworks exceeding in brilliance anything yet seen in South Australia”. But “the highlight of the pageant [was] the Chinese dragon, 140 ft long … festooned with hundreds of flickering electric lights, and manned by dozens of Chinese under a canopy of golden silk.”
In Gansu Province, Zhao Yu turned off the lamp. A slit of gold from the streetlight outside lit her husband’s sleeping face. She drifted off to the steady hiss of night rain, and dreamed she was waiting at Lanzhou Station for the Shanghai Express. When the train swung into view the passengers surged forward, pushing her onto the tracks. She looked up to see the train accelerating towards her and woke, panicked, to find the roar shaking the room. She lifted the blinds and saw, briefly, illuminated by the lamp at the end of the street, the boiling front edge of one million, eight hundred thousand cubic metres of mud and rock.
Gansu flooded with quilted winter coats and rice, water and rescuers, love and funds. Supporters gathered on dusk in Belgrade, in Dusseldorf, in Singapore, to stand with China in silent mourning. They lit candles and arranged them in the shape of a heart. In some of the city’s overly-lit centres it was hard to see the flames.
Across the cities of their empire, Britain timed the introduction of street lamps with Queen Victoria’s birthday, binding progress and light to colonial rule. On the 24th of May, 1864, Singapore’s gas lamps were lit for the first time. According to the Straits Times, “Many small groups … could be seen gathered round the lamp-posts and curiously pointing to the light”.
Today progress against the dark is complete. Singapore is the most light-polluted place on earth. It’s impossible to see the Milky Way. When Simon Chong, born in National University Hospital on the 24th of May, 2016, gets old enough to wonder about the swarming universe overhead, when he gazes skyward, he will see a street light on a pole.
In 2015 Singapore donated an elegant red street lamp to Christchurch, returning a little light to one city, and a little darkness to the other. Somewhere in the suburbs of Singapore where that lamp-post once stood, there’s now a tiny island of blackness. This is the spot where Simon Chong needs to stand.
Photographed from space by the surveillance satellite Antar IV on the night of February 22nd, 2011, Christchurch, New Zealand looked strangely similar to Christchurch, England in 1811. The city is a study in darkness, softened by torches and candles and bonfires flickering like stars. It looks exquisite. Except for the glare of rescuers’ floodlights burning in Cathedral Square, which destroys the illusion of peace. You can’t really see an earthquake from space.
The Bulgarian surveillance satellite Antar IV circumnavigates the earth every year. The unmanned craft redeems its paranoid cold-war origins by beaming back stunning night-time images of human civilisation as it evolves.
The latest nocturnal images from Antar IV show Christchurch’s arteries once more lit up in gold. Here are new suburbs and factories, beaming their existence into space. Here is the cathedral, still ruined and still bright. Darkness lives on in the bends of the Ōtākaro, the Avon River, unfurling through the city like ink. The 21 new points of light on its bank are powered by memories of darkness in other parts of the world.
In Sofia the darkness came in the spring of 1925. Thousands of mourners crowded into St Nedelya Cathedral to pay last respects to General Konstantin Georgiev. The Bulgarian Communist Party had assassinated Georgiev, then invited their enemies to his funeral with forged invitations. Men wore medals and women wore fur. The Bishop’s funeral sermon soared. Across the mourner’s bare heads, two men caught the eye of a third and nodded, then slipped outside.
Explosives hidden in the cathedral’s roof tore through the stone columns and dropped the mighty dome onto the crowd. Five hundred were injured and 200 died. Rubble and retaliation spilled into the streets. At curfew they lit the lamps to a blaze, but the city’s heart was black.
St Nedelya would be rebuilt, but the original plans had been destroyed in the blast. No complete set of photographs of the facades existed. Everyone agreed the cathedral had been perfect, but everyone remembered it in an imperfect way.
A parcel arrived at the Ministry for the Interior with an American postmark. Fearing a bomb, the package was submerged in water then opened in a muddy field. Inside, brothers Todor and Valko Danchev found a tiny gold replica of St Nedelya. The facades were impeccably detailed: here was the perfect reproduction they could use to rebuild the cathedral. But when they looked closer they saw that Velichki’s miniature, cast seven years before the blast, showed the dome collapsed, the heart of the building a ruin. The security men held it to the light in wonder and fear.
- Client - Scape Public Art
- Date Completed - 2017
- Details - In the aftermath of the 2011 Christchurch earthquakes, which killed 185 people and destroyed most the central city, German artist Mischa Kuball was commissioned to create Solidarity Grid, an artwork comprising 21 street lights donated by sister cities around the world I was commissioned to write a response to the artwork, to be published in a book about the project The result is a work of linked fragments based on real disasters that happened to the cities who donated lights