1. A manuscript or piece of writing material on which later writing has been superimposed on effaced earlier writing.
1.1 Something reused or altered but still bearing visible traces of its earlier form.
Source: https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/palimpsest [2 May 2018]
Also: a parchment or tablet, reused after earlier writing has been erased (Oxford Dictionary).
A bit of reading about the concept of “architectural palimpsest” suggests that it is, quite simply, the idea of adding onto or modifying a structure at the same time as respecting and aesthetically honouring (some) elements of its original structure/ architecture. In particular, the notion of layers comes up time and again. Layers become a reflection both of human labour and of time passing– a thing’s history– and these layers may be removed, added to or extended upon as an architectural entity (building, room, ruins) exists and/or evolve in time.
In a graduation thesis that I came across in my research, Robert Verheij writes that “a palimpsestuous design attitude can be a method of bringing ‘depth’ and ‘meaning’ to buildings, objects and/or landscapes” (“Palimpsest in Architecture: six personal observations“, accessed 3 May 2018).
In “Room Three: Fantastic” (Places, pages 68-70), we look at the work of Gregor Schneider, Totes Haurs ur (Dead House ur). While I’m not sure of the significance of the “ur” (this work dates to 1985, long before the age of mobiles and text-message shorthand), this artwork changes constantly. It seems to me that the artist is playing with the notion of how layers are (or aren’t) seen and experienced from both the inside and outside. In this work, one does have a sense of the past haunting the present: that movement or alteration may be concealed but cannot be erased, is somehow sensed.
Within the text dedicated to this work, the quotation by Jean-Paul Sartre, addressing the “fantastic” and the ‘topsy-turvy’ world, helps me make sense of the work. Schneider creates worlds (upon worlds) not “meant to serve men, but rather to manifest […] an evasive, preposterous finality.” When I considered this work initially, I found myself asking, “But why???”
When viewed through the lense of Sartre’s notion of the inexplicable fantastic, this “why?” is missing the point. Maybe there is no point. Maybe the pointlessness is the point. It’s a disquieting exploration, and disquieting precisely because it’s inexplicable: “the signposts […] lead to nothing, the innumerable signs […] mean nothing.”
In addition to making observations about this work (as above), students are asked to give examples of noticeable textile layering. Certainly, the layering of textiles is not the first thing that comes to mind when I look at the images of Schneider’s work (pages 69-70).
What I see when I look for textiles in the images of Totes Haus ur on page 69 is the bed: a fitted white sheet atop a single mattress; a pillow covered by a white pillowcase; a thick-looking duvet, also white. A deliberate spareness and/or austerity is conveyed, here. The fact that the bed is single is suggestive of an adult living alone. The visible mattress box, also white, looks cold, hard, uninviting. The way the (apparently uncovered) duvet is folded makes the bed seem as though nobody has ever laid upon it, or slept in it. Like its waiting… The barely-perceptible sheet or towel folded neatly at the foot of the bed suggests an expectation that somebody will come— but who? And when? And again— why? This bed is not cozy or welcoming, and part of that is contextual: the juxtaposition of a single, perfectly-made bed with an empty, freestanding bathtub (no visible faucet) and the remnants of a kitchen space is surprising. In the next image, we see the same room (presumably) from another angle: same bed, same bathtub, with a gaudy yellow shade covering the window. The choices are odd: yellow within a home often conveys a sense of gaiety, but here it’s cloying, almost saccharine, unsettling. It looks like a sickly, hospital yellow, and the way it covers the window is strange: is it meant to suggest light or block out any natural light that might otherwise leak in? It’s opaque and oppressive.
As I look through the images given of this piece, I am struck not so much by the presence of textile layering but by its absence, other than the bed. There is nothing “soft’ about this space: it’s meant to repulse, confuse, disorient. Walking inside, you wouldn’t know how to inhabit the space, nor would you want to. To me, it points to the way textiles typically offer function (warmth, cushioning and comfort) in addition to aesthetic value. Carpeting, area rugs, towels, weavings, wall hangings, clothing, blankets, covers for things we use daily such as mattresses and pillows— all of these objects are functional (often muffling noise or softening hard surfaces or helping to keep a thing clean or in good condition over time) in addition to contributing to our sense of well-being and comfort.