File Note 48: Ria Pacquée - Camden Art Centre

Essay by Michael Curran



The Return of the Witness Images References Quote Biography Credits

The Return of the Witness

A bone yard city built on the remains of the dead.
A disfigured terrain rich in vegetation suckled on decay.
A district named after a youthful Phrygian martyr.
A railway made on cemetery grounds after the proper exhumation of corpses.
A vast expanse exposing its ruins, fault lines, fissures and silences. 

A figure seen on the railway lands, like Saint Anthony, walking among the tombs between the empty desert and the inhabited country.

‘There is always another one walking beside you
Gliding wrapt in a brown mantle, hooded
I do not know whether a man or a woman
But who is that on the other side of you?
What is that sound high in the air
Murmur of maternal lamentation
Who are those hooded hordes swarming
Over endless plains, stumbling in cracked earth
Ringed by the flat horizon only
What is the city over the mountains
Cracks and reforms and bursts in the violet air
Falling towers
Jerusalem Athens Alexandria
Vienna London

In The Return Of The Witness Ria Pacquée distils her concern for the passing infra-ordinary world into a series of probing contrasts between the chaotic thoroughfares of King’s Cross St Pancras and the barren railway lands nearby.

“Following the crowd will lead you to destruction!” shouts a woman at Speakers’ Corner. People are seen waiting, fumbling with luggage, glued to mobile phones, smoking quick cigarettes, stranded on street corners and concourses, displaced from their environment and their bodies. Others lie prone on walls and benches as if overcome by the impossibility of a here, there or now. Rhythmic montage groups together moments of similar weight, cataloging movement and composition into a coherent order. We sense the ennui of those hurrying nowhere, caught up by the speed of life and slightly stunned, in the thrall of their predicament. These sequences claim the moment of inertia in which we sacrifice the voyage, ‘in favour of the attentive impatience for a world that does not stop coming, that we can’t stop waiting for.’² Such fatigue, flux and uncertainty also convey an alarming sense of collective somnambulism.  

Where is the other walking beside us? 

As a child looks on, some litter borne up by a breath of wind dances a circular tarantella around a square. Off the main streets, colourful fabric billows on a market stall while a warm voice off camera intones, “That’s right, life is beautiful. It’s just some of us people in it.” A man in long green waders uses a net to fish spawn from a pond. By the canal a woman with a wicker trolley, picks plums from a tree. The urban space is fecund, secreting edible treasures and vigorous life forms. Traversing this terrain one discovers there are myriad portals, apertures and gateways.

‘When you least expect it, you see a crack open up and a different city appears. Then an instant later it has already vanished.’³

The disfigured wasteland, once considered a dangerous urban blackspot, is subject to regeneration and slowly the open space of 25 acres will disappear, be filled up, remodelled and covered over. The advancement of urban planning persuades us to lose another much-needed gap in the teeth of our metropolis. 

Michel De Certeau posits that every city is two cities, one visible and functional the other unofficial and unquantifiable. Two cities coexist, engaged in an endless and irresolvable dialogue. The masterplan pamphlet in the German Gymnasium says:

King’s Cross is ready for business.
King’s Cross is 4.9 million sq ft of office space.
King’s Cross is 500,000 sq ft of retail opportunities.
King’s Cross is up to 2,000 new homes & serviced apartments.
On a wall by the gasometer a graffito proclaims:

King X, dense with angels and histories
There are cities beneath your pavements
Cities behind your skies
Let me see


The very feminine quality of water
Has found a way round every obstruction

Pacquée knows that the best place to hide something is right here out in the open and so she uses her porous body as compass, sundial and lodestone, yet like the character in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, she remains unseen. 

‘I am invisible and walk softly so as not to awaken the sleeping ones. Sometimes it is best not to awaken them; there are few things in the world as dangerous as sleepwalkers.4

She flows on until reaching another portal and absorbs the stillness behind every motion, the silence below each oncoming noise.
Her hooded figure stands absolutely still between a perimeter fence and a small sapling planted by the side of the road. As the day’s shadows lengthen, figure and tree cast their forms across the pavement. In the distance is St Pancras Station with its flotillas of taxis waiting for voyagers. The wind takes hold of everything that is yielding and supple so that tree, plant, stray litter, garments; all flutter with gentle undulating motion. The mere semblance of a figure is becoming another sapling while those walking by do not see. Pacquée’s gentle passage through the site is a tactical embodiment of the other walking beside us, the recurring revenant and the returning witness. Echoing De Certeau, she reminds us that haunted places are the only ones we can live in.


1 T.S. Eliot The Waste Land Penguin (2003)

2 Paul Virilio The aesthetics of disappearance Foreign Agents (2009)

3 Italo Calvino Invisible Cities Vintage (2007)

4 Ralph Ellison Invisible Man Penguin (2001)

Edmond Jabès The book of Questions Return to the Book v. 1 (The Book of Questions, Vol. 1) Wesleyan University Press, (Reprint edition 1991)

August Strindberg , M. Sandbach (Trans.) By the open Sea Penguin Books, New edition (1987)

Italo Calvino Invisible cities Vintage, New edition (1997)

Ellias Cannetti Crowds and Power Penguin (1992)

Isabel Eberhardt The Nomad: The Diaries of Isabelle Eberhardt
Interlink Books (2003)

Octavia Paz The Labyrinth of Solitude Avalon Travel Publishing;
Reprint edition (2000)

Patti Smith Horses 

Joy Division Desperation takes Hold 

Ritual Music of Ethiopia recorded and edited by Lin Lerner and
Chet A. Wollner

The White Stripes Elephant 

Amy Winehouse Back to Black 

Congo River (Dir.) Thierry Michel

Reservoir Dogs (Dir.) Quentin Tarantino

Darwin’s Nightmare (Dir.) Hubert Sauper

Buddha Collapsed out of Shame (Dir.) Hana Makhmalbaf

Dreams (Dir.) Akira Kurosawa

 ‘Humanity is not a completed project.’ Jimmie Durham


Ria Pacquée (born Merksem, 1954) lives and works in Antwerp, Belgium. She has had a number of international solo exhibitions including; ‘The story of Madame’, Vereniging voor het Museum van Hedendaagse Kunst, Gent (1991), ‘Streetrambling’, Gallery Ronny Van de Velde, Antwerp (1992), ‘The day “It” took an initiative’ Kunsthalle, Vienna (1992), ‘Desert of fragments’, Museum of Modern Art, Antwerp (2001); ‘Touch Me’, Barbierama Museum, St Niklaas (2001); ‘Une Minute de Silence’, Ecole Régionale des Beaux Arts, Dunkerque (2002); ‘Zonzolola’, Kunsthalle Lophem, Loppem (2005), ‘Entre deux soleils’ White & Dark Box, La Cambre, Brussel (2009). She has also exhibited in a number of group exhibitions including: ‘Furkart’, Hotel Furkablick, Switzerland (1992), ‘Public Domain’, Phototriennale Graz (1999) Amicalement vôtre, Musée des Beaux-Arts, Tourcoing, France (2004), and Manifesta 7, Palazzo delle Poste, Trento, Italy (2008), ‘The Jerusalem Syndrome’ Old City of Jeruzalem, Al Mamal Foundation, Jerusalem (2009).


Michael Curran is an artist.

Supported by Bloomberg.