No Stone Unturned


Hadrian’s Wall, 2022

by Farah Abdessamad

We owe to Gerardus Mercator, 16th-century geographer, to have desecrated Atlas, demoted from a Titan – one – to a physical collection of maps – multiple – available for reproduction. His Mercator projection map, first completed in 1569, straightened the earth’s surface and opened a new era in cartography and maritime navigation. Yet the project contains deep flaws; it continues to politically skew our gaze and worldview given how artificially towering northern and southern land masses appear. In 2018, Google Maps introduced a new update, a 3D Globe Mode, which differs from Mercator when fully zoomed out. But it will take much more than an IT tweak to deconstruct learned geographies and remember that Africa is 14 times the inflated size of Greenland.

I’m a compulsive late-night Google Maps user. Before going to sleep, lulled by the white noise of New York and its red, piercing sirens, I often let myself browse countries and sites as a way to confront the strangeness of sedentary life. I frenetically type, zoom, expand, reduce, close and browse to explore places I’ll probably never see in real life. It’s inexplicably comforting to know that there’s a Bullocks supermarket in Truth and Consequences, New Mexico, and to imagine grabbing a coffee at Rus’, a top-rated café in Baikonur, Kazakhstan.

Like German author Judith Schalansky, I like paying attention to maps. They are time-stamps, relics and quantifiable measure, and, generally, works of art. Unlike Schalansky though, who wrote an entire Pocket Atlas of Remote Islands (2010) about fifty islands she has “not visited and never will”, I gravitate towards rock more than sand – a cinematic universe of desaturated hues, greyscale, dimmed light and eroded matter to match the incongruity of life itself.

Things that are collapsing attract me more than a fantasised mythology of immortal coral, sea and tacky sunscreen. They reflect a necessity for nature and humans to peacefully coexist, testifying that even extravagant dreams of megastructures are bound to dissolve with time. Stones are humbling. When I stand in front of ruins, I mourn shattered hubris – with a tinge of schadenfreude sometimes. “Paradise may be beautiful, but it’s not interesting”, Schalansky wrote. It’s an elusive statement that lacks originality, but it’s one with which I agree to some extent, ruminating about what paradise truly means and entails.

Luckily for me, I can latch onto other objects of desire than an insular life of claustrophobic proportions. Briefly passing through London for the first time in over five years, I came to reflect on the notion of urban stasis and regeneration.

Cities can be divided into two lots – those that always change and those that never do. The former grow, evolve and fool the eyes of a disoriented returning visitor like an organic substance turned tangy. The latter are stone-like – hard, inflexible, eroding so slowly that a climate crisis or two can unfold before forcing them to face the inevitable, which is their anachronistic inadequacy. I grew up in that, in a petrifying, time-suspended city, Paris, the epitome of a place stubbornly stuck, as home mostly appears when it hasn’t been so happy and when it’s apparent, after much time spent away, that everywhere else moves decidedly more seductively.

Cities are other forms of islands, shells and stages, and under this pressure, I quickly left the theatre of London to head north, to Newcastle first. I’d wanted to see Hadrian’s Wall ever since I came across Marguerite Yournecar’s seminal novel, Memoirs of Hadrian (1951) a few years ago. The library of the French Institute in Phnom Penh, where I lived at the time, didn’t carry the book so I asked my friend in France to bring a copy along to Hanoi, our planned meeting spot. I waited for weeks. Memoirs of Hadrian joined a congested reading list but I dived into it with my sweaty hands as soon as I reached my apartment in Cambodia after several days spent in Vietnam.

“From the top of a green knoll, I watched the first manoeuvres of this newly formed British army”, writes Yourcenar, giving voice to the emperor’s life as he narrates his exploits and regrets to his adoptive grandson and future heir, the Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius. He adds:

I myself inspected a substantial part of those constructions begun everywhere at the same time along an earthwork eighty-four leagues in length; it was my chance to try out on that carefully defined space running from coast to coast a system of defence which could afterward be applied anywhere else.

Roman emperor Hadrian (76-138) ordered to build this wall from coast to coast four years into his rule. Begun in 122, it was designed to monitor and guard the empire’s northern frontier for it was often subject to attacks, as Yourcenar recalls, “at the same time the erection of a wall cutting the island in two in its narrowest part served to protect the fertile, guarded areas of the south from the attacks of northern tribes.”

What’s left of the wall today are disjointed, unevenly extant fragments. Turrets (small watch-towers) have numbers – 40a, 40b, 44b. Milecastles (fortlets), too, for instance, Milecastle 42 close to Cawfields Crags, and Milecastle 39 near Steel Rigg along the middle portion of the wall. It took 15,000 soldiers to build its entirety and an estimated 10,000 soldiers used to man the wall. Since 2003, there’s a National Trail footpath from Wallsend to Bowness-on-Solway – it’s the one I follow.

In that changing Northumberland landscape, I hear that the sky alternates between kindness and wrath – as moody as a Roman emperor, surely, and as shifting as political alliances. But it’s oddly benevolent to me, radiant and welcoming; a sea I could swim in.

Hadrian’s Wall, 2022

On day 1, I pass the North Tyne river near Chollerford and cross into private farmland for a tête-à-tête with a distant flock of sheep and the Brunton Turret. I examine it from a distance at first, before leaning forward to press my hands on the old stones as magicians do before they try to levitate objects. The layered rock was cold to the touch. I gaze at the molecular pattern of lichen and the insects nesting on its surface.

Like most things Roman, the structure looks sturdy and lacks the immediate beauty of subtle craftsmanship. My mind initially obeys to the notion that beauty must be frail, needy of special care as if caution alone would naively prolong its lifetime. “We are meeting presence on its way to absence”, writes Susan Stewart of ruins in The Ruins Lesson: Meaning and Material in Western Culture (2020). Age is an aesthetic feature; old things that survive for so long have value and a certain aura. Truly, upon closer inspection, I find the wall’s engineering sophisticated and, in its durability, a touching human mark of dedication and attentiveness. The way the turret protrudes from woodland made it appear half-swallowed by elements. It tries to survive, as we all do.

Climbing over more farmland the following day, I set off for a 12-mile-long walk westwards. I’ve rarely left my chair lately, so it amounts to a significant undertaking. More sheep and several cows later, I reach other excavated sections of the wall. The surrounding grass is well-maintained, too groomed almost for the decayed scenery which more aptly calls for unkempt fields. I wondered about what is being shown to me, how much of this curated appearance tells me about institutions who decided that this is how the wall should stand before visitors. I speculate that decision-makers wanted a rugged-but-still-presentable look, the way I imagined the generation of my parents in Europe infatuated with music guys, quirky artists and would-be revolutionaries who suddenly need to clean up for family dinners. In doing so, they perform a role and deny who they are in the name of norms and expectations.

The trail follows natural curves and hills on which elevated observation towers once stood. From one of its highest points, I observe the farms and vista stretching to this ‘other side’ – the north, the unruled lands of the Picts. It’s the same hills on either side, the same farms, the same livestock, the same houses. I touched the stones again and, this time, felt them warming under my bare hand.

It’s common to ascribe certain qualities to gems – quartz for mental clarity, tiger’s eye for protection. What about humble stone, I wonder. We often categorise stone in the basket of inanimate objects – as if they were deprived of life, movement and breathing – forgetting the life-enabling role this material played during the Stone Age for over three million years. It’s easy to negate phenomena when we can’t see or experience them directly. Under the pulse of my right hand, ancient stones and I meet. In this connection, a quiet exchange happens. The relationship of stone, flesh and moss generates a sentient charisma and a force that swells and breathes like a hybrid skin.

The Chinese Tang dynasty (618-907) recognised that stones own artistic properties and aesthetic criteria upon which they could be appreciated. Masters inspected rocks for different conditions, such as thinness (shou), openness (tou), perforations (lou) and wrinkling (zhou), to select those for embellishing gardens and paintings. Various tools and patina have already shaped the stones I touch. They have been chosen, processed, ordered and transformed. I grieve that they no longer resemble how they were first encountered – initially ignored, imperfect-with-potential and visually unique.

Yet even extracted, manipulated and replicated, the wall, which was plastered and whitewashed to be seen from afar, exudes pictorial magnetism. On Turret 41a, excavated in 1912, lichen invasively bites into its surface; moss appears voraciously hungry. The wall possesses a complex corporeality – the idea of it mixes with its actuality. My attention next transfixes on the shadows it projects onto the neat grass. Tooth-like, they follow the wall’s irregular indentations with the sophistication of an ink wash. Junichiro Tanizaki’s In Praise of Shadows (1977) wrote of such magic, of the shadows’ “uncanny silence.” If musicians compose to envelop silence and architects design to conquer empty spaces, I inspected in the wall’s shadows a veil and a mask. Shadows are qualitative attributes sensitive to time. Their edges, reinforced by the sun’s placement, are what makes a border a border: a delineation of space and light, an order that defines an inside and an outside.

I knew this well since my body contains a boundary of sorts. An invisible, living border as a person of both French and Tunisian descent which feels more marine than mineral; it gurgles the sound of the Mediterranean Sea. I grew up in Paris’ banlieue – a contemporary outside, a periphery to the tight and tourist-assaulted intra muros Paris (which stands for ‘within the walls’). I landed on the other side of the ring road like a rotten fruit outside a pretty fence. Close, but decidedly far from the Paris of monetised Instagram posts where women wear tiny designer clothes and are never harassed in the streets.

“Lines on a map prove themselves to be artists of transformation”, writes Schalansky. Maybe, but they’re not inconsequential. Lines determine citizenship and a place in the world; they assign the possibility of ascent to the unreliable realm of fate. The artistry that Schalansky speaks of implies freewill and agency, the ability to transcend, to unveil new meaning, new layers, new depths of field.

Politicians are more often murderers than artists. “Transformed” indeed are the lives of those living on the wrong side of the southern US border or in Palestine. Walls have been torn down (Berlin). Others are objects of fervour (Jerusalem’s Wailing Wall). Some, post-renovations, are now a simulacrum of their former self (the Great Wall of China). Even when secular, walls carry a trace of mythmaking and a layer of re-enacted sacredness. The remanence of such walls is often one of injustice – they shouldn’t be there in their current state. People standing in front of such walls often believe they should be dismantled and removed. But believers want to see the walls of their former temples restored. Walls leave us mostly unsatisfied, it seems, incomplete, and prayer notes help, to some extent, fill their physical and metaphorical cracks.

In theatre, cinema and literature, performers need to ignore their audience, pretend there is only them, behind what forms an invisible fourth wall. This one may be the hardest to break in real life since it involves letting people in and removing concealed checkpoints.

I carry on until old walls and new walls blur my view. The ancient border isn’t so clear when a farmer’s enclosure takes the shape and form of a significant historical landmark and there aren’t footsteps ahead to follow. I open Google Maps to orient myself. It takes a few seconds but it locates me near dashed lines. It seems everything is chartered and known now. A sense of ingrained survival makes us resistant to really getting lost. Even in this bliss, I yearn for directions and semiotic bearings and can’t let go of reaching for a compass. My backpack starts to weigh heavy on my shoulders and I forgot to pack enough water.

Schalansky writes that “for all the objectivity of their measurements, they [geographical maps] cannot represent reality, merely one interpretation of it.” An artist such as Grayson Perry questions and revisits familiar terrains. His playscape creations capture the essence of curiosity. Perry’s artworks combine riddles, emphatic odes to geographical minefields and emotional cues.

In Map of an Englishman (2004), Map of Nowhere (2008) and Map of Days (2013) the Turner Prize winner charts the ways in which topography-cum-taxonomy can become utterly absurd when applied to living spaces, bodies and cosmologies. Perry’s subconscious maps englobe a lake of despair, a lake of here-and-now, a fortress of doubt, houses of disappointments, eco-morality, internet dating and anti-aestheticism. We find figures such as a starchitect, a defining enemy, absent fathers and faith-based intelligence in his prints which borrow from 16th-17th century cartographical printmaking techniques.

I cross the dots that appear on my phone screen, switching from no-man’s land to a return to so-called civilisation. It’s unavoidable then, for me to roam in this interstitial space of lines, split geographies and borders as if it were an indelible mark of birth. It’s a companionship that feeds a mental soil of confinement, entrapment and hopelessness – a difficulty in locating peace and wholesomeness. A border is a sentence for those born unlucky. But maybe there’s more, more that would explain why I can’t fully escape its consuming appeal.

From signal to symbol, Hungarian philosopher László F. Földényi understands the spirituality of fractures and the artificiality of limits. In The Glance of the Medusa: A Physiognomy of Mysticism (trans. Jozephina Komporaly, 2020) he recalls that trespassing borders is a function of mysticism and experiencing an “elsewhere”. He contrasts the attraction that mythology has conferred to borders in ancient times (“in each and every mythology, there are heroes who trespass boundaries and lose all sense of moderation”) with today’s criminalised posture in the West (“crossing boundaries is associated with terrible sin, and—especially in Europe—with evil”).

Földényi views transgression not as irrational madness but as a differentiated responsibility.

Wanting to cross boundaries is rooted in a sense of dissatisfaction that could be called cosmic, and cannot be interpreted in a psychological manner. So why is this alarming then? It is alarming because the individual can only free itself from the burden of constraints and boundaries if assuming a new burden: that of the boundless and the limitless.

Borders separate an incarnated cosmos – an order, a Roman polity – from chaos. It’s in cracks and crevices that the Delphic Pythia accesses a truth inaccessible to common men who live in human time. The ecstasy (or better, ek-stacy) that accompanies a spiritual experience holds a form of inner displacement; we are born to surpass, to embrace our totality in movement.

In a similar vein, Mareo Rodriguez’s first solo show, “Portals”, at A.M. Bjiere in New York City plays on the notion of thresholds and the mystical aesthetics of fractures in eight paintings, four sculptures and a site-specific installation. His monochromatic artworks underscore a rift, a dent, a tear into space. He approaches breakages as tectonic spasms. High-contrast techniques allow the artist to reveal a crack as a portal – a border – which, when playing with palettes of black, white and gold, is at times frightening and impossibly alluring.

Mareo Rodriguez, PORTALS 9, 2021

Rodriguez defines his portals as “intersections of interaction.” Void is nourishing. A broken space is “the essence of emptiness, yet at once also a cradle where energy arises from stasis.” Rodriguez’s resin and fiberglass sculpture of a stone, Stone (2020), suggests a tension between the visible and the hidden, reminding ourselves that energy can be represented and conveyed in the simplest of forms, such as a humble rock.

Mareo Rodriguez, Stone, 2020

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that Mithraism gained significant popularity amongst soldiers guarding Rome’s borders. Along Hadrian’s Wall is the vestige of the Brocolitia Temple, dedicated to Mithras, near the Roman fort of Carrawburgh. It was discovered in 1949. The mystery cult of Mithras spread across the Roman Empire and its frontiers between the 2nd and 3rd century, from the East, as a syncretic religion derived from an Indo-Iranian divinity associated with Sun-worship and oath-keeping. Mithras’s iconography commonly reproduces his image, wearing a Phrygian cap in a cosmogonic scene of tauroctony, or bull sacrifice, which harks back to a founding myth of life, death and rebirth.

The mysteries included initiation rites, generally performed in caves (ceremonies Emperor Hadrian was likely to have joined), which briefly suspended military rank-related hierarchy. Mithras is also pictured to be born from a rock. I stood in front of replicas of the famed Mithraic imagery that populate the temple’s remains, appraising how limits – geographical, spiritual – guide much of our lives.

Engineers of borders, like Emperor Hadrian, often claim that a wall protects. Violence becomes a conduit for cultural metissage as soldiers from various parts of the empire join its defence. “But already that purely military project was proving an aid to peace and to development of prosperity in that part of Britain; villages sprang up, and there was a general movement of settlers toward our frontiers”, a fictional Hadrian declares (justifies?) under Yourcenar’s pen. “This rampart became the emblem of my renunciation of the policy of conquest”, he adds, reflecting on his commitment to preserve Trajan’s conquests without launching new, expansive campaigns. Yet for all these delusions, a physical border is foremost an emblem of power and control.

Fifteen years or so after the wall was first erected in Britannia, the Romans launched an invasion of Caledonia (north, in the land beyond its existing wall-delineated border). To firmly establish sovereignty, Rome built a new northerly frontier, the Antonine Wall, from the Firth of Forth to the Firth of Clyde, starting 142. The construction of the Antonine Wall was assigned to Quintus Lollius Ubricus, a Roman general from Numidia (today’s Algeria) and was abandoned soon after. By 180, the Caledonians breached Hadrian’s Wall. This tells us that walls can’t withstand people’s resolve to tear them down. Despite intentions, walls aren’t forever.

Földényi also discusses the paradoxical dual nature of borders which animates in different experiential realities. “The border exists (since it separates and connects), and does not exist (since one cannot actually stand on the border: one is either here or there)”, he writes. A border is heuristic; it first needs to recognise and acknowledge that something, someone, some place, exists, before and beyond, to erase and redefine a geography.

Mareo Rodriguez, Portal, 2022

The sun blinds me. I’m getting tired. In this sepia universe, it’s as if the wall has absorbed the missing colours of nature. The wind, gentle at first, now roars and pinches my face on the hill’s summit. The slopes are unforgiving but each stone, tree, mound and flying bird whisper that the limitless exists; it’s right here, there.
I blend into the ashy vista of the plains and swamps of former Caledonia. It’s the first day of the vernal equinox; life will be reborn.

The wall forms an allegory to Hadrian’s life, as a connector between two worlds. A moment, as Flaubert suggested, when Romans no longer believed in the old gods, and a new, Christian world was not yet born.

I pass by the famous Sycamore Gap, where a hill appears to split and praise full unobstructed glory to the single tree. People line up to take photos and I already miss the solitude of hours ago. I saw several lonesome trees next to the wall, each of them magnificent. They casted delicate shadows, too, knotty as their skinny, leafless branches were. In their wintry outfits, they reminded me of ghostly presences, of the former watchers and their likely weariness.

We are told by historians that Hadrian’s Wall was a place of vibrant multiculturalism; traders abounded; life was buoyant despite hardships. It almost sounds like a place people chose to go to, rather than a destination to which they were sentenced. The next day, I jump into Mike’s car. “I’ve never been anywhere but here”, he says, here referring to Haltwhistle. “I love it. I have a beautiful garden”, he adds with a smile covered by a loose-fitted mask. And while telling me all about the local gardening competitions – first tomato, first cucumber, tallest sunflower – Mike kept an eye on the car’s dashboard, to a device so familiar: a GPS navigation map. Is memory so fleeting that we anticipate its unreliability, I wondered.

“Against whom was the great wall to provide protection? Against the people of the north”, writes Franz Kafka of another wall in another empire, in his posthumous short story The Great Wall of China (1917). Northern threats were commonplace in the past, but north of where?

Today, the distortions of our imaginary maps – we can’t blame Mercator for this – have shifted to stigmatise the South as a place aggregating all dangers, present and future. A latitude, but often just a concept lumped into an esoterically-sounding “Global”.

But south of where? I ask. And how to unlearn that?

About the Author

Farah Abdessamad is a Parisian writer and critic in transit, currently based in New York City. You can follow her on Twitter @farahstlouis.

Image Rights

All photographs courtesy the author. Mareo Rodriguez’s art is reproduced here (from Artsy‘s images) under fair use.

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